Wednesday, September 29, 2010

God Is Not In Control

God is not in control.

Contrary to popular theology, God is not in control. God is not in control of my life. God does not want to be in control of my life. I do not want God to be in control of my life.

God is Sovereign. And one day all will be called to acknowledge that.

God is faithful. And we are invited to experience that faithfulness, and challenged to hold on to that faithfulness in good times and in bad times.

But God is not in control.

Why is it important that we recognise this?

Because we are called to share in God’s likeness.

God is Sovereign, and we are called to exercise his life-affirming rule over flora and fauna: to be sovereigns under the High King of Heaven.

God is faithful, and we are called to be faithful in all our relationships.

To claim that God is in control is to abdicate our part as faithful sovereigns.

But more than that, if God is in control then it would be appropriate, indeed incumbent upon us, to exercise control over others. For their own good, obviously.

God has chosen to not be in control, to find another way to get done what he has planned. And so we must never, ever seek control over anyone or anything.

Exercising control is the very antithesis of God. It is satanic.

My wife put it like this:
When we say “God is in control” what we mean is God is Sovereign and God is faithful. So let’s start using those biblical descriptions instead.

Revelation : Restraint : Leading

We are called to make disciples. People we will invite to walk with us, to learn from us, to follow us for a season as we follow Jesus (consider John the Baptist, who invested in Andrew and then released him to follow another disciple-maker, Jesus himself: we, too, may disciple for a season). People we will encourage and confront, in order that they grow more fully human.

If we are to do this, we must take the revelation we have been given – not just the general revelation of how we are to live, but the personal call on our own lives – and allow it to determine restraint, allow it to set the boundaries within which the disciple-maker/disciple relationship exists.

We must not control another person. We cannot tell them that they need to follow us. We can only invite them to follow us – making clear the parameters; making clear that they will only be able to follow within those parameters – it is up to them.

And we must give them absolute freedom to choose not to follow us.

But we must not give them opt-out clauses, an invitation to follow on any other terms – because that simply isn’t possible. You can only follow someone whom you are prepared to follow, to take your lead from.

This means that we must be focused, determined, uncompromising, not swayed, not accommodating. And this means that few will follow – which is a good thing. Jesus did not have many disciples: why would I think that I can disciple more people at any given time than Jesus?

Jesus didn’t ignore other people – he had compassion for the crowds. But they weren’t his focus. We tend to mistake the Sermon on the Mount for a public rally; in fact, a closer look reveals that he called his disciples to him and was addressing them – the crowd was listening-in.

There are a very many people in our lives, and we are called to engage with them all, at one level or another – those we meet in the course of our work, in our neighbourhood, in our extended families. But Jesus’ commission to every one of his followers – regardless of work, or neighbourhood, or family context – is to make disciples, not gather crowds. And that is counter-intuitive to those who want to save the world. Discipleship requires revelation and restraint.

Revelation : Restraint : Listening

“Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint; but blessed are those who heed wisdom’s instruction.”
(Proverbs 29:18)

“The core discipline of the Christian life is hearing Jesus’ voice.” (Mark Carey)

I’ve been paying half-attention to the early rounds of The X Factor over recent weeks. Of the tens of thousands of people who turn up at the auditions, hoping to impress the judges, there are two frustrating trends year after year:

those who have no singing ability whatsoever, but who will not take constructive criticism from the judges – the hard truth – because their family and friends have told them that they are fantastic, and should follow their dream;


those who clearly have a fantastic voice, but have absolutely no confidence, because they have been told – explicitly by individuals, or implicitly by the wider community, or both – that they will never amount to anything.

Who do we listen to?

Those who will tell us only what we want to hear?

Those who will tell us only what we don’t want to hear?

Or Jesus – who, day by day, will tell us what we need to hear?

Those who won’t hold out challenge where challenge is required in order for us to move forward, on a more fitting path (a course of action that is a better fit for us)?

Those who won’t hold out invitation where invitation is required in order for us to move forward, on the most fitting path?

Or Jesus – who extends invitation and challenge – affirmation and rebuke – and in this way leads us on the best path?

As my friend Mark Carey puts it, “The core discipline of the Christian life is hearing Jesus’ voice.” Because this is the means by which we receive the revelation which enables us to embrace restraint.

So, what have you heard Jesus say to you today, as you have read his Word?

As you have poured out your life in worship?

As you have brought to him your petitions in prayer?

As you have engaged in intentional conversation with others, who are walking alongside you?

Revelation : Restraint : Living

“Discipline your children, and they will give you peace; they will bring you the delights you desire.
“Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint; but blessed are those who heed wisdom’s instruction.”
(Proverbs 29:17, 18)

restrain: check or hold in; keep in check, under control, or within bounds.
restraint : being restrained; restraining agency or influence; self-control.
(The Oxford Dictionary of Current English)

“The core discipline of the Christian life is hearing Jesus’ voice.” (Mark Carey)

Arguably the most significant work of childhood and adolescence is undertaking the journey of self-discovery. I don’t mean this in a self-indulgent way – we can only ever truly discover who we are grounded in our relationships with others, with the earth we share and the wider creation which shares it with us, and ultimately with the God who created us all. But – precisely because we were created, because we are not an accident of blind and indifferent forces – we have a need to discover ourselves, in order to fulfil our destiny.

When I look at anyone who has done something noteworthy with their life (whether that thing is acted out in the public spotlight or without any fanfare whatsoever; whether they become a celebrity because of what they do, or the extraordinary ordinary men and women whose funerals I take) I see a pattern of

identifying a convergence of passion and gifting, and
investing in that, at the expense of other possibilities:

a pattern of
knowing who they are and what they want to do
and making decisions that work with that, rather than work against that:

a pattern of revelation and restraint.

Conversely, whenever anyone has done nothing noteworthy with their life (and it is possible to do nothing noteworthy with your life), there is an underlying pattern or patterns of failing to identify passion and gifting, and/or not being able to invest in that; of passivity, and of making poor decisions.

Lives lived with an appreciation of revelation and restraint not only fulfil their own potential; they inspire others too. They inspire others to live with revelation and restraint (and so, in turn, live lives that are inspirational).

It is revelation that sets the boundaries for restraint. Without restraint, we are directionless, aimlessly wandering, drifting through life as it moves around and past us. With the right restraint, we are enabled to pursue the thing we were made for – including relationships, both those relationships that will support us and those relationships where we will support another person.

But restraint is not a fixed thing, or not entirely anyway. The boundaries need to be readjusted from time to time, as we grow – just as an exoskeleton must be shed and replaced with growth. Which is why we need to continue to hear revelation, in order to respond: so that the restraint remains a thing which gives freedom, rather than becomes confining.

Where do we go for revelation?

It is possible to get revelation by the sheer providential grace of God. Many do. But for those who choose to follow Jesus, there is something more: for he has promised that, as sheep hear and recognise the voice of their shepherd, so we hear his voice, his leading.

That being both his will and his provision for us, why would we choose to try to figure out life on our own?

Or why would we think that having a sense of vocation – of knowing who you are and what you are to do – would be for the exceptional few?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Pursue Irrelevance : Part 2

Pursue irrelevance.


Pursue irrelevance, because irrelevance reveals the limits of relevance.

Consider this image of a glass of cola.

The background is irrelevant. But without it we would not be able to visualise the subject – think of children’s drawings, which have lines around things, where those lines do not exist in reality. We would have no depth of vision, necessary for navigating a three-dimensional world - to pick up the glass and drink - as well as to see a three-dimensional object in a two-dimensional image.

Marshall McLuhan noted that:

“Today we live invested with an electronic information environment that is quite as imperceptible to us as water is to a fish”

“the role of the artist is to create an Anti-environment as a means of perception and adjustment”

“Without an anti-environment, all environments are invisible”

We might equally say:

“Today [indeed, in every age] we live invested with an ideological environment that is quite as imperceptible to us as water is to a fish”

A shared worldview ˗ an agreed set labelled ‘relevance’ – that we are not able to question, without the contribution of the artist who pursues irrelevance.

It is not that what is considered relevant is entirely mistaken, by any means; but that it is routinely mistaken for being without limit.

It is the ship’s crew that is prepared to undertake the irrelevant voyage west to the east that reveals the limit of the relevance of the day – not only moving us towards the realization that the world is not flat, but also rediscovering a forgotten continent on the way...

It bothers me deeply that churches invest so much time and energy in the attempt to be relevant to people who declare that the church is irrelevant to their lives. It is a council of despair: a choosing to conform to, to exist within the status quo rather than question and disturb.

The more relevant the church becomes, the more invisible it will be.

By actually seeking to be relevant we choose to condemn society to having less depth-of-vision, to being increasingly two-dimensional in its experience of life. For in the absence of irrelevance there is no means to interrogate the value of those things we deem relevant: does this relevant belief or activity heal us or harm us as a society?

Instead, we must commit ourselves to engaged irrelevance.

That is, active involvement in the world as artists, creating an anti-environment to every environment.

The world (certainly, as revealed in Scripture) is not black and white. It is full of colour (or, paradoxes). But the relevance of black needs the irrelevance of white...

the relevance of white needs the irrelevance of black...

the relevance of red needs the irrelevance of green...

the relevance of green needs the irrelevance of red...

the relevance of yellow needs the irrelevance of blue...

the relevance of blue needs the irrelevance of yellow.

Whatever the environment, we must create an anti-environment, as a gift to the world, to help our society perceive and adjust its limits.

In environments where children or those with dark skin or women are commodities, tools for profit, Christians have played and still play key roles in creating anti-environments. Men and women of ‘great promise’ (i.e. could have been incredibly relevant) gave everything up and give everything up for the sake of irrelevance.

In an aggressively atheistic environment, belief in God provides the contrast by which atheism can discover itself, and be discovered: its positives, its negatives, its limits.

In a sexually disoriented environment, the church paints an anti-environment (and generates much internal debate as to whether the church ought to pursue relevance or irrelevance - debate which is considered nonsensical, immoral even, by a wider society that can only see relevance, which has no value for irrelevance).

Irrelevance has no recognition in its day, but changes the world in its time.

Ask Vincent van Gogh (a brilliant, passionate preacher-turned-painter – o that God had more like him).

Pursue irrelevance, though you are called mad by all; though, indeed, mad you may be, or may become.

It is not that irrelevance is better than relevance: just that it is in far shorter supply, an undervalued but essential requirement. In pursuing irrelevance we ought not to forget that today’s irrelevance may very well (almost inevitably) become tomorrow’s relevance; will require, in turn, another irrelevance to reveal its limits. That is why the call to abandon ourselves to a thoroughly engaged thoroughly irrelevant irrelevance will always be the call on the Church, through every generation and culture. Pursue irrelevance.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Scar On The Face Of The Earth

Why does God call Abraham – the father of faith  into a life of journeying through the wilderness?

Why does God meet Moses, the former prince-of-Egypt, after forty years in the wilderness...

and call him to lead his people through the wilderness for a generation...

before giving them a land that is, for the most part, wilderness?

Why does David, the celebrated giant-slayer, spend some thirteen years in the wilderness?

Why does Paul, the most brilliant scholar of his generation, spend some fourteen years in the wilderness?

Why does Jesus – the author and perfector of our faith  spend forty days and nights in the wilderness?

Why is God so obsessed with the wilderness?

What is he looking for?

And why are we so reluctant to share his passion?

Pursue Irrelevance

Covenant : Identity And Obedience

(Or, indirect reflections on Romans chapters 5-11)

A covenant is an agreement between two persons, which results in a new identity and – where covenant is faithfully kept – a new way of relating to those around the covenant partners.

The most accessible example for many of us today is marriage. At their wedding two people make covenantal declarations; and exchange rings, as an ongoing public sign of that covenant.

The promises made declare their intention (or, will) to live out the implications of their covenant, in relation to the ever-changing variables of circumstances and of relationships within the wider community.

At the giving of the rings each party gives their innermost identity – “all that I am” – and the outward expressions of that identity – “all that I have” – to the other, to be held as one entity, something new that previously did not exist.

This is a deep truth, but it is not a magic spell: the two parties must continue to exercise their own will to live out being one common entity; as opposed to continuing to live, or reverting to live, as autonomous parties. If this becomes easier – and that is by no means guaranteed - it most often does so by tiny incremental degrees over a great deal of time.

God is looking to enter into covenant relationship with humans: to share himself, to be known, to be enjoyed, to stand alongside us. Unlike marriage, however, this is not a covenant between equals. This covenant:

is grounded in the person of God...

initiates a new identity for us...

and has its outworking in actions which are consistent with – or faithful or obedient to – that new one entity.

The staggering, frightening thing is that God is faithful even when we are not faithful.

Jesus’ baptism is a public entering-into covenant. God offers himself as Father, and, grounded in that, Jesus receives his identity as Son.

Jesus is the Son of God. This cannot be revoked, changed, undone. But at this point the question remains to be seen: What kind of son will Jesus be?

What will he do with this identity? You see, Adam was the son of God, something never revoked; but Adam did not express that identity in obedience...

Immediately Jesus comes up out of the Jordan river, the Holy Spirit drives him into the wilderness. He spends the next forty days and forty nights alone, clinging to the side of the deepest rift valley on earth, almost sheer cliffs which rise up from where the Jordan empties into the Dead Sea, the lowest point on the face of the earth. And then he is tested, by the one who ensnared Adam. What kind of son will Jesus be?

Will he use his identity to feed his own physical appetites?

Will he use his identity to force others to acknowledge his authority over them?

Will he use his identity to establish himself as a celebrity?

(At the end of the day, in one form or another, it comes down to physical appetites, power, and money, time and time again...)

And what of us?

There is a matter of identity; and then there is a matter of obedience - by which I do not mean subservience to rules enforced over us, but living consistent to our identity, living with integrity, living in harmony with what we have become: not the outward obedience of a dog trained to fetch to command, but the inner obedience to doggy-ness that causes dogs to fetch things – an innate characteristic which, of course, can be shaped by discipline.

God invites us to enter into covenant relationship with God. The Bible employs many pictures to describe this:

children of a heavenly Father;

sons of God (‘sons’ being gender-inclusive, because our identity here is in being one with Jesus, the Son);

the very body of Christ;

the church as the bride of Christ (‘bride’ being gender-inclusive, because our corporate identity is being described in relation to Jesus, the bridegroom).

Within that covenant, we discover more and more of the person of God, and our identity in relation to that revelation:

God is our provider...therefore, we are those whose needs are provided for...

...and therefore, we are called to be those who provide for others, out of the resources of heaven. That is an example of living in obedience to our God-grounded identity.

God is gracious: that is, gives good gifts that are unearned, undeserved. We experience grace...and extend grace to others. God is merciful: that is, does not mete out deserved punishment. We experience mercy...and extend mercy to others. That is consistent, obedient behaviour.

The question is: what sort of son will we be?

Will we use our identity – which, once given, cannot be taken back – to feed our appetites; to control others; or to live in wealth, both material and of reputation?

Or will we embrace the wilderness, and there, alone, watched only by angels and wild animals, put to agonising death these desires within us?

Because those desires are within us, within every one of us...And unless they are put to death, we might do many great things, genuinely great-and-of-God things* but, sooner or later, we will be a danger to others and to ourselves.

Many Christians believe that if only they were more obedient, more faithful, God would entrust them with greater power. This is not true: in fact, it is legalism: seeking to earn God’s approval. The reality is that it is the other way around: it is the power of God within us that enables us to obey. This power – the very Spirit of God, the same Spirit who raised Jesus from death - is already within us, the consequence of covenant.

Many other Christians recognise that identity is not conditional on obedience, and so believe that obedience is inconsequential. But while obedience is, indeed, utterly – terrifyingly - inconsequential to our identity, obedience and disobedience each have profound consequences for the extent to which we can both experience for ourselves and hold out to others the freedom of life in its fullness.

These apparently opposing misconceptions are both exacerbated among charismatic evangelicals by the current emphasis on the kingdom of heaven, divorced from an equal emphasis on covenant.

Obedience earns nothing; but expresses everything:

the extent to which we have understood who we truly now are;

the extent to which we have left behind, in the howling wilderness, the carrion-stripped sun-bleached bones of who we once were...

*This is why we see, all too often, examples of ministers who have behaved scandalously still exercising miraculous power. This is also why, from an Anglican perspective, the efficacy of the sacrament of Holy Communion is not impaired by the wickedness of a priest. But it is also true of any child of God.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Minor Prophets

I have been asked to do some thinking around the biblical minor prophets.

Re-imagining these writers as a school of artists, and coming up with a variety of posters to promote an exhibition of their work, is a part of submerging myself in that...

One of the images is of olive trees - a reference recurring across several of these books - just outside Bethlehem.  The other two are Liverpool scenes: looking from Albert Dock to Canning Dock, with the new museums and the Three Graces beyond; and looking down on Liverpool 1.  Click to enlarge.  Enjoy.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Saturday, September 11, 2010


I’ve been invited by Sarah Cunningham to take part in the campaign of goodwill, as a response to calls to burn Korans today.

Andrew Jones has also put together a group of bloggers for ‘Blog a Koran Day’ – I would have loved to participate in this too but, though I have a copy of the Koran, I don’t feel qualified enough to join in. Instead, I’m pointing you in the direction of others.

Today I am remembering a student from Oman who, on the eve of returning home, gave me the gift of a ceremonial dagger in a display case.

Today I am remembering two American women who I shared a house with while we were postgrads together; sitting round the kitchen table.

Today I am remembering the Yemeni shop-keeper whose general store, across the road from our first home after we were married, I popped in to on an almost daily basis, and who invited me into the back – the family home – on several occasions.

Today I am remembering the surprise discovery, piercing through my prejudice, of just how wonderful a person I have discovered Americans to be, time and time again.

Today I am remembering a black Muslim who saw me carrying three arrows on the street (it was a prophetic action, something I had heard God tell me to do) and invited me back to his home. He taught me archery in his garden. His father was a Pentecostal minister.

Today I am remembering the hospitality of strangers to us in Kentucky, who welcomed us into their home and considered us part of the family for the duration of our stay – which they chose to extend.

Today I am remembering listening to Muslim women explain how being covered from head-to-toe gives them a dignity and a security that they don’t see in their western sisters. And an earlier memory, of a time when a Muslim woman came to me asking about Christianity, and to my shame I described my faith in contrast to what I thought Muslims believed...

Today I am praying for New York City – for her inhabitants of every ethnic background and religious conviction – a place that I have never visited, but which, from a distance, looks so very ugly and so very beautiful; so cut by scars - on a daily basis – and so transformed as those scars are beautified. Today my prayer for the people of New York City is: Father...deliver us from evil.

Today I am praying for those who would advocate burning Korans in the name of Christ. Some would say they that they are not true Christians, just as some would say that Islamic extremists are not true Muslims. But it is not for me to judge. They may well be true Christians, who have misheard God’s heart on this matter just as I have misheard God’s heart on other matters. I cannot distance myself from them. But I distance myself from their words, their actions. Today my prayer is: Father...forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.

Today I am thinking about those things my Muslim brothers and sisters have to teach western Christians – especially about living to a rhythm set by corporate prayer, and about hospitality. And I am thinking about those things my American Christian brothers and sisters have to teach us in Britain – again about hospitality, and about generosity with what we have rather than a focus on what we perceive we lack.

May God, who is Merciful, have mercy on us.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Nines

Yesterday – the ninth day of the ninth month – Jo and I attended The Nines. This is a great initiative of Leadership Network, who bring together churches to learn from one another. The Nines is a nine-hour-long conference where church leaders are given up to six minutes presentation time (last year they had nine minutes; this year there were more speakers). These are submitted in video format, and the entire event takes place streamed online. This is a fantastic opportunity in the context of a global recession, eliminating the significant costs usually incurred in attending a conference: we attended for free.

The speakers included church leaders, of churches of different sizes and composition, and others engaged in a variety of ministries; younger leaders and older leaders; men and women; and a mix of ethnic backgrounds – though almost entirely from the USA, which was the thing I’d most like to see change (not that I have anything against my American brothers and sisters, but that the family is so much wider).

This year contributors were asked to share their ‘game-changers’: that is, a particular lesson they had learnt that radically changed the way they approached ministry.

A ‘game-changer’ requires that we used to do something one way, that something happened that changed our perspective, and that now we go about things in a different way. In Jesus’ language, a ‘game-changer’ is a ‘kairos’ event, which has caused us to repent (change our perspective) and believe (act differently as a result). There needs to be a Before picture and an After picture, framing the game-changing revelation.

With some one hundred speakers, it is (intentionally) impossible to create a synthesis of lessons learnt, in an attempt to come up with a Grand Plan. But that would be to miss the point: the idea is to spark creativity. The expectation of the organisers is that any given participant would dislike roughly a third of the presentations, be quite neutral about a third, and like around a third of what they heard. But even a third of one hundred is too much to implement. The key, really, is to ask the Holy Spirit to speak to us through a handful.

Here are a few ‘game-changers’ that we really liked:

Michael Hyatt spoke about how we choose to respond to adversity: choosing to ask “What does this make possible?” rather than “Why has this happened to me?” – shifting our focus from a past we can do nothing about to a future of possibility.

Keld Dahlmann spoke about realising that you cannot motivate people, because motivation comes from within: and the resulting shift from trying to motivate people (to do the thing we want done) to helping them focus on what they are motivated for and releasing them into that thing.

Rick Rusaw spoke about the shift from asking “How can we be the best church in the community?” to asking “How can we be the best church FOR the community?”

Andrew Jones spoke about embracing voluntary poverty as a game-changer for mission in the context of a global recession: and as the key to finding the person of peace (Luke 10) who welcomes us – if we have too many resources of our own, we are more likely to miss that person God has prepared for us.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Alpha And Omega

Belonging To God : Meeting With God

I have been reflecting on social interaction, at the public, the social, the personal, and the intimate levels, with a particular interest in why churches might want to nurture all four levels of belonging without attempting – with the best intentions – to move people from one level to another.

But if we meet with other people at each of these different levels, what about meeting with God?

I serve within a church where there is a very high premium placed on experiencing an intimate encounter with God during worship services: this is how God wants to meet us here today; let’s not hold back and miss out on the opportunity.

This is fairly common in charismatic evangelical churches. And, as someone who chooses to identify with charismatic evangelicals, I must confess to feeling really uncomfortable with that expectation.

Broadly speaking, in any given culture, there is social behaviour appropriate to the public, the social, the personal, and the intimate spheres: for example, physical touch in the public sphere, in the culture I live in, is generally expressed at the level of a handshake; social touch at a brief hug; personal touch, say between friends, is more frequent with each touch lasting somewhat longer than social touch; and intimate touch may be quite prolonged, such as one of my children sitting on my lap while we watch TV together. There are, of course, certain conventions that allow us to behave in one context in a way that would normally be reserved for another: for example, the professional relationship between doctor and patient allows for physical examination that in another context would be intimate. And, of course, if I meet a friend in a public space, who is with someone I don’t know, I may greet my friend with a hug and this new acquaintance with a handshake – that is, in one space respond in different ways towards two people.

Here’s the thing: I have every reason to believe (not least because I see Jesus, who reveals the will of the Father, relate to people in all these ways in the Gospels) that God wants to meet with us at the public, the social, the personal and the intimate level.

This is entirely possible. Indeed, we do this all the time: I relate to my wife and children differently in different contexts. In a social context, I may encourage my children to run along and play, whereas in an intimate context I might read them a bedtime story. In a social context, I might touch my wife in an intimate-but-non-sexual way in passing, but neither of us will want to be so focused on the other as to ignore others, or make them feel uncomfortable. I spend time with my wife in the public sphere (e.g. shopping together), the social sphere (e.g. at a party), the personal sphere (e.g. in our home), and the intimate sphere (e.g. really vulnerable conversations) – and it would be unhealthy if we didn’t engage at every level, as appropriate, including appropriate frequency. The majority of our conversations are not at the intimate level, but the public (“what do we need from the supermarket?”) or social (‘small-talk’ such as “what’s going on in the book you’re reading?” “what’s on TV tonight?” or perhaps, discovering something about the other we don’t know, “where would you like to go on holiday?”), or even the personal (unpacking how our day has gone). If we only spoke at the intimate level, our children would soon starve to death! And strange though it may sound, couples who never speak at the social level – small talk - grow apart.

A church service is a public space, a public event. Within this event, there are conventions that allow for social, personal and even intimate encounters with God. For example: reciting the Creed is a public encounter with God, in the very affirmation of what we believe; listening to the sermon might be a social encounter with God, as we discover something new about God and decide how we want to respond, moving closer or withdrawing a little; a particular worship song might help us to encounter God in a personal way; and in prayer ministry we might have an intimate encounter with God.

It is important to appreciate that we can meet with God at different levels, and that we can have an intimate encounter with God even in a public context. My discomfort is with the belief that we ought to meet with God in an intimate way in a public context.

Here’s the thing: if, in a service, we need to keep an eye on our small children, we may very well not be able to lay everything aside and have an intimate encounter with God...or, if we do ignore our children in order to meet with God, their running around may well prevent someone else from having an intimate encounter with God. If it is your responsibility to play a particular role in the service, it may be very hard to encounter God intimately at the time (it may be easier to meet with God beforehand, in the preparation, than in the execution of what we have prepared).

And if we are told, especially if we are repeatedly told, that we are supposed to meet with God intimately and we don’t, then what? We end up believing that we are not as holy as other people, or believing that other people view us as less holy than them. We hear the hopefully unintended message that we are second-rate citizens. Over time, the hope of ever meeting God the way we are told we ought to meet with God dies within us. Or if we do encounter God intimately, we find ourselves subtly tempted to believe we are better than those who don’t...

Then there are in our public services those who do not know God at all, those who are at the stage of wanting to know something of God, and those who are getting to know God more: and the most appropriate level for them to encounter God is most likely the public, the social, and the personal level, respectively. Yes, there are ‘road to Damascus’ encounters, but where we ask too much of people too soon they may very well back away and stay away. And yes, there is a strong desire to show baptismal parties that we have an intimate relationship with God – just as in a ‘high’ church there may be a strong desire to show baptismal parties something of the transcendence of God - but in fact any facet is neither the whole truth nor very often an honest reflection of our experience.

We need to know that it is possible to meet with God at different levels in the same service: that that is not only possible but okay: and that it is not only okay, but that God might actually want to meet with us in a different way to how he wants to meet with someone else.

This might very well come down to God knowing the season of life you are in at the moment, or specific circumstances you are in right now...

There are times when a passing, “Hi! How are you?” just doesn’t cut it; and times when not only is it the only level I have the energy for, but in fact an absolute lifeline when I am in that place. While I have young kids running around in church, for God to say, “Hi! How are you? [Don’t worry: I know you don’t have the capacity for a deep encounter right now, and I’m not offended]” is just what I need to hear. On another occasion, what I need to hear from God is “Don’t worry about all these other people: I’m omnipresent, after all: I’m here for you. Let me comfort you...”

If God meets me at a public level, that is good. If God meets me at a social level, that is good. If God meets me at a personal level, that is good. If God meets me at an intimate level, that is good. Jesus met with people at all these levels – and met with his closest followers in all these levels. Moreover, according to Jesus, sometimes our experience of God is that he has gone away on a long trip, and we are called to be faithful in his absence.

My expectation of any given worship service is this:

that God will meet with the greatest number of people at a public level:

that he will meet with a good proportion of those people at a social level as well as at a public level:

that he will meet with some of those people at a personal level as well as at a public and social level:

that perhaps only one or two people will be able to honestly say that they encountered God at an intimate level:

and that some people - whose relationship with God I could not dare to doubt, who are not living in un-confessed sin - will say that in their experience, God was away on a journey, and they have come out of faithful obedience alone.

My role is to affirm all of the above, to somehow cultivate an environment where all of the above can happen, and to allow people to encounter God as appropriate to them and not as appropriate to me.

New Term Beginning

Susannah, in clothes she went shopping for herself.

Noah's new guitar, re-strung for a left-hander.

Elijah on his first morning at school, today.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Symonds Yat

symonds yat
Originally uploaded by andrew dowsett

Another great view from our holiday in the Forest of Dean, this time the River Wye at Symonds Yat.