Visual aids from our Pentecost service this morning, engaging with Ezekiel’s vision of a valley of dry bones and God’s intention to work, through his people and his Spirit in partnership, to bring life where there is no life and hope where hope has died...
Lungs: do we welcome the Spirit, breath God’s life in and out, in prayer?
Heart: do we live in God’s love, loving God, one another, and those who live around us with whom we share God’s world?
Liver: do we deal with the toxins that build up within us, by a regular practice of extending and receiving forgiveness?
Stomach: do we feed on God’s Word, in bread (and wine) and the Spirit-enlivened written word?
“I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.” Acts 2:17, Peter quoting from the prophet Joel.
Visions and dreams. The young shall be given visions; the old, dreams. Is this simply a poetic and inclusive way of saying the same thing? Perhaps; but I don’t think so. Here’s my response to the Spirit’s voice:
A vision is something God gives us, to do. Something we could not accomplish in our own strength, but with God enlivening us, something we will see come to pass in our lifetime. Our leg of the relay; our part to play; our call to own.
A dream is something God gives us, that is not ours to do, but ours to point to. Something we will not see with our own eyes; hope that extends beyond our lifetime; that reminds us that we are not the be-all-and-end-all of the matter; that reassures us that it doesn’t all depend on us. Martin Luther King said “I have a dream”: and in as much as that the current President of the United States embodies the coming-together of previously segregated people, some of those who marched with Dr King saw a partial fulfilment of his dream.
For lack of vision, the people perish (Proverbs 29:18; Isaiah 5:13; Hosea 4:6). Without vision, we merely exist, lacking direction and purpose.
But vision alone is not enough. Without dreams, the people perish within a generation. Because our dreams sow the visions of those who come after us...
All of us are only getting older. Pentecost is as good a time as any to look back, to take stock of the visions God has given us, to celebrate where we have seen those visions – for our family, our workplace, our neighbourhood, our city, our world; whatever those visions pertain to – come to fruition; and to renew our trust that God is Sovereign and faithful where we have not seen vision come to pass, where we must recognise that in creating a world with free will, God’s plans do not necessarily run as smoothly as he might choose and certainly less smoothly than we might choose – God is working to a long arc.
All of us are only getting older. Pentecost is as good a time as any to look forward, to ask God to give us dreams, increasingly as we age, in order that we might sow the seeds of vision for those who come after us. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if many years from now, when we are long gone, an old man might testify to something God has brought about in the midst of his people and say, I remember, when I was a boy, an old lady – as I come to think of it now, she probably wasn’t so very old, but I was a child, and she seemed old to me at the time – told me that this would come to pass, not in her time but in mine...?
The best way to stifle any vision is to recruit volunteers to your cause. Most churches in the UK are run by volunteers – that is, their engagement with the wider community is facilitated by volunteers. We work hard to recruit volunteers for children’s work, for youth work, for the distribution of food or clothes or furniture, for...And this is perhaps the most effective constraint possible on the effectiveness of that engagement.
One flaw with a culture of volunteers is the difficulty that can arise when someone volunteers for something for which they are quite unsuited. That is to say, everyone has gifts and a role to play, but not everyone has the same gifts or is called to the same roles. Willingness is not, in itself, enough.
But there is a far greater, indeed fatal, flaw. In a volunteer-culture, people volunteer for whatever they believe is important, because if they don’t volunteer, the important thing won’t happen. And, of course, people volunteer for the new thing, because the new thing has a certain excitement and energy to it. What this results in is volunteers who serve in multiple capacities, juggling commitments, and unable to give very much time or effort to any of those things. This gives the church barely-sustainable breadth without depth. It results in frenetic lives, rather than fruitful lives. And it is perpetuated by the false belief that if everyone took an equal share in volunteering, no-one would serve in multiple capacities. They still would: because hole-plugging is integral to a volunteer-culture, which will expand the number of holes so as always to be greater than the number of people to plug them.
By volunteer, I don’t mean unpaid worker. I am not suggesting that we replace volunteers with paying people to do things: that in itself doesn’t address volunteer-culture. By volunteer, I mean something closer to what Jesus called a hired-hand. The things I do as a member of my family, I don’t get paid for, but I’m not a volunteer: I’m a fully-committed stake-holder.
Sometimes in life we have to make a choice between two or more options, and the choosing of one rules out involvement in the others. In marriage the partners make a commitment to ‘forsaking all others,’ not in the sense of abandoning community but in the sense of ruling-out their option of involvement as a marriage-partner with anyone else until released from their present responsibilities by death. Or consider this example: for most of us, choosing to buy one house means we don’t live in several houses; though after a period of time we might sell our house and move to another. In a you-can-have-it-all-and-have-it-all-at-once culture, there are certain things we can’t have all at once. Beyond consumers, we need contributors: but beyond contributors, we need stake-holders.
I have observed volunteer-culture churches where commitment is measured – whether intentionally or unconsciously – by the number of different areas within the life of the church that a given person is involved in. I have witnessed the burn-out that results. I have seen the ability to do many things, not particularly well, and all without capacity to grow.
I have also observed a different culture, one where community is built around shared vision: where people commit to involvement in one ‘extended family’ (at a time), a ‘family’ that shares every dimension of life – loving God, loving one another, loving their neighbour – in an integrated whole. Where team doesn’t simply plan and deliver a programme of activities, but eats and prays and has fun and cries together.
Such a culture has its own challenges, its own messiness. It involves not simply restructuring but a paradigm-shift; and that takes a minimum of five or six years. It almost certainly involves doing less in the short- and medium-term than we might be doing in the present or hope to do in the long-term. It is almost unimaginably costly. But I am absolutely convinced that the volunteer-culture on which most churches is built is the single greatest constraining factor in our seeing the kingdom of heaven take ground.
I just finished reading the Hunger Games trilogy (The Hunger Games; Catching Fire; Mockingjay). The story-arc is very good indeed, and I’m looking forward to seeing how parts 2 and 3 will be translated onto the screen. What makes it good is that, like all good stories, it is true. Fictional, yes; but true...
There is a moment, a third of the way through Catching Fire, when Katniss Everdeen finds herself trapped outside of the fence that surrounds District 12. She has long enjoyed stolen, risky moments of personal freedom beyond the enclosing fence, because it is rarely electrified and she has both the need (to feed her family) and the courage to refuse to be confined. But now the fence is alive. Unbeknownst to Katniss, two Peacekeepers wait at her house; wait to inform those who care about her that she is dead; wait to ensnare them, too. Even though she does not know this, she knows that she must re-enter District 12 and get home; that she cannot allow the Capitol any capital here. Her only hope – and the odds are not in her favour – is to climb a tree that has a branch which extends over the fence; to hang from the tree, and drop from the branch, a fall of 8m, hoping the snowdrift below will sufficiently break her fall. It does, but in landing Katniss seriously damages her left heel.
This scene gains added significance when it is remembered that the President of Panem is called Snow. (Indeed, his shadowy hand, for good or ill, or intended ill subverted for good, stirs the snowflakes wherever the fall in the story.) It gains even more significance if we recognise that Snow is the perennial poison-tongued Prince of the world in which the story is set; and if we are familiar with the promise of Genesis 3:15, that the offspring of the woman whose husband has been returned to the ground will crush the serpent’s head while at the same time being struck in the heel by the serpent. In her descent from on high, which results in the snowdrift being crushed and her heel being broken, Katniss – whose father died in a mining incident, and whose body was not found; who was returned to the ground – triumphs (not for the first time, nor the last) over death – the impassable fence that cut her off from the community – and over the powers that use death as a means of controlling people’s lives. It is a Christological moment.
Jesus engages people through invitation and challenge: extending grace and affirmation and access, and requiring change. We see this time and again in the Gospels, both with his closest disciples and with more passing encounters. Those who respond to Jesus respond to invitation and challenge (consider Zacchaeus, whom Jesus affirms in the face of being ostracised, and who makes a radical and costly turn-around) and the on-going process of invitation and challenge separates out those who want to follow Jesus from those who want Jesus to follow them (consider the crowds who fall away when he increases the challenge element).
Where invitation and challenge are both low, the defining characteristic of a relationship (between two persons, or within a community) is boredom.
Where invitation is high and challenge is low, the defining characteristic of a relationship is cosiness.
Where invitation is low and challenge is high, the defining characteristic of a relationship is stress/discouragement.
Where invitation and challenge are both high, the defining characteristic of a relationship is empowerment.
With this in mind, let’s revisit the ‘field of discipleship’ I suggested yesterday. Each quadrant is explored and mapped in increasing detail where we experience high invitation and challenge. (Boredom is unaware of its surroundings; cosiness, unconcerned with them; and stress, too agitated to appreciate them.)
Consider the ‘come, and be’ quadrant, where the question is, ‘who am I chosen to be with?’ For me, this question is answered in several ways. There is my life-long covenant relationship with my wife. Then there are our children: and while that is also a life-long relationship, I certainly don’t envisage that they will always live and move with us, so we might consider the present dynamic to be a long-term season. But I also have long-term and/or for-life relationships with a number of friends; and then there are shorter-term friendships and working relationships: those I am chosen to be with for now.
I think it would be fair to say that at times I have related to my wife with low invitation and high challenge, causing her stress; at other times, have retreated into high invitation, low challenge, resulting in a cosiness that does not empower her; or (and it is easy to slide from cosiness to this) with low invitation low challenge, resulting in boredom. But I trust that there are times when, through high invitation and high challenge on my part, she has been empowered to fulfil her God-given potential, to grow into the person she was created to be. To live habitually in that place requires a determination of the will, and a continuous pattern of repentance and belief.
When it comes to our children, I know that my natural tendency is to extend low invitation high challenge, causing them stress; and that I need to extend more invitation – find ways of spending time together, having fun – and step back from inappropriate challenge (they are children, not adults), while not abdicating appropriate challenge (without which it is not possible to move from immaturity to maturity). So often we expect parenting to be easy and find it overwhelmingly complicated, when the truth is that it is very simple and very, very hard.
Many of my working relationships and short-term relationships bore me – not because I want to be entertained, but because I want to be engaged – because the other person does not extend invitation (access to their lives) and challenge (leading me out of my comfort zone) or does not respond to my offers of invitation and challenge. On the other hand, responding to invitation and challenge is a key indicator of a Person of Peace – someone open to you, someone who responds to Jesus in you – and helpful in discerning which people to invest most in.
The same principles apply to the other quadrants: without high invitation high challenge, one will never discover and grow in what they are challenged to do, what they are given to contribute, or where they are invited to go together with others...
Let us consider a visual representation of the field of discipleship, the scope of its concerns.
Jesus calls disciples to come to him and be sent by him into the world. This spectrum, along which the disciple moves back and forth, provides us with our first axis.
Jesus calls disciples into community and to a distinct part within that community. Personhood exists within covenant relationships, within which we have a specific vocation or kingdom roles. For Jesus himself, his personhood exists in unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and his mother, Mary; while his particular vocation is to be the Son (of God, of Man). Paul writes about the Church as the Body of Christ, one body made up of distinct members, each of which play a part on which the body as a whole depends and which is meaningless in isolation/amputation. So inextricably linked personhood (covenant relationships) and vocation (kingdom roles) provides us with our second axis.
We can now consider the field of discipleship as comprising four quadrants.
The bottom-left, framed by coming to Jesus and our personhood – come, and be – is concerned with the question: who am I chosen to be with? (Biblical example: Jesus giving Mary and John to each other from the cross.)
The top-left, framed by coming to Jesus and our vocation – come, and do – is concerned with the question: what am I challenged to do? (Biblical example: the disciples learn to do what Jesus does.)
The top-right, framed by our vocation and being sent by Jesus – go, and do – is concerned with the question: what am I given to contribute? (Biblical example: Erastus was an urban director of public works.)
The bottom-right, framed by our personhood and being sent by Jesus – go, and be – is concerned with the question: where are we invited to go together? (Biblical example: Paul and his team being led into Europe from Asia Minor.)
Each of these questions can relate to more permanent or more provisional, and more general or more specific, calls; and our response will involve attention to both character and competence (skills).
The other day a younger friend asked me a really good question: what is the difference between discipleship and mentoring? In fact, this is a great question, and one that arises from my insistence that discipleship is not primarily about the Christian’s personal and largely unmediated relationship with Jesus but about interpersonal human relationships, the participation in the missio dei (God’s mission) Jesus has delegated to us. If my understanding of discipleship is that it is relational and directive and handed on, is what I mean by ‘discipleship’ mentoring? An older acquaintance who asked me my views on discipleship recently thought so.
There is certainly a degree of overlap, but in my view discipleship and mentoring are not coterminous. While I am aware that there is a (growing) range of nuance to how the term ‘mentoring’ is applied, my understanding of mentoring is that it is vocational and that, while the mentor may certainly address character issues and facilitate networking, the relationship is primarily concerned with passing on specific skills to their protégée.
Another related-but-different field is that of life-coaching, which, unlike mentoring, is not vocational. The aim of the life-coach is to help someone identify changes they want to see in their life and to put in place changes towards that life. They are more concerned with values than particular skills: with helping their client to align their actions more closely to their ‘ideal world’ lifestyle. Life-coaches tend not to be directive: the impetus for change comes from the person who has engaged them; they act as a sounding-board to help that person articulate what they seek. As such, life-coaches – in contrast to mentors - do not necessarily model something they have learnt and are now handing on.
Discipleship is concerned with becoming Christ-like (“imitate me as I imitate Christ”) in every part of life. It is concerned with vocation – that is, our kingdom roles – as inextricably linked to personhood – that is, our covenant relationships. Therefore, discipleship involves a distinctively Jesus-centred form of life-coaching and mentoring, while adapting and exceeding both.
Discipleship as mentoring (as when a Christian businessperson mentors younger businesspeople in engaging in business according to kingdom values) puts one person between me and the place I want to go to – a person who will help me take that step. It may relate to a specific job or employment, or unfamiliar location; or more generally to the unchanging, developing vocation that is expressed through a series of jobs and in a series of locations. While discipleship must always take into account both Christ-like competence and Christ-like character, here competence takes the ‘leading beat.’
Discipleship as life-coaching puts one person between me and the person of Jesus – someone who will bring me to Jesus, just as I am called to bring others to Jesus. While discipleship must always take into account both Christ-like character and Christ-like competence, here character takes the ‘leading beat.’ It may be significantly removed from mentoring – a key observation for church leaders in inherited traditions: we are not primarily called to raise up the next generation of clergy or licensed lay ministers, but to create a culture of discipleship by making disciples – regardless of their vocation – who make disciples.
Both are counter-cultural to the extreme individualism of our age. Both are necessary, as the life of discipleship is a shared life of being called to come to the person of Jesus and be sent ahead of him into every place.
I shall develop these ideas in my next post, The Field Of Discipleship...