Digging deeper seminar1 NewWineUnited 2017

Digging Deeper

From confusion to Peace

Pushing through negative emotions into God’s truth.

Roots through pain

How I’m feeling Trusting God

The Psalms – The Blues & gospel.

‘for me, its in his despair that the Psalmist really reveals the nature of his special relationship with God’ Bono

Your pain is not the end of the story

We can be raw and honest with God, because of his true nature.

We move from how we’re feeling to truth – through honesty.

What views of God – hinder total honesty with him?

Psalm 35

  • Crying out to God
  • The actions of the wicked
  • How the Psalmist feels
  • Truth & Praise
  • Hopeful outcome

Experience

Emotion

Assumption

(self)

Lie about God

wicked prosper

confusion

It’s not fair

God isn’t real

enemies mock

afraid

defend myself

God’s ways fail

silent heaven

abandoned

shame

God is

rejecting us

feel awful

despair

I’m empty/hopeless

Not there

 

What enables you to get to that place of seeing what you are really believing?

A simple process

  • What’s going on?
  • What am I feeling
  • What am I believing?

CHOICE

  • Lord please help
  • I remember when
  • This is still true

Screen-Free holiday

Trying to be Tech-wise.

Norfolk screens - 1We had a wonderful family holiday in at the end of May, great weather in the stunning Norfolk countryside.  What made this holiday special, new and challenging was our decision to go ‘screen-free’ for a week.

fullsizeoutput_242fInspired by Andy Crouch’s brilliant book ‘Tech Wise family’ – we chose to black out our  screens, and see what happened.  We have 4 sons, aged 13,11, 9 & 7, they all love screen-time and so do I.    We explained the plan to them, repeated that and then explained it again just to clarify.  It wasn’t the last time we needed to remind or clarify.

How did we get on?

The iPad, (which is only used to consume), stayed at home.  iPhones came for essentials: contacting family, checking weather forecasts (important in the UK in spring) and music in the car (to sing along, not just consume) – social media apps all deleted. Laptop came with us, but packed away.  We packed stacks of board games, books and every piece of sporting equipment we could muster.

Let’s get to the honest bit, we didn’t manage it completely.  We did great for the first few days, but the phones and chargers had to be hidden in innovative places and frequent reminders issued.  After 4 days, we wanted a bit of quiet down-time in the afternoon to read, so we gave the boys a gift of one hour screen time.  Later in the week we indulged in watching a film together one evening, (note together – screens separate us).  Our youngest still wakes up much earlier than I wanted to, so I might have given him my phone once or twice, so that I could have a lie-in.

Staying off social media was really easy, but cricket’s Champion’s Trophy was on and the trigger instinct deep within me to know the score was ever-present.  I maintained my rule of not checking my screen when with the boys, but found a few sneaky ways to score-check through the day.  Taking photos is a part of shared creativity with my eldest, so the discipline to then not spend the evenings uploading, editing and posting them online was challenging as we tried to justify that.

Caleb on phone screenI was really impressed with our boys, they responded far better than I anticipated. They discovered the reality of addiction and temptation and how powerful that can be. They discovered how much they escape to screens for easy entertainment.  They also discovered great skills in justifying ways to find and use screens.  We were all reminded that in a large family, fairness is grasped passionately and more than once ‘But he is on a screen…!’ was shouted with great indignance.

I can only speak personally on the next layer down of internal mind-games, temptation, and justification.  I was interested not just in how strong the temptation would be, but the ways I would try and get round the trigger response to ‘just check….’

Email, not a problem, never once opened Mail.  The desire to check social media, post a good photo or share a witty thought was easily dealt with, but the longing to know the cricket score and the justification to check our wider family group in whatsapp was huge and I got quite creative in my self justification of breaking the fast.

What replaced screens?

A core point Andy Crouch makes in Tech-wise family is that technology is designed to make life easy, but that ease hinders the development of wisdom and character and with them resilience and creativity.  The hours we recovered from screen time, needed to be intentionally used for family life, activity and creativity.  We realised quickly as parents, that going screen-free meant investment from us.  We needed to be more present with the boys, we needed to help them to overcome boredom, we needed to play with them, read with them, walk with them, talk to them!  Having 4 children close in age brings its own challenges, but take away work and screens and that gave us the joy of overcoming those challenges.  The purpose of going screen-free wasn’t just to break addictions, it was to create family.

Dehumanising: (A reflection on Auschwitz)

I’ve learned a new word this month: dehumanising.

It’s not that I didn’t know the word previously, but this month I’ve begun to learn what it means.  It has become a three dimensional reality for me, I’ve seen some of the scars of the horrors it leads to.

I was very privileged to be part of a pilgrimage to Auschwitz in January 2017.

The two concentration camps at Auschwitz and Birkenhau, have been preserved sensitively as historical sites, with some prison buildings at CampA at Auschwitz also re-ordered as a museum.  There’s no gaudy plastic or posters, there’s a simplicity and honour of the memories the place holds.  Those memories themselves are enough to impact the many visitors.  I agree with the Archbishop of Canterbury and all those who simply reflect: ‘everyone should go to Auschwitz’.

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To visit the camps, to see the very cells the prisoners were kept and killed in, the execution wall, the display of empty tins of zyklon B,P1040373.JPG and to see the crushed mesh of  glasses, and piles of unlaced shoes, stolen from their owners, is to be saturated by the memories of human cruelty to humans.  (to steal someone’s shoes or glasses is itself barbarically disempowering)
The historical evidence of that cruelty is overwhelming.  We each respond emotionally to different things, for me personally the room full of recovered human hair and the wall of photos of prisoners were two of the memories which landed the most deeply, I had to stand still just to recover my breath.

In the museum I had to choose to remember the humanity amidst the static displays, which is why the hair and the photos reached deepest for me, this was my point of contact with the humans who had been treated so cruelly.  The other place where my heart was most wrenched by the reality was in a hut in Birkenhau, when I leant on the very beds which women and children had slept in, bare boards with 8 people per bed.  I touched the very wood they had slept on.

p1040435Story after story, display after display, and photo after photo exposed the way which the SS soldiers treated the prisoners, it was a conscious effort to realise these very things happened on this very ground, in these very rooms, within living memory.  Today, the Auschwitz museum has posted photos online of survivors returning to that very place on Holocaust Memorial Day.  The scene so familiar, the same sun pushing through the mist and the same snow I walked past, I count it a privilege to be linked in this way with them.

Throughout the day, as I let myself be carried by this flood of history, and engage with the reality, my mind kept returning to the same question: ‘How?’

The museum contains powerful displays, reminders and evidence, but to be there is to engage the imagination and realise not long ago, these victims were real people. Not merely living, breathing, washing in those sinks, using those loos, and all too insufficiently eating, but talking, relating, imagining, seeking to understand, trying to survive, holding onto love.

This process of imagining the reality of what was going on, was to ask a thousand questions.

Did they wash? How did they cope with the biting cold? What did it smell like? How did they relate to one another?  My imaginings led me to consider their powerlessness, they were stripped of everything.  Their clothes, their hair, all possessions, even their gold teeth.  Victor Frankl’s stunning book ‘Man’s search for meaning’ talks of the horror of being stripped of the manuscript of the book he was writing, his life’s work.  How he had to internalise what he had written, inside him, to a place they could not steal it from.

In order to manage crowds of prisoners, they found mechanical ways to control the prisoners, enabling them to survive in order to exploit them for work, but caring not if they died, because they had thousands more to replace them.  Once their possessions, hair and futures had been stolen, they could only treat them like machines, feeding them the very minimum food as fuel, to keep them working.

The first stage of dehumanising them, was to render them powerless.  As I attempted to engage in that sense of powerlessness, I recognised that when powerless we become entirely reliant upon the mercy of others.  In the SS guards, they found no mercy.

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In this, the SS guards themselves had also surrendered part of their power.  They had to let go of their own capacity for mercy.  They had to convince themselves that these people were not people.  I am still shocked that dehumanising was powerful enough to overcome the instinct of mercy.

There are rare stories of mercy.  In the account of the Franciscan Friar Maximilian Kolbe, we hear how when 3 prisoners disappeared, the guards chose to starve 10 to death, chosen at random to be an example.  When one prisoner cried out ‘what about my wife and family?’, Kolbe offered to take his place and was duly starved for two weeks and finally murdered by lethal injection when starvation proved insufficient.  Amidst the horror and heroism of the story, I was surprised to hear of even that glimmer of mercy by the guard in responding to Kolbe’s request and granting the swap.   That small act of mercy stood out as a rare exception to the thousands of times the guards wouldn’t even listen to the pleas of their victims.

Wave after wave of evidence of merciless dehumanising.  In every photo, story and display the evidence is there that the guards ceased to see the victims as human beings, it is the only explanation I can find of how they could manage this. Part of this was that they stripped them, not just of possessions, relationships, hair and teeth, but of their names.  Survivors have shared the agony of being reduced to a number, all learning, qualifications, status and dignity, deleted, all part of the attempt to dehumanise.

To such a tiny extent I was invited to engage with the memory of horror which results from dehumanising.  I’ve come to a simple conclusion: to dehumanise is evil.

One theological reflection shared by Rev.Sam Wells on the trip was that evil is the systematic justifying of wrong actions as though they were right.  To paint thoughts or actions in conflict with God’s kingdom, as something which is morally acceptable.  By this definition, to dehumanise is evil.

Humans were created in God’s image, endowed with incredible honour by our loving God and described as ‘very good’.  Separation, rebellion and sin marred our creation and has led to untold suffering and division.  Jesus came to reunite and the New Testament passionately declares the re-establishment of dignity and honour of all people in God’s sight.  Bible passages such as Acts 2v17, Galatians 3v28, Ephesians 2v15 and Colossians 3v11 unequivocally declare God’s intention to restore humanity as equally loved.

Simple theology:  God looks on each human being as someone he has created and loves.  To dehumanise another is to disagree with God.

Facing up to the horrific results of dehumanising, raises many questions for me now.

How can we avoid even the slightest glimmer of dehumanising in the way we live?

We live in a vast complex world.  We share this planet, a gift from God, our home, with 7 billion other humans, each created and loved by God.  We can’t know everyone else, we will only relate to a minute proportion of these ‘others’ in our lifetime, global communications mean we will interact with far more than any previous generation in history.

Understandably we mentally clump and categorise others and consciously or subconsciously we use labels to categorise. This can enable cultural understanding, it can cause destruction and everything in between.  The worst categorising and labelling I have ever seen was the photos on the wall of Auschwitz.  Each prisoner was given a number and a coloured triangle to denote whether they were Polish, Russian, Romany, gay or Jewish (who were given a double triangle, the star of David).  Some triangles meant you were fed and survived, others meant you were deceptively led to the gas chambers.

Categorising and labelling is probably inevitable and so we have to be vigilant in one thing and that is to ensure labelling never leads to dehumanising.   There have been occasions in my life when God has rebuked me sternly by reminding me that my attitudes and actions impact his beloved children.  In every decision we make which impacts others, we remember that people are created and loved.   In every relationship and connection we make, we treat others as people not according to the labels we might have mentally put on them.

I went through a painful time in a close friendship.  Reconciliation was only possible when I recognised that I was relating not to my friend, but to a limited pigeon-holed version of him created in my imagination.  When we next met, I listened long enough to let him be himself and was able to demolish that false labelled version.  I realised I too have the capacity to dehumanise in almost every form of relationship and it could have been so destructive to a precious friendship.

The Holocaust arose in a political and ethical maelstrom, it developed unchallenged by a passive or petrified church.  The murder of millions of Jews was termed ‘the final solution’ by the Nazis because they had developed a mindset which justified dehumanising.

My reflection from engaging with dehumanising, is simply this.  Prize mercy.

God has given us the power to show mercy to others.  To treat them with honour, dignity and to empower them, not strip them of power.  In the kingdom of God, power is given in order to be given away, not to control, never to exploit.

That power he has given us, is called mercy, it’s a gift we’ve received and its a gift we must give to others.

[Photos supplied by Ian Dyble and others, with thanks, copyright is theirs.]

I have posted further thoughts on my trip here

Grief and prayer, after Auschwitz

It was the anger which took me by surprise.

I had anticipated sorrow, tiredness, and questions, but not anger.

I hadn’t really known what to expect on my return to Romiley after a pilgrimage to Auschwitz-Birkenhau.  I was partly afraid that my emotional journey might take the familiar path of numbness to guilt and self criticism for being ‘shut down’.

It happened as I set off in the car to the Peaks to find space with God to process and pray.  The usual necessities had taken up time, few people knew I was unavailable this week and I had a flood to texts and voicemails to ignore and feel guilty about.  I remembered a trivial practicality and pulled over to call my wife, when she answered, I exploded.  Furious that my precious prayer day had been invaded, frustrated that the world felt it needed me when I was unavailable, judgmental on those who were carrying on normal lives, serving others.

mellor-cross-2There was no rational reason for my anger, no one had wronged me, no crisis had invaded my protected time.  Raw and slightly afraid at my outburst, I detoured to Mellor Cross,
a wonderful place of prayer for me.  The mists cut out the glorious views and the farmer’s no parking signs were officious, but that didn’t get to me.  The 20ft Mellor Cross has lost its top bar and we, God’s church in our area, have not yet restored it.  (another job to feel burdened by) The symbolism pierced my bubble and provoked the question I was avoiding:

“Is it all derelict? – even this cross is desecrated, is there any good left in the world?”

auschwitz-1-2That was when it hit me, my anger was grief.
In that moment, I could see no good in the world. If I looked outwards I could only see tensions, unresolvable problems or hollow frivolity;  If I looked inwards, I saw fear, guilt and heard the agonising screams of the victims of Auschwitz.

Recognising that my anger was grief, brought perspective,  but who was I grieving for?

I had asked the Holy Spirit to navigate my emotional journey this week, what was he wanting to do in this tunnel he was taking me through?

Grief is chaotic, it generates questions, throws them up into the air, bats them around, rarely answers them and then rushes onto the next one.  Amongst the many questions my grief generated, were some about prayer which I want to explore here.

‘If my grief anger is at those closest to me – Why am I not angry with God?

It was an irrational anger with no object to blame, so it spilt on those I had subconsciously calculated will forgive me or be unharmed by my unfounded outburst.

Why not God?  Why am I not angry at him?

A skilled psychoanalyst might try to lead me to a conclusion that I am, that I blame God for the mess and pain in the world.  Yet as I leant against that headless cross and wept in surrender, all I could feel was gratitude to him, because I know that he really is the present one, with us in sorrow, suffering, martyrdom and desolation.  Our teaching in Auschwitz was built on God with us before he is for us.  One of the most profound moments of my pilgrimage to Auschwitz was encountering again to a new level of emotional engagement with Jesus, my beloved older brother on the cross, carrying my suffering.  Through this trip, I have recovered a profound closeness to him as other preoccupations have been expunged.

auschwitz-1In my past experiences of intense grief, I have rarely turned to anger against God, usually I turn away from the assumption that he is to blame.  In the Psalms he gives us freedom to express our anger, he is bigger than our emotions and in so doing he opens his arms and invites us to come and pummel him, confident that he can bear it until we punch it out of our system, his unconditional love soaking it up.  But this doesn’t answer my question.

If I try to blame God for Auschwitz, somehow I can’t.  Because to do so, would be to attempt to place myself closer to the victims than he is.  To place me in solidarity with them and have the pride to judge God makes no sense.

auschwitz-1-1

He was there and I wasn’t.

He was alive and I wasn’t yet born.

The victims were his family and not mine.

 

 

 

My mind bats away the vast and complex, ’is God powerless?’ but the next question which my grief, in its bleak outlook on the world raises, is terrifying.  When I consider how my heart responds to numerous prayer requests, I have to ask, “have I given up on the notion of God being powerful or likely to act? and has this trip further pushed that faith away from me?’

This is a substantial area of grief for me, a substantial challenge to my faith and ministry and mission.  In the face of Auschwitz, Syria and Donald Trump, the painful mess I see in so many churches, the frustrations of trying to share the best news ever with a world that so often shows little interest, and other disappointments, is there any point in asking God to do something?  When I look around me right now from a place of grief, the weight of evidence of what I focus on tells me that God is not active, not bringing change, not ruling from heaven and bringing resurrection life in the midst of the decay of this fallen world.

auschwitz-1-6My head might wrestle with the theological constructions, but when I catch a glimpse of my own prayer life and moments of ambivalence in prayer right now, I see that a big chunk inside is tempted to let go of hope, let alone faith, that God acts when we pray.

That is a scary place to be.  img_6127That is the decay of a central pillar of my life and ministry.  To play with this as a percentage game, when I start to believe there is a less than 30% chance of a prayer being answered, then why bother praying it at all?  Have I really lost the faith that when I pray, God will act?

img_6157What happened in the Holocaust was horrific, extreme and beyond imagination.  In so many ways  millions of prayers were left on earth unanswered and so it seems that God was powerless or disinterested.  We can of course refer to the bigger, eternal story, that God is responding in the long run, some theological answers are satisfying, others not.

But what about day-to-day prayer now?  How can I pray for the civilians of Mosul and Aleppo today? How can I pray for America this week? They are facing the alarming historical parallels of a sociopathic populist leader being democratically elected by a protesting disaffected people.  Hitler wanted to ‘Make Germany great again’.  How can we pray, if we start to feel like God isn’t going to act?

auschwitz-1-3When it comes to prayer, protest and resistance, Auschwitz was not binary.  In late 1941 three girls smuggled gunpowder out of the munitions factory and then blew up one of the gas chambers , this raises good questions.  450 prisoners were killed in response to this plot, but it put a gas chamber out of action.  That slowed down the killing by 20% for a few months until liberation. Each chamber could kill 2,000 at a time, potentially many thousands a day, maybe thousands of lives were spared because of that?

There are Holocaust survivors, Judaism was not eliminated, there are stories of those who escaped Nazi occupation, there are Oscar Schindlers and Nicholas Wintons.  Some prayers were answered.  Just because we may not see the whole outcome, we will see more of heaven invade earth if we pray than if we just watch.

Also, perhaps prayer is more instinctive than that?  As I consider the reality, I can’t stop praying.  We were led in meditations on the Stations of the cross around Birkenhau, one of the most moving parts personally was the prayers of intercession at each station, img_6137for women, for children, for Jewish and Romany people, for perpetrators of evil.  These were amazing moments, because my heart took over and in wordless cries turned to God for help in compassion for those who are powerless.  I will continue to pray and intercede, because I am unable to not pray.  I cannot bear the burden of compassion and empathy I feel with those I am otherwise powerless to help, I have to share that burden with God and carry it with him not for him.

“What are we asking God to do when we pray?” 

The lectures, worship, reflections and leadership of the trip was outstanding, it was a privilege to be with such exceptional wisdom and emotional intelligence.  However there was a moment when a typical litany left me yearning for more.  As we travelled around the world in a nicely constructed list of ‘people we ought to pray for’, I found myself deeply dissatisfied.  No words or time were  available to help us consider what we were asking God to do for these beloved people.  The prayers were devoid of verbs, and so the nouns became like tokens.  The only lists I write are shopping and ‘to do’ lists, a collection of things I lack, an expression of poverty or pressures.  These two words perhaps best describe how I feel about merely listing to God a series of people he is already fully aware of.

And so its redoubled my consideration on how can we encourage one another to pray with verbs.  Most (but sadly not all) of our collects manage it.  An example from next Sunday

Almighty God,
 in Christ you make all things new:
 transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, 
 and in the renewal of our lives
 make known your heavenly glory;
 through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
 who is alive and reigns with you…

We urgently need prayer which expects something to happen, prayer which does more than express empathy or train memory, prayer which turns to a powerful God and asks for change.

 

[Grateful to Richard Frank for his photography]

A follow up post on the dehumanising which happened at Auschwitz is available here. https://romileyrichard.wordpress.com/2017/01/27/dehumanising-a-reflection-on-auschwitz/

 

Knitted angels

Last week certainly took us by surprise.

Back in September  I received an email offering a plan for Christmas, the crazy idea of placing hundreds of knitted angels in Romiley as free gifts to our community.

One of my priorities is to empower and support the creative and crazy ideas which arise in St.Chad’s and so I thought ‘Why not?’ and said “yes, go for it”.  This was someone offering to do something fresh and inventive, outside the walls of the church, to initiate connections and bless our community.

By Sunday 11th Dec, over 600 had arrived, Angels - 1 (4).jpghours and hours of knitting and hundreds of conversations had happened.  We prayed that God would use the angels to bless people and very early on Tuesday morning we hung them on railings all around Romiley.angels-8

As the village woke up and set of for school and work, the place came alive.

The Surprise worked! – delight, joy, smiles and stories bursting everywhere.  The atmosphere in the school playground was transformed – reluctant schoolchildren (& parents) trudging to school in the dark, were running and laughing again.  Kindness broke forth, our lollipop lady found a child with no angel in tears and so gave her the one she had chosen for her tree.  Within minutes a grandfather ran off to find one in a yellow coat for the Lollipop lady.

But something else was going on – it felt more than just a happy little surprising occasion.

Something shifted.

There was a new found generosity of heart.
A celebration of what the Romiley community is about.

Commuters, walking in darkness, struggling with an early start, facing yet another draining day ahead, were lifted.  People who had been struggling with burdens, felt loved.

We provided some photos and video footage for BBC NorthWest, who put it online, their Facebook videos usually get c.20K views, by the weekend ours had been viewed more than half a million times!

But there’s another dimension to this story – which I want to share.

My confession:

A few years ago, I was excitedly preached about Angels, stories in the Bible and experiences of people I’ve met, of the vast, majestic, overwhelming heavenly beings.  In my talk, I threw in some comments, which were – let’s be honest – not entirely positive about little knitted angels. angels-4 In trying to make my point – I chose to stamp on something precious to others – and I’m not proud of it!  (The damage done when we preachers choose to trash talk something to emphasise something else, is for another blog, it’s destructive and endemic)

So what did God do? – He chose to take the very thing I had been cynical about & use them to do something really quite powerful and dramatic here in Romiley.

The church I lead, now becomes famous for being ‘the knitted angel church’…

I had some interesting conversations with God about this on my early morning dog walks last week!

God, in his love – took another opportunity to remind that building up, not pulling down is how we do things in his family.    But he didn’t just take the opportunity to humble me (he gets plenty of those) because when he has our attention, God makes the most of it.  When struggling with internal conflict between what we know is right & the tantrums of our feelings – He has a chance to speak.

angel-in-lightsSo with my full attention, God had another surprise.

As well as the outbursts of joy, and chatting and fun around Romiley.

As well as the grateful recognition that we seek to show God’s generosity.

Then the requests came in.  A flood of them.

Emails, Facebook messages to our church profile,  phonecalls, even people turning up on the church doorstep having driven to Romiley to find us.

Requests for these little knitted angels – to give to sick relatives and unsettled children.  Requests for these to bring hope and healing to those in distress.

angels-10At first we weren’t sure what to do about this – a knitted angel is cute – but it has no magical powers.

I had to wrestle with all sorts of religious thoughts,  along with my preach all those years ago slagging off little angels – I considered all potential negatives.

Was this superstition and folk religion?  Was dropping cute knitted angels in the nighttime too cowardly as a form of mission?  Was this a misrepresentation of the heavenly reality?

But then I remembered that we’d prayed for those who received these angels, we’d prayed that God would use them.  We’d taken something very simple, very natural – something sweet and lovely and prayed that God would use it – and now he was!

It was a wake up call for me.

People are hungry for God. – They are looking for him, searching for him, reaching out asking for his help.  We are surrounded by people longing for love and connection – and these angels were a sign that God’s people want to show kindness.

People are desperate for hope, for something playful and fun, wonder and surprise.  Finding a knitted angel, hanging on a railing early on a damp dark December morning – is a reminder that there is fun and playfulness in the world.

People are desperate for healing – for sickness to be overcome and they’re looking for the God who heals.

And there was such faith and expectation out there, that God could use these little tokens to bring healing and hope.  Amidst my religious reactions and our preoccupation  with a video going viral, we were discovered vast amounts of faith, outside the church.

So we started praying differently.  God used handkerchiefs and aprons in the book of Acts, to bring healing to those in need, so I got past my religious reactions and started asking him for that.  We’ve already heard of one lady’s daughter who had been in intensive care for a long time, making a dramatic recovery the day after her Mum took her an angel.  We’ve heard of insomniacs, sleeping peacefully.  I’m praying for many more, God loves these people and we long to see his kingdom touch their lives.

In many cases it seemed that there was more faith in God to heal outside the church, than within it.  And yet those inside the church have already received that love, that joy and that power from him.  We’ve already experienced connection, freedom and healing from God and  can share that.

So God took the little thing that we had to offer and used it to remind us that He has so much more.

angels-2I wasn’t totally wrong all those years ago – knitted angels are just nicely constructed arrangements of wool.

But this stopped being about the angels a long time ago.  Angels are only messengers who bring good news of great joy.  Whether they are 10ft tall, radiant in overwhelming light and carrying vast swords – or 5inches tall, made of scraps of wool with a bit of tinsel.  They have one job, to point people to Jesus.

God used this little tokens of love, to catch people’s attention, to express his love and to point people to Jesus.  He is the one who can heal, restore, refresh and bring hope.

Sent as Light.

Light 1[lahyt] (n): stimulates plants, 
attracts butterflies, repels cockroaches

This weekend, into Monday, churches up and down the land will host ‘light parties’, a positive choice to give children a safe joyful place as an alternative to the surrounding darkness of Halloween.  Halloween costumes are shifting, as well as the tasteless combinations of lime green, lurid orange and black, with ‘traditional’ witches and spiders, we now see children dressing as intestine spilling mutants and worse.  In the darkness, craving for the adrenaline and drama of shock, the grotesque intensifies.  A society which considers it fun to dress 6 year olds as blood-splattered serial killers, needs to take a long hard look at itself.

This is my second blog of a series considering what it means ‘to be sent as Jesus is sent’, (see part 1 here )

Throughout his gospel John emphasises how Jesus saw his apostolic ‘sentness’ to earth as ‘bringing light into darkness’.  To be sent as Jesus is sent, is to be the light of the world.  Followers of Jesus, are sent by God to be ’light’ into our workplaces, communities, families and churches. Seeing yourself sent by God as light, is a biblical way to think about how God is sending you.

There is huge power in the simple truth that light overcomes the darkness, millions of great sermons have been preached on it, understanding light gives us limitless options to describe what it means to be ‘apostolic’.  Here I’ll restrict myself to two.

Light brings life.

‘In him was life and that life was the light of all mankind.’ (John 1v4)

Whether or not we can remember the chemical equation for photosynthesis, (I can’t), we simply need to know that light enables plants to grow.   Jesus was sent to bring life, we are sent to bring life.

How can we do that?  How can you bring life into the situations you’ll be sent to next week?

One simple way to bring life, is to celebrate and value the life that is in others.  To recognise it, comment on it, build up and not pull down.  When you see something good about someone, their contribution to this planet – tell them! Speaking it out, illuminating the life in them, will make them more alive.

jump-in-the-sunWe’ve spent a lot of time with family and friends this week, I feel more alive because they have asked great questions, stimulating conversation, showing interest in others, giving them space to talk.  Many of us come more alive, when we’re encouraged and enabled to express ourselves.  Are you giving that kindness to others, are you able to bring life by simply showing interest in others?  In reverse, have you noticed how stale a conversation becomes with those who were never parented into asking good questions, or have lost the confidence to do so?  Help them come alive too, show interest in others and open up lively conversation.

John tells us that ‘in him, was life’.  Jesus was bursting with life, he was creative, compassionate, and controversial.  Yet in personal encounters he valued others enough to ask them questions, to bring them more alive, or reveal the characteristics in them which brought control and inevitable decay.

Secondly: Light attracts butterflies and repels cockroaches.

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[©Mirai Takahashi and razordu30 on flickr.com]

John the Baptist came to bear witness to the light of Jesus. (John 1v8)

John the Baptist came to point to the light, coming into the world to help people to see.  Due to the instincts of phototaxis, some insects are attracted to light, others repelled by it.  The same pattern is highlighted in John’s gospel.  Some are attracted to Jesus, the light of the world, because his illuminates them, he prevents them from stumbling and they can see he brings new life.  He turns water into wine, heals sick bodies, multiplies food, and opens blind eyes.  He enables others to see and therefore not stumble (John 11v9)

In your apostolic calling, to those you work alongside, or stand next to at the school gate, or serve you community with, you can shine light, to help prevent them from stumbling.  They need the wisdom God has given you, we all need heavenly perspective as we scratch around in confusion and darkness.  Again and again, I stumble into human folly, again and again my closest friends shine the light of wisdom through loving questions, to help me stand.

As I read through John asking the question ‘what does it meant to be sent as Jesus is sent?’  the clearest thing I noticed was that many rejected the light.  To be sent, comes with it the possibility of being hated, just as Jesus was.

the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. (John 3v19-20)

Perhaps the greatest challenge we face is to be willing to be rejected for being sent as Jesus is sent.  We so long for the good news of the kingdom to be palatable, we so long for the church to grow, we so long to heal the pain caused by callous or hollow religion, that we filter our light to make it acceptable to darkness.  But through John, we see that to be sent as Jesus is sent, includes the courage to face rejection and persecution.

I’ve written, deleted, edited, deleted and restored the first paragraph of this blog about Halloween a number of times, concerned that by exposing the darkness of our society’s attraction to the grotesque, I could offend people, or seem ‘anti-fun’.  In the grand scheme of controversies: where Biblical Truth collides with a consumer, desire-driven culture, this is hardly a complex debate.  Yet I battled with the concern that shining light on the celebration of evil which we’ve become accustomed to, might upset others or cause a negative stir.

To celebrate witchcraft, murder, torture, fear and death is as far as we can get in contrast to the kingdom of light.  To highlight the mess and folly of a world which has turned its back on God and refuses to surrender to him, takes boldness.  I find that boldness in the model of Jesus.  And the courage I need, I find in his promise to fill us with his Holy Spirit, to enable us to be sent as he is sent.

To be sent as Jesus is sent

What does it mean to be sent as Jesus is sent?

Having risen from the dead and walked through walls to be with them, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into his disciples, powerfully re-creating Genesis 2.  Just before this profound action, he says to them: “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20v21)

I was recently encouraged to read through John’s gospel asking one question, ‘What does it mean to be sent, as Jesus is sent?’.  This simple daily question opened up aspects of this very familiar gospel which I hadn’t seen or linked before, and it gave me a framework to hear God speak, bringing inspiration, understanding and a fresh challenge.

I get nervous when I hear the word ‘Apostolic’.

I know some who get nervous about this word due to past hurts from abusive controlling leaders labelling themselves ‘apostolic’.  Others speak or write of how the use of this term ‘makes me nervous’, as an introduction to critical judgement or academic point scoring, ‘nervous’ that other people have got it wrong, thinly veiled as ‘protecting the truth’.

Neither of those two describe my primary nerves about this topic, although I have some experience both with wounds and the desire to ‘be more right than others’.

Allow me a public confession, I get nervous of feeling a bit stupid and behind the learning curve, feeling like I’m joining a class halfway through the year and not yet caught up on the syllabus.  If you hang around with church leaders for any time, we’ll start talking about being ‘apostolic’, my nerves are rooted in two things.  I’m not sure I know precisely what that means and I’m aware that I’m usually making assumptions about what the person I’m listening to means by the shorthand ‘apostolic’.

‘Apostolic’ is a kingdom word, which carries resonance of hope, renewal, reform and change.  It’s a forward looking word which carries tones of pioneering visionary leadership.  It’s a biblical word, rooted in the New Testament and the culture and language of it’s time.  It’s a word used through church history, in creeds and denominational statements and the breadth of church traditions mean that it is used very differently in different contexts.

There are bold, confident leaders who use it with a definitive certainty to enforce their powerful point.  There are reflective academics who use it wrapped in nuanced disclaimers, or seeking to recover traditional uses of the word.  There are passionate visionaries who use it to authenticate a particular vision or longing.  And there are the rest of us, whose use of this word is shaped by a bit of scripture, some memory of church background, a few role models and a longing to see the church become more like the image we have of how God wants church to be.

One thing I am sure of is that to be ‘apostolic’ is to be ‘sent’.  So in my desire to understand this word, I’ve started by looking at how Jesus was sent.   In my read through of John, I noticed seven aspects of what it means for Jesus to be sent.

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Love

Timing

Kingdom

Rejection

Father

Home

This is the first of a series of blogs in which I’ll seek to explore those themes in John, in the hope to help you engage with the Bible and reflect on how God is sending you to the people you are called to bless, love and influence.

Before we unpack these aspects, consider this question:

Who are you sent to?

To follow Jesus is to be sent by the Father, that applies to all his disciples, wherever we are called.  To commute to work, or drive to the gym, (you could run or cycle there? – just saying) or turn up at the school gate, daily knowing that God has sent you, is a simple, essential shift in mindset.  When we realise that wherever we go in obedience to God’s call, we have an opportunity to bring hope, share truth, encourage and love.

Adventure in Kaunas day 2.

Lithuania blog day 2.

Last Tuesday I woke up in a bunk bed in a Catholic seminary in Lithuania, to find out how I got there, then you can read about last Monday here. (or watch the video here)

Having orientated where I was, I settled on my pillow to thank God.  It was an easy, joyful moment of prayer simply: ‘Thank you Father, you were brilliant yesterday”.

He had provided, He had shown himself as real and kind, He had totally taken care of us and given me evidence of the reality of His power and goodness.  I giggled with God about my journey of doubt, fear, anxiety and maybe even testing him on the way to Kaunas.

Still blown away and rejoicing we ate the breakfast the Catholic Youth centre staff had given us, enjoyed coffee from a teapot and washed away the dried sweat of unfounded anxiety in the Dousus. (Our new favourite word, found on a post-it note on the shower door)

Having landed connection, provision and accommodation the previous day, we had no plan, the day lay open before us, nothing fixed until 4pm.  When you are trusting God for his provision and can’t buy your own lunch, you have a whole chunk of day available.  We walked around the town, open to whatever God brought to us and he didn’t bring anyone, so we rested and trusted.

Our staff team at St.Chad’s are all detailed planners and I’ve built up a reputation that in contrast to them I’m not.  I like spontaneity, I respond to the urgent, I try to let tomorrow take care of itself until deadlines force my priorities.

It turns out however, that this isn’t true.  I like plans, I live with an agenda, purpose, target and to do list full of objectives to achieve.  This was God’s next agenda item for my learning.  Having prepared for the trip, built up for weeks the intensity and purpose, suddenly we just had to wait and be available.  Having no targets was a new form of powerlessness and dependence upon God.  I engaged with whole layers of frustration, anxiety and guilt at the difficulty of having nothing to achieve, these made me profoundly rest-less.  It took me until mid afternoon just to enjoy the place of rest and provision, just to receive the gift of a day in the sunshine, in a beautiful place with two friends, to chat and explore and laugh.  To receive rest as a gift is an act of obedience.

So we walked, talked, joked, laughed and made ourselves available to God.  We went to Kaunas’s junction of two rivers, aware that prophetic intercessors would probably have some deep revelation of the significance of place.  God didn’t give us one, but we had a great time throwing stones to hit a buoy (I only mentioned that because I won … eventually) IMG_4024

It’s amazing what you see in a city when you have no money.  Cutting out the whole paradigm of being a consumer, means you ignore shops, cafes, restaurants and advertising, you have no access to paid tourist sites.  Block these out and you see more beauty in a city, the people, buildings and what’s in the gaps.

Pilgrim not tourist

Pilgrim not tourist from Andy Crouch ‘Strong and Weak’.

As a pilgrim not a tourist, as a missionary not a consumer, I was more able to see the city through God’s eyes and let his love for it grow in me.

We visited a series of Catholic churches, and just dwelt there, enjoying the majesty and praying.  This was God’s next gift to me.  A radically new love for those many Catholics who are earnestly seeking for God.  In every church we visited there were women, silent in prayer.  We sat in the stunning Cathedral and enjoyed the art and architecture and then sat silently in the side chapel, a designated place of prayer, a helpful sign refused mobile phones and cameras.

 

Raised and trained as a Protestant Anglican, having studied theology, and pondered extensively for my book on ‘hollow religion’, I would have been very sensitive to the contrasts of this place and its traditions to the theology of the wing of the church I dwell in.  The reformation is an unavoidable part of our theological history and I believe God worked through it.  But having met the young passionate worshippers the day before and knowing God had taken us there to bless and pray, my focus shifted.  Not analysis, not comparing, not reacting, but choosing instead to bless.

I believe the Holy Spirit lives within us and wants to get out.  As I prayed, I simply asked him to pour out from within me and dwell in that place.  God gave me a deep love and longing for the many people who go there to seek him.  I simply prayed for that to increasingly become a place of encounter.  We all need to encounter God, we all need those moments of connection with the one who loves us, forgives us, accepts and welcomes us.  To be in this place of prayer, I was touched by the many who go there daily to be with God.  Some with a longing generous heart of gratitude or petition for God’s blessing on others.  But also those who were there in fear and superstition, those there in duty or religious process of trying to appease God or earn his favour.

In simple longing, I asked the Holy Spirit to establish these church as wells of living water.  That those consumed by religious superstition, fearful duty, or shame or striving to earn his favour, would be surprised by Him, encounter his grace, acceptance and unconditional love.  God had taken me there to deposit a blessing, and to shift my perspective.  God took me to a Catholic city, to pray for renewal, for hope and the fact He had done this demonstrated his abundant love which transcends theological differences.  It was a simple moment of theory becoming reality in my life.

Millions of Catholics across the world have a hunger for God and barriers which would prevent them finding him in other denominations.  So how about this for a strategy from the Holy Spirit: to bring renewal of faith, grace and the good news within the Catholic Church?  I prayed for Pope Francis, a man God has called to shape history.

At 4pm we attended a BBQ at the Youth Centre we’d connected with the previous day.  ClN1xPXWEAAhWuF.jpg-largeIt was great to hang out with the students and encourage them, we went on to a Taize service which was beautiful space to worship and subtly intercede for those around us.  Then open to God we just lingered to see what happened.  Two young men turned up, Matas who we’d met the day before and Teddy, who we had never met.  Amidst banter and some random linguistic cultural exchanges, we saw in them a hunger to connect, to cross the first layer of chat and talk with us more deeply.

When the centre closed, they left with us, taking us to climb a hill and enjoy stunning views of the city.   This became the next set-up from God.  As we walked and talked with them, they opened their hearts.  As three church leaders with a longing to empower and disciple young men, God had taken us to two young men who needed wise counsel and encouragement.  The Holy Spirit was at work in all five of us that night.Kaunas - 11 (1)

Reflecting back, this trip wasn’t just about God teaching us to trust, rest and love others from different church traditions.  Much of the reason we went was not for us, but for them.  Pilgrimage and mission are about being available to God to bless others.  God chose to use us to impact them (and vice versa)  We didn’t go merely for risk and adventure.  We went for them, we went with a desire to bless and God used it.

13433107_10154298453759703_7119781326205410162_oMatas wanted to used his last €16 to buy us a simple Pizza to share, as we arrived at the restaurant he bumped into a Christian friend, as he explained what he was doing, this friend gave him €10 to bless us.  We were able to feast on pizza, beer and friendship.  Our final unanswered prayer (to taste Lithuanian Wheat-beer) was now fully answered.

So what does God want to teach you this week?  For all of you who have kindly read this far, I pray this: “God, surprise us with your fresh gifts.  We trade our comforts for your adventure, our fears for trust and ask simply for new experiences of what you are doing around us.” 

Having read this story, how will you approach tomorrow?

God’s provision in a risky adventure to Kaunas

I live and serve in suburbia and a large national institution provides me with a comfortable life.  Almost every activity and ministry I do is required to have a risk assessment.  I long to see the power and provision of God….

In March I bumped into my friend Luke Smith, when I mentioned my sabbatical, he asked me to join him for Escape and Pray in the summer, I couldn’t grab an excuse fast enough so I ducked the offer with a promise to pray about it.  Within a few hours as I listened to a talk on risk and adventure, the Holy Spirit nudged me and said “If you really want to see me work, then you’ve got to put yourself in places where you depend on me”.  I vowed to the Lord that I’d say yes to Luke.

Kaunas - 1 (1)Escape and Pray is a wild initiative run by Fusion an amazing organisation which equips and inspires students and churches in mission together.  This June they are sending 333 people in 100 teams, (mostly students) into Europe to pray for a move of God in universities across the continent.  Each team is sent a pack plus a date and time to turn up at a certain airport.   When they arrive, they open the pack put on their T-shirts and open an envelope to discover where they are heading and their flight tickets. They go with no food and accommodation booked, (just €20 for emergencies) they trust in God to provide.

The team:

IMG_4094Luke Smith: works for Fusion, building teams, linking with churches and having creative radical ideas.  He’s become a good friend in recent years, including our shared love for sport and sympathy in being ginger.

Dave Tonks: a brilliant Scouse church leader from Chester, who I had never met before Monday, but will be a lifelong friend now.

The team dynamic was a highlight of the trip, great honour and support, easy communication and quality banter. I loved spending time with them both.

Kaunas

Pronounced (Ko-nus) is the second city of Lithuania, population is c.300,000, of which 50,000 are students.  The city centre is beautiful, at the intersection of two rivers it has a clean, open, gentle feel to it.  Some traditional architecture survived the Soviets and many churches and older buildings too, we walked past many stylish cafes and bars.  It is somewhere I’d take Nells back to for a romantic weekend!

We arrived at Luton at 6am on Monday morning and opened the envelope to discover we were heading to Kaunus in Lithuania, to be honest, none of us had ever heard of it!

We filled up with a big breakfast, prayed and set off. (We were constantly praying through the whole trip)

Flight was straightforward and we arrived at the airport, picked up tourist maps and asked the taxi drivers how far it was to walk to the city centre.  They laughed at us!  We found a good spot to hitch-hike and within a minute a big Audi stopped, the passenger spoke English and they happily took us to the city centre in comfort. (about 20km away and off their route)

IMG_3993We looked around the city, found a prominent church, which was beautiful but no one spoke to us.
We walked down the main street and an old man enthusiastically chatted to us, attaching himself to us as tour guide.  He led us to the old town, and disappeared.  There we found an Ignatian college, Luke is pursuing the Ignition scripture meditation exercises and we were there for students so we rang the doorbell.  We were immediately welcomed in, we explained our story and purpose and asked to meet and pray for the college director.  Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 15.55.35The kind woman who let us in took us upstairs and found some colleagues including the English teacher.  We chatted for a while, asking about the college, its Ignatian principles and as we did so, my caffeine addiction kicked in.  I simply thought ‘I wonder if they’ll give us some coffee’.  Within seconds our host interrupted herself and said  “Sorry, we’re standing, come and sit down, would you like some coffee?”  They were lovely, and over coffee, water and amazing biscuits gave us insight into the city and directed us to the local Jesuit priest and mass at his church at 5pm.

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The Main square in ‘old town’

We turned up for mass a few minutes late and sat through it, not understanding a word, but recognising the structure.  At the end the priest disappeared, so we grabbed a young man in the row in front and introduced ourselves.  Again we explained our story and why we’d come.  He was amazed and said “Wow, these things never happen to me!”

He then phoned his friend Agne and said I’ll take you to meet my friends.  We walked across the city square and into a building to find ourselves in the Kaunas Arch-diocese Catholic Youth centre.  We met a couple of the staff and some of the students, who used it as a social base a bit like a Chaplaincy.

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A Lithuanian delicacy

Their English was amazing, (true for all those under 25 we met) and they invited us in, offering food and drinks.
A group of about 12 students and youth centre staff gathered around and we talked.  We discovered that they were passionate for Jesus and shared our taste in worship music and hunger for the Holy Spirit.  Ange made a couple of calls and then told us that she’d sorted out accommodation for us in a spare room in a local seminary.  After a while someone suggested we worship and pray together.

We went through to an open meeting room, someone opened in a brief liturgical prayer and then we worshipped, all facing the cross, with a guitar and songs with familiar tunes but in Lithuanian.  It was spontaneous and passionate worship of Jesus.  Luke, Dave and I then offered to pray for each of them, so we went round as they worshipped and laid hands on each on, sharing specific prophetic words for each of them and encouraging them.  It was stunning in every way, to see the Holy Spirit impact them and to see their freedom, joy, friendships and desire to know God.  Just like earlier in the year in Mumbai, God reminded me that the simplest way to cross cultural barriers is to boldly lay hands on someone’s shoulder, speak out prophetically whatever the Holy Spirit gives me and pray for healing wherever possible. IMG_4003

Kaunas - 8After that, we were taken out of the city to a retreat house log cabin in the woods, where a team were training and preparing for a children’s camp this summer.  We shared our story and then we offered prophesy or prayer for healing to everyone. There were about 20 teenagers and students there (and a Nun) and they all came forward to be prayed for.  We prophesied, prayed for personal needs and for healing.  One 17yr old lad who had lung problems (asthma, I think) said he felt extreme heat in his lungs as I prayed for him and then they felt very clear and breathing easier.  The Nun was so humble and hungry for God and asked me to pray for healing for her too.
We were buzzing!

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Kaunas Fort

 

We played silly games with them late into the evening and then returned to Kaunus and taken to the empty seminary building, where beds had been made up, we had our own kitchen, bathroom and they gave us food for breakfast and the next day.  From our window we looked straight onto Kaunas’s Medieval fort.

 

 

Reflections

Before God acts, all we have is trust.  As we flew there, I trusted God would provide, but I had no idea how and I had a whole bunch of fears about worse case scenarios.  Underneath each of those fears was a lie about the character of God.  One of those fears for me was that God would provide for other teams, but not us.  I had to recognise and let go of a bunch of lies: That we didn’t matter to God, that we didn’t have enough faith and that it depended on us and that God might make it hard for us to teach us a lesson.

As the day unravelled those fears and lies shrank and disappeared, to be replaced by faith and joy.  This side of the story, the whole thing seems so natural, it was so easy and God so kindly placed it all together

God had us totally available, because we were dependent upon him.  So he took us somewhere we’d never have planned to go, and took us to a group of people whom he wanted to encourage. This trip wasn’t just for us, it was for Kaunas, for a community of young disciples of Jesus, to see that God is real and that they matter to him.

More to follow…

Kaunas - 20

Why do you search for the living, among the dead?

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“Why do you search for the Living amongst the dead?”

They had travelled from Galilee, served his practical needs, hung on his every word, and watched him die.  Where else would they search?

They had seen him battered and bleeding, mocked and mutilated, seen the spear plunged into his side and his body carried from that horrific cross to the cold tomb of a rich stranger. Where else would he be?

They had cringed at his pain, feared his enemies and felt angry with his betrayers.  They had spent the sabbath waiting and spent their money on embalming spices.

What more could they do?

And they are greeted with an obtuse question…

Why do you search for the living among the dead?

If the Resurrection happened today in the UK, I wonder whether the grieving women would have taken offence at the angel’s question?  We live in a culture wracked by insecurities, each covered with defence mechanisms.   I can imagine a modern reaction would have been to try to justify themselves or find fault, blaming this radiant man in the garden as harsh and cruel.

But the women weren’t like us.

They were humble, they had listened to Jesus and they remembered his words.

The question came, as everything does from heaven – saturated in love.

God doesn’t ask us questions in order to find out information.

He asks us questions to pull us out of earth’s story to be a part of heaven’s story.

On earth, all was black and desolate.

Strangers lost in a hostile city, grieving their closest friend,  directionless without their leader and bereft of their shield and protector.  Their band had dispersed, the movement was over, the vision had died.

In heaven, all was glory and victory.

The conquering hero had returned, with captives set free and the keys of death in his hands.  The beloved son had fulfilled his mission, had shown his amazing love and trust, the Father had demonstrated his power and the Spirit was just waiting to launch a new era of hope.

The angelic man in the garden asked a simple question to pull them from one story to another.

Why does God ask us questions? –

So that we see things differently.

He wants to take our minds away from the bleak or mundane anxieties of earth and into the hope-fuelled joy of heaven.

Away from the poverty of earth, into the glorious riches of our inheritance.

From fear, into faith.

From passivity, into purpose.

From decay, into creativity.

From anxiety, into prayer.

Away from cynical dismissal of what’s unseen, into being sure of what is hoped for.

The one who taught us not to worry, knows the questions to ask, to help us see differently.

Why do you search for the living, amongst the dead.? –

 He is not here, he has risen.