Sunday – Home

For Easter this year at St.Chads we have created a prayer trail in our building, and we’re hosting 450+ guests from our community through the weekend to come and pray, reflect and learn. For each day I wrote short accounts of the story from the perspective of an unnamed disciple. Sharing them here to help you worship Jesus this weekend.

I always thought home was Capernaum, my lovely village by the lake … My parents, grandparents, Passover parties, the smell of fresh fish cooking in the market and Uncle Bart arguing in the synagogue.  It was a struggle to leave when Jesus asked me to come with Him, but I loved the adventure: the mind-blowing miracles, staying with strangers in dodgy bits of town, enemies becoming family, the sheer size and noise of that temple in Jerusalem and those crazy late night conversations under the stars.  

When Jesus died, part of me wanted to rush home, back to the safety of the familiar, back to those fish kebabs and the family times.  But that wasn’t home anymore.  Home had become wherever I was with Jesus. And when Jesus spoke of His father and His home, He was talking about Heaven. I wanted Him. I wanted that home.

I was lying under that blanket, trying to cling to that thought of home and escape the nightmare of Him gone, when the commotion suddenly burst my bubble.  Peter and John were up, racing to get out of the house. Women were chatting, men were laughing.  I heard mocking sarcasm, guffaws as Philip jumped up and spilt a bowl of hummus all over James, and the bewildered joy as we started to believe the news.

On Thursday Jesus had told us He was going home, to prepare a home for us.  I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about. One of those mysterious moments when He said something deep and we all pretended to understand, until Philip asked the stupid question for us.

That day I learned where home really is and I found the way to get there.

Saturday – Hope

For Easter this year at St.Chads we have created a prayer trail in our building, and we’re hosting 450+ guests from our community through the weekend to come and pray, reflect and learn. For each day I wrote short accounts of the story from the perspective of an unnamed disciple. Sharing them here to help you worship Jesus this weekend.

That storm on Lake Galilee was petrifying. I thought it would all end that night – even the fishermen were trembling. And Jesus slept through it, knowing it would be ok. 

But that storm was nothing compared to the storm in my heart the day after Jesus died. He had gone and at first we weren’t even sure what they’d done with the body. And how could we find out? We certainly weren’t going to ask any Romans. 

It was a worse storm than that one on the lake, because this one was in my heart. That feeling in a storm when everything is outside of your control, moving, throwing you around? Everything that is normally still and familiar now totally disorientating and scary? That was what was going on inside me. I had never been so afraid. 

He was our world, our hope, our future. He was the one who made it all make sense. But on that Saturday? Nothing made sense in that moment. All we had left was each other. There were some tensions, (after all, we were all suffering, scared and irritable), but the love He’d taught us ran deeper.  

And that’s what I learned that day. That love is the bedrock; the only thing to cling to in a storm.

Friday – Help

For Easter this year at St.Chads we have created a prayer trail in our building, and we’re hosting 450+ guests from our community through the weekend to come and pray, reflect and learn. For each day I wrote short accounts of the story from the perspective of an unnamed disciple. Sharing them here to help you worship Jesus this weekend.

We felt so helpless. The soldiers took Him away and the whole town turned against us. What could we do? The world turned upside down that night, and we had no idea how to handle it.  One minute, we’re planning Jesus taking charge of Jerusalem and establishing a new Kingdom. The next we can’t even mention that we know Him, for fear of our lives. I have never felt so desperate, lost and confused. It started to rip us apart as a group too. The shepherd was gone and we sheep started to scatter: Judas a traitor, Peter really going into his shell, (no idea what was going on there, but he wasn’t himself).  I had no idea what to do with myself.  My “Help” was gone.

We could only imagine what the soldiers would do to Him in the barracks; those Romans were brutal. It was worse than we feared. They led Him out, carrying his cross, covered in blood, through those baying, spitting crowds. His back was ripped to strips and His head a mess with that hideous crown.

Looking back now, I can hardly believe He did all that, for me.

We thought He needed our help, but all along He was the one helping us. 

We thought He needed rescuing from violence and injustice, but all along He was rescuing us from the mess of our sin.

Thursday – Love

For Easter this year at St.Chads we have created a prayer trail in our building, and we’re hosting 450+ guests from our community through the weekend to come and pray, reflect and learn. For each day I wrote short accounts of the story from the perspective of an unnamed disciple. Sharing them here to help you worship Jesus this weekend.

The journey to Jerusalem had lasted months, with all sorts of adventures along the way.   It was Passover week when we finally arrived, and the city was buzzing for the biggest festival of the year.  Each night we stayed with friends nearby in Bethany, and travelled into Jerusalem in the daytime, for Jesus to preach about his Kingdom. He really riled those religious types in the temple courts.  

On the Thursday night, somehow Jesus miraculously arranged a room in the city for us to celebrate Passover together. As always, there was plenty of chat at the meal. We talked about how Jesus had got people talking, and really stirred things up. 

It was intimate though too. Jesus led us through the wonderful story of the Passover, which seems so poignant now, after all that’s happened.  Then he did something I’ll never forget. He took off his cloak, wrapped a towel around his waist and started washing our feet!  I didn’t know how to take it at first. He was our Rabbi, our master: He was the one we all looked up to, but He was behaving like the lowest servant.  

That was the night that we discovered that Judas was the snake in the grass.  Jesus knew. You could tell in His eyes.  Looking back, the comments He made when they both dipped their bread in the dish together make more sense now.  But there was no malice, or anger in Jesus.  Even at that lowest point of betrayal, He somehow managed to love.   

So much happened that week. There were show-downs at the temple, praising crowds became baying mobs, Romans and Pharisees conspired together, Jesus made outrageous claims about His kingdom and got into debates about religious laws and the end of the world. One by one, they turned against Him… but He never turned against them.

Mothering Sunday – a reflection

My stunning wife is an amazing Mother.  Our eldest is 17 tomorrow, the first Sunday of his life was Mothering Sunday, which we celebrate again today.  I thoroughly enjoyed helping our youngest spread the marmite on her toast the way she likes it for breakfast in bed today.  Over the past 17 years one of my most regular prayers of thanks has been for the way she mothers our boys.  So patient, so intuitively able to turn anger and tears into laughter and peace.  So fair (which matters with 4 boys close in age) she treats each as an individual and nurtures each relationship.  So sacrificial, the early years of morning sickness, sleeplessness, all those nappies and now the late nights of being available to chat, clearing up the endless crockery around the house and serving them.  I was also blessed to be raised by an amazing mother, who shared these beautiful traits and added to them compassion and sympathy when I was ill. (something my Doctor wife hasn’t yet fully mastered with me and yet I’ve seen that gift in her as a mum…. hmmm) 

The Bible teaches us that love begins with God.  It flows from his throne in heaven, through all his creation, bringing creative live and compassionate restoration.  The Hebrew word ‘Hesed captures beyond English translations, the loving kindness, commitment, faithfulness, mercy of God.  Psychologists rooted in evolutionary worldview make interesting reflections on how humans nurture for longer than most other mammals and how this is part of our natural selection.  Having read Psalm 8 this morning, I believe contrary to that, the nurturing love of mothers is part of the great outflow of God’s love in and through his creation.

How can we show that same love today?

Glance through social media and you’ll see how apt my wife’s choice of spread for her breakfast in bed is.  Today could be a day which polarises, a day we either love or hate. 

I honestly didn’t know whether to begin this blog by acknowledging the pain of Mothering Sunday or the celebration of the ‘Hesed love which God has placed in creation. I have been ordained for seventeen years and each year in each church we have considered how to both grieve and celebrate.  Pete Grieg’s stunning Mother’s Day prayer  captures the compassion we need on this day for all for whom it is a day of grief.

To be honest as a married father with children, I have been anxious about how to approach mothering Sunday, recognising the pain of many women who longed to be a mother, but haven’t been and the pain of those who grieve mothers who have died or broken relationships.  This year that is all the more acute for those unable to visit those they love. 

My mistake over the years has been to start with the question has been ‘how do we avoid upsetting people today?’  That becomes a defensive posture and can lead to tokenism and the trap of ‘whataboutism’.  I’ve wrestled with the traps of not triggering pain, whilst also not denying the opportunity to celebrate something wonderful and a part of our family whom we want to honour.    Some opt for the focus on ‘the Mother church’ tradition and origins of this day, but when our schools, supermarkets and social media are all about Mother’s day, I’m reticent to be totally out of touch with that.  The love expressed by nurturing others is to be celebrated, the sheer hard work or mothering, is also worth honouring, yes its a privilege, but it also includes plenty of pain. 

Over the years I have learned to ask a better question.  ‘How do we love all we come into contact with today?’ (Or now; ‘all who watch our services’)  

Polarising works well for marketing yeast-based savoury spread, but either/or thinking doesn’t propagate love.  We love best with ‘BOTH/AND’.

The apostle Paul gives us two simple, but profoundly important verses to help us love well on Mothering Sunday. 

Romans 12:15 

15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

1 Corinthians 12:26 

26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together

Let’s do that. 

My top 10 books of 2020

One of the joys of 2020? – Reading.

Each year I set myself a 50 books target, despite lock-down, I didn’t make it in 2020, (long books) but did read some cracking titles.  I’ve selected my top 10 here, a range of genres and having made the top ten, I haven’t ranked them, but share them in alphabetical order of author’s surname. 

1. Tod Bolsinger – Canoeing the Mountains.

From the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s first press conference in March, to the many reviews of the year in December, one most used word of 2020 was ‘unprecedented’.  Bolsinger’s approach to Christian leadership in uncharted territory, creatively links his key themes to the narrative adventure of Lewis and Clarke searching for a waterway to the Pacific.  It was written pre-Covid, but all the more helpful because of Covid.  His central thesis is that we are now leading in brand new cultural territory and need innovative, adaptive, missional leadership.  Bolsinger, totally rooted in orthodox biblical faith, is realistic and insightful about the new challenges we face, post-Christendom.  I loved his balance, his faith, his gracious emphasis on healthy relationships and his courage to believe that the church is free to think differently, because we are led by God.

2.David Brooks – The Social Animal

Jonathan Sacks and David Brooks are my personal writers of the year.  I have really appreciated Brooks’ writing this year, with the Social Animal being up there as joint winner of my ‘book of the year’.  Blending narrative and psychology, this book is an abundant feast of insight, research and understanding of living a satisfying, relationally healthy life.  In all 3 of Brooks’s books I have read, he calls us to live more deeply, with more authentic values.  This book is structured almost as a novel/biography about a couple’s life, I felt genuine engagement with them both.  On the journey, you will be treated to fascinating scientific and neurological insights, in an accessible form, not least about the powerful influence of our subconscious and intuition.  I shared with my 16 year old, who loved it too, for both of us I think we’d say this is a book which makes sense of the human condition and wiser in how to live and love.

3.Carol Dweck – Mindset

A fairly simple book, which has one central thesis, sticks to it and makes a strong case.  In some ways this book is summed up in the introduction and takes too long to ram home the point.  The reason it appears in my top ten, is that the point she makes is a brilliant one and has impacted my thinking every day since.  Contrasting a ‘growth’ mindset with a ‘fixed’ mindset has opened my eyes to the beauty of living with the humility of wisdom instead of the defensiveness of pride.  Sadly my sons may have had too many school assemblies on this book, and as a result cynically dismiss the key message, but I hope it has inspired our parenting too.  This contrast is hugely helpful as a grid to review the blame, cynicism, criticism and populism which blight our world.  The other greatest commendation I can give Dweck is that she brings into popular C21st psychology the ancient truths of the books or Proverbs.  Wisdom and a humble teachable life are far better than pride based on defending knowledge. 

4. Ken Follett – The Eye of the Needle.

Of the 14 novels I read/listened to in 2020 this one makes the top ten list.  A classic spy-thriller which had me gripped from the very start.  The characterisation is excellent, plot well paced and suspense genuine.  All I can say is that my dog and my wife thoroughly enjoyed the few days when I reached the final third of the book, our walks were twice the usual length, and I was willing to do the supermarket shopping, any excuse to keep on listening.  

5. Daniel Kahneman – Thinking Fast and Slow

In many ways complimentary with Brooks (and Haidt in 2018) Kahnemann opens up the fascinating subject of our intuition.  Drawing on a decades of fascinating research into behavioural science, Kahneman contrasts two types of thought, ‘systems 1 & 2’, highlighting the impact of our intuition and emotional thinking.  As well as helping me reflect on how we think and communicate, the book is packed with accounts of fascinating tests and trials, which I immediately wanted to discuss with my family.

6. Ben Lindsay – We need to talk about Race

In the summer of 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic, following the murder of George Floyd by a Police officer, the Holy Spirit woke many of us up to the painful reality of systemic racism, me included.  As a white person I hadn’t given this subject enough thought.  Ben Lindsay’s honest, compelling book about the damage caused by privilege and silence from a majority culture, in particular in the Western church was deeply challenging.  Written in an accessible way, well researched in history and sociology, but not swamped with academic data, Lindsay’s prophetic call for change stirred me and I hope re-shaped my ways of thinking and leading.

7. Ian Parkinson – Understanding Christian Leadership

Ian’s magnum opus on Christian leadership is thorough, deep and will be an invaluable resource for the church for years to come.  I knew Ian had read and researched widely on the subject, as well as his own experiences of leading, mentoring and teaching in a variety of contexts.  I hadn’t realised how much he could authoritatively draw on and make accessible his research of this subject.  Ian argues convincingly for the value of Christian leadership, rebutting the cynical dismissal of ‘leadership’ as a secular invention with no theological roots.  He does so however in a way that wisely draws to the heart of biblical distinctive of kingdom leadership, rooted in the humility of Christ, servanthood and leadership as loving others not seeking power. 

8. Jonathan Sacks – Covenant and Conversation – Leviticus

Since discovering his writing in early 2019, I have read 7 of Jonathan Sacks’ books, (more than 2,500 pages).  For most of 2020, I read one essay of his ‘Covenant and Conversation’ series on the Torah each day.  Rather than fill this list with these, I have selected just one (which felt like picking a favourite child) and did so on the basis of delight.  Having completed Genesis and Exodus & Lessons in Leadership (see below) I turned with some reluctance to Leviticus.  I mean, don’t we all do that when we move from Exodus to Leviticus?  I can still remember the joyful buzz as I read his introduction to this book.  I was dumbstruck by its brilliance, he somehow managed to open my eyes and stir my hunger to get to know Leviticus!  Bringing insight, which was fresh to me, of: holiness, calling, God’s presence, sabbath, the purpose of law and the distinctives of priest, prophet and king, Sacks brought the book of Leviticus alive for me.  Whilst he did not acknowledge Jesus as the fulfilment of all of this, his deep rooted faith and honour of scripture and his wise, generous, gracious insights into the modern world have made Sacks one of my heroes and I am forever grateful that his writings have deepened my love for the Torah.

9. Jonathan Sacks – Lessons in Leadership

Accompanying his phenomenal ‘Covenant and Conversation’ series on the Torah (first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible) Jonathan Sacks drew together the key lessons from these and his many years in leadership to give this excellent book on leadership.  By reflecting on leadership in the light of the Bible, and with big picture understanding of the age we live in, Sacks gives us some deep Biblical truth about how to lead and love.  I particularly appreciated his emphasis on: taking responsibility and avoiding blame, healthy relationships, trust, courage arising from faith, empowering others and as mentioned above the distinctives of priest, prophet and king.  For anyone wanting to root their leadership in a deep reading of the Bible, I would start here.

10 Mark Sayers – Reappearing Church

I loved Sayers’ thesis in Disappearing Church, I love his insights into contemporary global changes and in Reappearing Church, I love his faith and hope.  His understanding of the world we live in is amazing, but he doesn’t stop at being an analyst, he writes with a compelling belief that God’s renewal and partnership with us in prayer is the hope of the world.  The daunting pace of cultural change around us and the apparent sophistication and complexity of a secular world can be disorientating.  Calling us back to a vision for renewal and prayer, and stripping the gloss off the emptiness of secularism, this book will stir you to pray and encourage you that God’s plans for the church can be a source of hope.

Conclusion

I’ve shared all ten of these, to celebrate great research and writing and above all to encourage others to read.  The pressures of life, the ease of digital communications and entertainment can distract us from the life giving, intellect-stimulating benefits of a good book.  During lock-down, I realised afresh the satisfying delight of wise writing and fresh insight, I offer these to you in the hope that you might too.  

And finally, Covid has been a catalyst for economic changes of online purchasing, the rich have got richer and the poor poorer through this.  As a matter of justice, please consider wisely who you buy your books from. 

One option is to use UKBookshop.org which arranges payments to small independent bookshops and you can nominate your choice. I recommend St Andrew’s bookshop.

What type of leader are you, (in a crisis)?

Monday 16th March 2020, I woke up with a new sense of urgency, a flow of creativity, direction and purpose.  The previous few weeks had been busy, but from somewhere a new gear of leadership energy kicked in, as we faced the Coronavirus outbreak and decisions needed to be made.

That week was full of emergency meetings, decisions, delegation and communication.  I was operating in ‘Ruler’ mode, because my team and my church needed me to take a lead in a crisis. I knew that this was a temporary phase, a reordering of life and reimagining of church, the rhythms of life changed dramatically and would do so in the weeks to come.  Dramatic change, brings uncertainty, in ‘Ruler’ mode, we needed to act decisively, to be ahead of the curve and bring whatever clarity we could to ease anxiety.

In the midst of that crazy week, the discussions rolled along online about reimagining church.  What would virtual church look like for our church? Could we go into our buildings? What rhythms of worship does the church need right now?  What messages of hope and understanding the season do our people need right now? Whilst operating in ‘Ruler’ mode, I realised the distinction in these discussions was between the priestly perspective and prophetic perspective.

The world needs different types of leadership.  Not everyone can be a king/queen and too many rulers cause tribalism and factions.  Not many leaders need to lead in ‘Ruler’ mode for long, it’s a mode which responds to crises and gets projects completed, but God’s people need spiritual leadership.  There are a few good and a lot of bad examples of rulers in the Bible, and we look to build the one kingdom, with one king, Jesus.  If we lead only from ‘ruler’ ‘mode, we’ll ignore the real kingdom and burn out our people.  Leaders, be aware that ‘Ruler’ is a temporary operating mode.  Leading in the next stage we need to know whether God has made us Prophetic or Priestly.  And then we need to know how to value those who aren’t like us. [The theme of priesthood develops significantly in the New Testament and Church history, to avoid confusion, I am referring to the priestly/prophetic voice as personality type, rather than role of vocation.]

My thinking in this area has been inspired by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ weekly readings of the Hebrew Bible.  In his reflections on week 8 of Exodus Tetzaveh (Exodus 27.10-30.20) he makes fascinating distinctions between Priests (kohen) and Prophets (navi). Drawing on the debates between the great sages of the middle ages, Maimonides and Nahmanides.  Here’s a simplified table of the distinctions Sacks gives us of Hebrew priesthood.

Priestly Prophetic
Succession Dynastic (passed down family line) Vocations (individual called by God)
Uniform Robes of office No uniform, same clothes as everyone else
Social role Distinct from people, separate job Lives amongst people, did ‘normal’ job
Honoured Rules and social convention of respect By being listened to for what they say
Worship Sacrifices, rituals, silence Spoken word
Key words Pure, impure, sacred, secular justice, love, righteousness, compassion
Key verbs Instruct, teach, distinguish respond, change
Personality Role before personality Each individual prophet charisma and distinctive voice
Time cyclical, rhythms, patterns, routine historical, seasonal, kairos
Prayer rhythms, duty, liturgy, obedient relational, responsive, extempore,
Disposition consistent, obedient, law abiding Passionate, spontaneous, 

 

Have a glance through that table and reflect on where you’d place yourself on each layer of that spectrum.

I’ve found this distinction hugely stimulating in understanding myself and seeking to understand the parts of the Church of England that think very differently from me.  I am undoubtedly on the far brink of the ‘prophetic’ end of the scale, called to serve in a denomination in which many value the priestly role.  The table I’ve given you is simplified, read Sacks (Covenant & Conversation: Exodus, and Lessons in Leadership) for more on this.

To give a different angle on this let me share something from my prayer time this morning.  I was using an imagination prayer exercise in which I invite the Holy Spirit to guide me and then in my imagination place myself in a particular peaceful location and invite one of the Trinity to come and meet with me.  Today, my heart longed for the Father, we sat on a bench in my garden and I let him speak to me.  In my imagination, the Father invited me to get up from the bench and walk around my garden with him.  He started commenting and asking questions about our garden and my gardening. (Maybe he was answering my wife’s prayers, she wants me to be gardening not writing today!)  I responded in some surprise, why was the Father so interested in the garden, when there is so much mess, sin, confusion in my heart to process. I could tell the questions he was asking me about the garden, were to reveal more of my heart.  Then I started to consider different types of gardening.  The priestly role is to cut the grass,  prune the hedges and flowers, harvest the fruit and water and feed where necessary.  The ruler role is to make decisive action; chop off branches, clear overgrown areas, uproot the brambles.  The prophetic role, is to reimagine the garden, think through the seasons, consider the vistas, plant those things which will be beautiful for generations to come.

Responding to this season

We find ourselves in a significant moment of change.  Responding to the Coronavirus pandemic, and the impact of self isolation and sharing in a single focus globally.  Dramatic change of season, requires reimagining our leadership role and I believe different phases of a crisis will require different aspects of leadership.  (I would say that, I’m more prophetic than priestly!)

The initial response for many of us was the ruler role, deciding, delegating and changing.

But now as we settle into sustained period of lock down, is your leadership priestly or  prophetic?  What does the shape of what you give your time to tell you about this?  What does your response to the rules not to stream services from your church building tell you about yourself?  

Times of dramatic change expose our priorities.  We jettison those things we think of no value and hold fast to what we believe matters.  Seeing what matters to other clergy through their posts on social media, highlights this contrast to me.  The debates about celebrating eucharist alone or representatively particularly highlight our prophetic:priestly distinctions.  (The Ad Clerum from one Bishop (different diocese) to their clergy on eucharist baffled me.)

I’m sure all of us have had to look at our priorities very differently in this season and I’ve found seeing them through the lens of prophetic or priestly, hugely helpful to recognise why I’ve made choices which differ from other leaders and to be at peace about that.  I’ve also seen how this shapes my delegation to members of our team, where do I need to balance what we do collectively?

Your answer to the question: ’What leadership does my church need right now?’ Will be shaped by where you are on the priest-prophet spectrum.  If you have a priestly disposition, you will prioritise daily prayer, collective worship and familiar rhythms. Through times of change, you will be bringing hope and assurance, through consistency. 

If you are more prophetic, you will probably be giving your time to Bible studies that help us navigate this historical moment wisely, reflecting on what God is doing and batting away some of the heretical wacky prophetic stuff that’s going around.   You will be bringing hope through words of truth and assurance of the bigger story of God’s rule. 

What leadership will we need in the next season?
As well as the now, we need to be considering what is to come.  This season will end, we don’t know how or when, but it will end. But the world and the church, will be very different from what they were at the start of March 2020.  One way of describing this season is a sharp winter’s frost, those things which are not healthy and deeply rooted in the vine (John 15) will die and new life will grow. 

As leaders, we need to be prayerfully seeking God about how to rebuild and regrow society and the church in the next season.  I’ve been re-reading the Creation narratives in Genesis to meditate on that and recently read Ezra and Nehemiah too.  Again, how we do this will draw on our priestly and prophetic dispositions.  

It seems to me that this a dramatic shift in culture, requires prophetic leadership. (Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel, John the Baptist and many others were the loud voices at times of dramatic change.  Jesus is of course Prophet, Priest and King.  The priestly roles were given to Moses (a prophet) in the wilderness and patterns established in the tabernacle, which became foundational when the people settled in the promised land. 

As we look ahead and prepare to lead in the next season, we will need seeds and stories.

Seeds

The word ‘Seed’ (Heb. ‘zera’) appears in the 11th verse of the Bible.  God created seeds very early, (day 3) they are an essential part of his creation and feature throughout scripture.  They are a miraculous piece of creation, something so small, seemingly dead, containing the whole dna to grow into a complex, growing, regenerating, reproducing organism.  

What we plant now, will grow into what will grow in the next season.  

What we pray now, will shape what happens in the years to come

What we teach now, (across the internet) will reproduce in the lives of those we lead.  And we will be scattering further by the internet than our immediate congregations.
What seeds are you scattering and sowing now for what is to come?

Stories

Humans are meaning makers. Victor Frankl’s stunning teaching on our search for meaning, was born in the midst of crisis and horror, and taught us about how we respond not react to dramatic change.  

The story we tell about this pandemic and its impact on the world, will shape the way people understand themselves, society and life.  Social media is an amazing technology for spreading stories.  Memes are snapshots of the stories we are telling.  Take a look at what stories your feed are telling.  Consider how different media tell different stories, (don’t let twitter get you down, it’s just angry people shouting in a room) 

What stories are we telling?  

Loo-rolls or foodbanks.

Everyone is so selfish, or ‘in this together’.

Obey those in authority or criticise politicians who aren’t from your party.

God is angry, or God is gracious?

The role of a priest, is to consistently enact and retell the eternal story of God.

The role of a prophet, is to respond to God in season and help others live in God’s story, not the one they’re telling themselves

We need priests and prophets right now. 

We need you to use the gifts God has given you, to be the leader he made you to be.

Solitude

Silence and Solitude

Our life’s pursuit is to get to know God.  Others can help, but we will never know God unless we spend time alone with Him.  The spiritual discipline of silence and solitude is essential for growth into maturity.

This blog was originally written as a prayer triplet/quad discussion resource.  I have adapted it for personal use at the start of the CoronaVirus outbreak as many people go into self isolation. There are questions throughout (in bold) you can reflect on these alone, or if using this with other discuss together.

This resource is in 3 parts.

  • An introduction to the theme of silence & solitude.
  • Silence with God
  • Practical habits to create space for silence.

Silence and Solitude

It is possible (& powerful) to share silence with others, but the silence we will explore here implies solitude.  It is also possible to experience solitude without silence, we can fill our time alone with all sorts of noise or stimulus.  The focus of this reflection is the times when we are both alone and silent, for the sake of clarity, instead of writing ‘silence and solitude’ repeatedly, I will assume solitude when writing about silence.

Our personal response to silence.

How do you feel about silence? 

Is it something you love, or hate? 

Embrace or run from?

Silence from a psychological perspective.

Before looking at God’s gift of silence, as a spiritual disciplines, we will all carry certain psychological and social perspectives on silence.  These need to be recognised and explored first, before considering silence as a spiritual discipline.

Extroverts and Introverts

We all have a different approach to silence, because God created us each differently.

One way psychologists recognise different personality types is the distinction between extroverts and introverts.  Whilst we might commonly use these terms to describe loud/chatty people, in contrast to those who are quieter or more reserved, the technical distinction is where we ‘get our energy from’.

  • Extroverts are energised by human contact, they come alive when spending time with people.
  • Introverts are energised by time alone, they refuel by solitude and find it refreshing to get away from it all.

Humans are more complicated than any simplistic distinctions – this is a scale, we are all a mixture, many have found this contrast helpful in self-understanding, but some of us are close to the middle of the scale (I believe Jesus was probably right in the middle).

 

How you feel about silence will in part be linked to this aspect of your personality, be honest and unashamed at how much contact with others you need in this season.  Extroverts, self isolation might be really tough for you at times, but embrace it well and you can grow spiritually and emotionally more healthy through it.

Loneliness

Solitude is not loneliness.  

What is the difference between loneliness and solitude?

Loneliness can be damaging for our mental health and comes from being alone not by choice but circumstances.  That is the reality for many people at times of self isolation. If loneliness is a significant issue for you,  then share that with someone, be vulnerable and honest and ask them to both pray for you and consider practical ways it can be overcome.

Solitude is a choice, something we pursue rather than something we find ourselves in.

Like all disciplines, it includes the choice to cut some things out to embrace something which enables us to know God better.

“Loneliness is inner emptiness, – solitude is inner fulfilment”  – Richard Foster

Escapism

Silence can be appealing at times because it’s escape from the busyness of life, from those clamouring for our attention, from the demands on our energy.  Silence can be a place of rest, particularly for introverts.  There are both positive and negative aspects of escaping.

What are the differences between positive solitude and escapism?

Fear of silence

I can remember being struck to the heart in the mid1990s listening to Canadian singer Alanis Morisette’s lyric “Why are you so petrified of silence?” – I realised I really was. 

I avoided silence in every way, surrounding myself with people, music, books, TV.  I thought it was just having a busy brain and hunger to learn, then I realised in part it was a fear of silence.

Technology can enabled us to avoid silence 24/7, even in the midst of social distancing, we need never experience silence if we want to avoid it.

Does silence frighten you?

If silence plays little part in your life, I suggest that it does frighten you.  But what are we scared of?  What do we fear will be uncovered if we just stopped and turned off the noise.

“When we first glimpse emptiness, we taste the death in it.  It feels like an abyss, a sheer drop into eternity, a dangerous negation of all that is alive, visible, safe and good.  We prefer to remain in the realm of form, surrounded by things we see and touch, things we imagine are subject to our control.” [Wayne Muller, Sabbath]

When I took a Sabbatical in 2016, the first 2 weeks were agony!  All the usual pressures of life and demands on my attention were gone.  In that time, God dredged up all sorts of wounds griefs and mess in my soul, it was acutely painful, I wanted to go back to work.   But once they were in the light, he was able to heal them.  His love started to bring comfort, his Word brought truth and true perspective, his Holy Spirit brought healing and new life which was more powerful than the wounds I carried. 

That may become a process others experience in the next few weeks, I can’t promise it will be comfortable.  But let God work on your heart and he will make you more whole.

What might come to the surface if you stopped still and turned off the noise?

GOD’S SILENCE

‘Pregnant silence’

Silence was quite trendy before Covid19!  Everyone knows we live in a busy world an accelerated culture, a maelstrom of information in the technological era.  Take any time to explore spirituality in any tradition or faith and you’ll soon find people talking of the essential importance of silence.  Silence isn’t the exclusive preserve of Christians, but God’s gift of silence may be different from that of the spirituality of the world around us.

What makes silence special for Christians?

The silence of spiritual disciplines as a Christian, is the silence which we ask God to fill.  It is not hollow or empty, but pregnant with life.  Because the Holy Spirit the giver of life fills every part of space and time, when we invite him into silence, then we are expecting him to fill it.  This is a distinction between escapism and emptiness.  To be silent before God, is to tune out from the world and tune into God.

When we tune into God – our silence becomes full of life, neither empty nor escapism.

Listening to a different voice

One way to look at silence, is that it is a choice to listen to a different voice.

I believe it enables us to listen to two significant different voices: our own inner voice, (soul or heart) and the voice of God.

Listening to your soul

You matter! 

You are a beloved, significant, child of God, created in his image, created with purpose, a gift to your family, community and those you are called to serve.

What goes on inside you matters.  

We can describe this in different ways, but its widely accepted that we have layers of thought, which include our emotions, beliefs, perspectives, memories and the stories we tell ourselves to try to understand the world.  Engaging with the noise and stimulus of the world around us, usually only engages the surface level of our thinking.  It takes time and space for what is more deeply inside each of us to be heard. 

One reason we drown out our inner voice with the noise of the world around us, is that we devalue what is going on inside us.

How much time do you take to really listen to your inner voice?

What sort of things might come to the surface if we listened to our inner voice?

Why is it valuable to listen to our inner voice?

Why would God want you to be able to hear your inner voice?

Hearing the voice of God.

As well as hearing our inner voice, silence enables us to more clearly hear the voice of God.  He can speak through other people, through songs and films, he can speak to us through anything.  But he most often speaks when we are silent.

The model of Jesus

Jesus loved people, he ‘did life with’ his 12 disciples and the women who followed them (and supported them).  He had compassion on the sick, challenge for the religious and love for everyone.  

But he also spent time alone.

Following his baptism, the Spirit led him to the desert for 40 days of fasting, solitude and spiritual warfare. (Matthew 4v1-11)

Before selecting his 12 disciples, he spent the night alone praying. (Luke 6v12)

He got up early in the morning to pray alone. (Mark 1v35)

When his cousin John the Baptist was murdered, he went away alone, to grieve. (Matthew 14v13) – he was interrupted by the crowds, so he fed the 5000, and then went away again to find some quiet space to pray. (Matthew 14v23)

As he faced betrayal, torture and death, he went to Gethsemane to pray.  He valued the emotional support of his disciples nearby, (they feel asleep!) but went off alone to pray.

Jesus models for us the value of time alone.

What do you notice about the times the gospel writers mention Jesus going apart to pray alone?

In John 5v19 Jesus explains that he only does what the Father is doing.

How did Jesus know what the Father was doing?

To grow in maturity, silence and relationship both have to be a significant part of our lives.  We need both.

One of the greatest theologians of the the twentieth century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer began one of his most significant books ‘Christology’ (the study of Jesus), with these words.

Christology begins in silence’.

What he meant by that, was that we begin to understand Jesus, not through our own ideas, reflections, or knowledge, but only by giving space for God to reveal who Jesus is.  It is profound humility to be silent before God. 

How can you build time into your day, when you  expect to hear God speak more,as you take more time in silence to listen?

PRACTICAL PURSUIT OF SILENCE

I won’t take time here to describe how busy, noisy and full our world usually is.

If we are convinced that silence is golden and an essential discipline, then this very strange season is an amazing opportunity to develop it in our lives.

Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Turn the technology off.

We carry silence-killers in our pockets, –  they’re called smart phones. 

Technology enables us to listen to or watch what we want, when we want it, for our children’s generation, that now seems to have become a human right!

The first step to silence, it to turn your technology off.  Yes there will be times in your day when you need to connect with others, but one pattern I’ve seen in the first week of responding to Covid19 is that my phone and social media are getting a grip on me.

Break the habit to check your messages, disengage from what might be going on somewhere else.  Be in this moment, alone with God.  You won’t hear his voice or your own soul, if you are busy checking on what’s going on in the most interesting bits of everyone else’s life.

Have you become addicted to technology?

How does it steal silence from you?

  1. First thing in the morning or last thing at night.

Through history, everyone exploring spiritual disciplines has recognised the value of first things and last things.  A lot goes in our subconscious whilst we sleep.  

You may be a lark or an owl, whatever your sleep patterns, is there a place for silence at the beginning or end of your day?

  1. You have to make it happen.

Silence rarely just happens, our world is usually too noisy and busy for it.

Even with social distancing you might need to plan to intentionally build silence into your schedule?  Even if you are in a period of self isolation, the temptation will be to build noise and busyness into your life. 

Embrace this season as a gift of God, by intentionally scheduling silence into your new routine.

I love this quote from Mother Theresa, when asked about how she maintained her walk with God.

“Spend one hour a day in adoration of your Lord, 

and never do anything you know is wrong.  Follow this and you’ll be fine”

 4. Find the places where you can be silent.

I don’t find silence in my study very helpful, because whilst there may be no noise, the pile of things I need to do just shouts at me from my desk.  This links back to simplicity, the more stuff that surrounds us, the more stuff will demand our attention.  Many of us will be stuck in our homes in the coming weeks, find which room gives you the simplest space to be silent.

If you are able to, walk in the hills or somewhere outside away from others.

  1. Retreats.

Longer periods of silence, or withdrawal from other pressures can be hugely valuable.  One option is to see an extended period of time as a ‘retreat’, if practical with other commitments, could you schedule some time of self isolation as ‘retreat time’.  Some find an extended silent retreat a powerful way to engage with God and take this spiritual discipline further and deeper.  

The principles are the same, the longer we have to listen, the more we’ll hear what is going on inside and be able to bring that to God.  The more space we give God to fill, the more life he will pour in.

  1. Try it out!

Don’t’ set yourself unrealistic goals.  Start small and let the habits grow.

Give yourself one or two simple silence goals this week and ask the Holy Spirit to help you fall in love with silence.

What is going to be your first step towards silence this week?

The Cross and the Spirit

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We live in the tension of worshipping a crucified King and welcoming a powerful Holy Spirit.  Our world is broken, suffering and lament are a reality in our lives and churches, we also see signs of the Spirit’s transforming power and long for more.  How do we handle this?

In November last year Lucy Peppiatt, Principal of Westminster Theological Centre offered asked the leaders of the New Wine leadership network, this question: 

“New Wine values articulate the pairings of ‘Cross and Resurrection’ and ‘Word and Spirit’, but do we need to think about ‘Cross and Spirit’?”

I’ve never been good at staying quiet in meetings, my enthusiastic response to Lucy’s question resulted in me giving a seminar on this subject at the NewWine National Leadership conference yesterday.  I anticipated a handful of folk on the last day of a busy programme, but the hunger around this question meant the room was full.  In order to help you reflect, I offer this blog as a summary of that session. 

The Cross and the Spirit are huge topics, which pervade the New Testament.  I can only touch on some elements and the relationship between the two.

In preparation, I asked 3 of my sons a question very early one morning on the way to school:  “Why did Jesus die on a cross?”

“Because he loves us” (My 12 year old)

“To deal with our sin” (My 14 year old)

“Christus Victor, to deal with the enemy” (my 15 year old)

I admit, that’s a proud Dad story, but it illustrates that there are multiple biblical answers to the question.  On Monday in a small group of church leaders someone asked “What do we believe the Spirit does?” – All 9 answers were biblical, true and different.

Parallel tracks?

As re-read a lot of the NT, my initial question is whether they are two themes running on parallel tracks in NT theology and if so, do we prioritise one over the other?

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But, all things come together in Jesus. And like most good theology, I believe there’s no intention in the Bible to keep these two apart.

When making an apple crumble if I ask my family “Do you want Custard or ice cream?” Their answer is usually ‘both’.   I take the same approach to theology.  We can do huge damage when we polarise or prioritise good biblical truth that God has given us.

Both/And thinking, embracing paradox, leads us to the creative and challenging call to live in tension.  Let us begin with two verses.

2 Corinthians 13:4 (ESV)

4 For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.

Romans 12:15 (ESV)

15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.

To explore this paradox in greater detail, here are 4 sub-paradoxes.

  • Life : Death (suffering)
  • Hope : Lament
  • Fullness : Emptiness
  • Powerful : Powerless

And 4 areas where we might apply them

  • Unity
  • Pastoral
  • Worship
  • Leadership

A brief word on Unity.

One of the things God is doing in his church – is bringing all things under one head – Jesus.  One way he is doing that – is through shared experience of the Holy Spirit in very different traditions.  It might offend the latent Pharisee within me, but the Holy Spirit isn’t only poured out on ‘our type of Christian’ – he spills out and poured out all over. 

In 2016 God took me to Kaunus, Lithuania (You can read the story here) and connected me with a wonderful group of young Lithuanian Charismatic Catholics and gave me a deep love for them.  We had a shared experience of the Spirit and God’s love, but as our friendships developed I recognised our understanding and worship relating to the Spirit was very similar, but our worship and understanding of the Cross, very different.

Across the world, Christians are uniting through a shared experience of the Spirit’s power, but then discovering we have a very different understanding of the Cross.

As New Wine grows, we welcome many folk from different church traditions with a shared hunger for renewal, to grow in unity we need to learn from one another what God has revealed about Jesus’ death on the Cross.

If I were to reframe the question I asked my sons on the school run ‘Why did Jesus die on a Cross?’, what answer might any of the following groups give:

Lithuanian Catholics, Australian conservative evangelicals, Greek Orthodox, , persecuted church in Indian, Latin American Catholics, Mid-West USA baptists, Nigerian Anglicans, New-apostolic South Africans, underground believers in North Korea…. 

What can we learn from what God has revealed to others in the Bible, to enrich our understanding of the Cross?

This is a blog, not an essay.  Here are brief thoughts on each paradox and then 16 questions, you can pick any that ignite you for reflection or conversation.

1.Life : Death

We celebrate Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

The early church rejoiced that their saviour had defeated death and they faced death and persecution.  

The truth of the Resurrection is that death has lost its sting, I have the privilege of proclaiming that at every funeral I take.  But I still have to take funerals. 

The experience of the Spirit – is the tangible experience of resurrection power. (Romans 8.11 & Eph 1.19-20)  The Spirit is the Giver of Life.

I have found meditating on 1 Peter 2 & 4 very challenging in the call to courageously face persecution and death, as part of worshipping the one who defeated death.

Jesus’ death was once for all, a finished work.  Amidst the recognition of our suffering and persecution as followers of the one who suffered.

And then we get this…..

Colossians 1:24 (ESV)

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church,

What on earth does this verse mean??!!

I asked that question as a student 25 years ago.  I’ve been asking it ever since. It came up in conversation last week I had with Mark Tanner, Bishop of Berwick and that conversation helped me realise that maybe deeper understanding of that verse will come from outside my church tradition. 

A simplistic theology, that dismisses suffering as past – just won’t be enough.

2. HOPE : LAMENTNLC Cross & Spirit.023

 

 

The Spirit gives us hope, by pointing us to the love of the Father, which was demonstrated by Jesus on the Cross

 

Romans 5:5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Romans 15:13 (ESV) May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

The Spirit also gives us hope, as a foretaste of heaven (2 Corinthians 1:22, 2 Corin 5.5 & Eph 1.14).

The Spirit is also the comforter, the Paraclete who comes alongside – on the journey to hope, we need to learn to lament well.

Lament is the open, honest expression rather than burying of emotion (not truth) and disappointment.  The content of lament, isn’t the end of the story, it’s how we feel, what we’re experiencing, now. This is about catharsis, not re-defining our beliefs.  

What do we do in church, with thoughts, feelings, interpretations, ideas – that aren’t true, but are felt very strongly in the moment?  

Bury them, crush them, ignore them and they will become toxic.

Explore them endlessly, uncritically, or build on them, or work around them – they will become shifting sand.

It’s ok not to be ok. – But don’t build your home there.

We need to create places where we listen, express & journey on beyond our emotions.  Always have a vision of the kingdom, that this present reality is not ‘good enough’….

Lament, is the permission, to express pain and to do so WITH God, not against him or hiding from him. But it is very different from our joyful victorious songs of praise,  which are the goal and the greater truth.

It is a common critique of charismatics that we don’t lament well.

Our theology of the Cross, will shape how we lament.

Much evangelical emphasis on the cross focusses on victory & triumph, and these are evident in God’s word.  But if that is all we have, then we have little place for lament.

Job & the Psalms, model of honesty with God, an honesty made possible by Cross, because God has made a way for us to be accepted, however we feel about him.  The Cross shows us that God is with us in suffering, not causing it.

3. EMPTINESS : FULLNESS

Philiipians 2.1-9 introduces kenotic theology, a huge subject, source of much discussion that I am under qualified to comment on in detail.  But it is worth remembering that the context of ‘Jesus emptied himself’ (v7) is a passage on unity, through humility and self denial.  

In Cruciformity, Michael Gorman writes, 

‘God is, in other words, a God of self-sacrificing and self-giving love whose power and wisdom are found in the weakness and folly of the cross.’ 

Another aspect of emptiness is living ‘poured out’ [2 Tim 4.6] ministering to others when we feel empty, knowing his surpassing gift in our weakness. It takes wisdom, to recognise the difference between poured out and burned out.

Alongside the positives of living empty, ‘being filled’, it is the most commonly used metaphor for receiving the Spirit. 

[Luke 1.15, 67; 4.1; John 20.22; Acts 2.4; 4.8, 31; 6.3; 9.17; 13.9; Romans 5.5]

4. POWER : POWERLESS

NLC Cross & Spirit.033In 2014, I chose the subject of power, on a residential teaching week, having read Andy Crouch’s superb ‘Playing God’.  The folk on that week from a range of workplaces were so grateful, because they are experiencing power dynamics every day in relationships, hierarchies, teams…

But use the word ‘power’ in the church and church leaders get very anxious. If we run away from talking about power, we don’t give space for the Spirit to lead us into truth.

In 2010 an early title of my book ‘Awakening’ was ‘Powerless Religion’, an exploration of how hollow religion make the church powerless.  I abandoned that title after a conversation with my friend Stephen Backhouse, a social and political theologian.  The conversation went something like this.

Richard: I’m thinking of calling it ‘powerless religion’.

Stephen: I love that, there’s way too much danger when the church gets powerful, a call back to laying down our lives, subverting worldly power, being powerless to stand with the victims of injustice’.

Richard: No, I mean when the church gets religious, then we lose the Spirit’s power.

Both: Looks like ‘powerless religion’ might be too ambiguous as a title.

 

God is the source of all power and therefore his character is our starting point to understand his approach to power.

Father : the one who empowers us – good parents empower their children.

Jesus: redefines leadership power, he subverts the sinful instinct to have power over others.

Spirit: fills us with supernatural power dunamis. 

I was chatting to a friend recently whose child is struggling with mental health, this causes challenges for the whole family.  They have prayed and prayed for her, but not yet seen a breakthrough moment of healing. Through the journey though, they have grown, learned and known the Spirit’s strengthening and uniting of them.  This captures the paradox of kingdom power.  Sometimes God’s power brings immediate change, other times gradual, but he is always at work.

Powerless:

Paul writes the letter we call 2 Corinthians in order to bring reconciliation with the church there.  It is a beautiful expression of leadership, not authoritarian, but humble and empowering, after he had experienced powerlessness in Asia (1v8)

2 Corinthians 12:9-10 (ESV) 

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 13:4

For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.

Taking our 4 paradoxes and 4 areas of application.  Here are 16 questions, I hope they’re helpful.

Death : Life

Unity: What can we learn from other traditions about how to pray for the persecuted church?

Pastoral : Do glib soundbites and principals do more harm than good when other are suffering (Check out the book of Job!)

Worship : How do we mark Good Friday well as Charismatics?

Leadership : Do we lead courageously into battle, or lead in retreat from the pressures of the world? 

Hope : Lament

Unity: What would a healthy response be to the critique that charismatics don’t know how to lament?

Pastoral : Are you creating safe places where those who need to lament are free to

Worship : Is the worship team in your church having a conversation about the place of lament in your services?

Leadership : Do you lead others to hope, even at times of struggle?

Fullness : Emptiness

Unity: If you were preaching on self emptying leading to unity, where would you start?

Pastoral : Are you encouraging others to be filled with the Spirit anytime anywhere alone, or creating a dependency culture waiting for the next event?

Worship : Does your worship celebrate Jesus emptying himself?

Leadership : Are you more often burned out, or poured out?

Powerful : Powerless

Unity : Is our use of power language misunderstood by your friends from other traditions?

Pastoral : Does your prayer and care for those in pain include both empathy and faith for breakthrough?

Worship : How can our worship refocus us on a kingdom view of power which is different from the world around us?

Leadership : What would the Father, Son and Holy Spirit say to you about your use of power?

 

[images from @DariaSukhorukova, and Amar Lashlaha Rod Long,  Brunel Johnson, Eberhard Grossgasteiger , Ian Stauffer on unsplash.com]

My best books of 2019

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At the start of 2019 I set myself the target of 50 books this year.  The glorious invention of Audible makes that possible, but it would still mean doubling my 2018 total.  I have to confess I only managed 40, but there have been some inspiring and intriguing reads along the way.  Here’s my run down of my top 12, in the order I read them (apart from the last!)

  1. The Hacking of the American mind – Robert H Lustig.IMG_3690

When John Mark Comer mentioned this in passing in his excellent podcast ‘This Cultural Moment’, it’s topic intrigued me.  Lustig, a Medical Doctor,  explains the difference between the two neurotransmitters, Serotonin and Dopamine.  I’m not qualified to explain the science, but basically our body’s production of Serotonin is linked to contentment and Dopamine is linked to pleasure (reward).  I’ve spent a lot of time this year contrasting joy and happiness and Lustig’s explanations have been very helpful.  Key highlights: (a) The danger that big business uses our addiction to dopamine for marketing, but causes mental health challenges. (b) The 4 ‘C’s which produce Serotonin; connect, contribute, cope and cook.

2. Johannes Hartl – Heart Fire.IMG_3694

Any book full of stories that build faith that consistent intercessory prayer brings change and ignites a passion to pray is a good book.  Hartl is primarily a story teller and shares an adventure into deeper relationship with God and establishing the Augsburg House of Prayer, using key questions about prayer to navigate the story.  Hartl is a Roman Catholic, his church culture and worship traditions are very different from mine, but as he shares his encounters God’s power and love, those contrasts become refreshing and grew my heart for unity.

3. Covenant and Conversation, Genesis – Jonathan SacksIMG_3691

My next top read was someone a step even further outside my culture and tradition, the masterful, extraordinary Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.  I actually read 3 of his books this year (Not in God’s Name and his Daily readings of Exodus as well as this one). Each chapter is a reflection on the weekly readings of the Torah.  I just love the way he thinks, writes and understands the world, Sacks is such a big-picture and clear thinker, wonderfully wise, deeply rooted in scripture.  His summaries are hugely quotable with majestic statements about the world, rooted in a deep faith.  Reading Sacks has grown my understanding of Judaism and love for the Bible.  He enabled me to rediscover Genesis in such a fresh way that we did an autumn preaching series on it.

4. Greater Things – Paul Harcourt/Ralph TurnerIMG_3692

As someone with a leadership role in New Wine I felt obliged to read this book before United (our summer conferences).  I’m so glad I did.  The story of NewWine captures the early fresh excitement of growth and life as the Holy Spirit was welcomed anew into churches across the UK and a family with a shared encounter grew through loving healthy relationships.  The book nicely balances anecdote, history and reflections on what God has done, linking various parts of NewWine together.  It also helpfully shares some of the story behind our core values and gives a steer for the years ahead.  I found my hope for God’s Spirit to transform the church in England (& beyond) grew as I reflected on the story so far, knowing that its a story we’re living in, that has only just begun.

5. How to Pray – Pete Grieg (Audible version)IMG_3687

I nearly didn’t listen to this one, proudly thinking “I’ve read 30+ books on prayer and it looks a bit basic”.  But 3 things changed my mind.  I was introducing Pete’s seminar at New Wine United, my 11 year old wanted to listen to it and I’m writing a book on intercession myself, so wanted to read what’s live in the church right now.  In the end Pete became my daily companion on my dog walks through the summer and I adored this book.  As we saw in Red Moon Rising and Dirty Glory, Pete is a masterful story teller, a humble inspiration and quite simply a gift to the church.  This book is very accessible to brand new believers, but has theological depth for those who have sought to know God for decades.  Once again, the fruit in my life from reading this book has been enlivened faith and greater intimacy with God.

6. The second Mountain – David BrooksSecond Mountain - 1

At another New Wine United seminar, Anita Cleverly, quoted the first paragraph of this book. ‘Every once in a while, I meet a person who radiates joy.  These are people who seem to glow with an inner light.  They are kind, tranquil, delighted by small pleasures, and grateful for the large ones…’  I was hooked.  Having read Richard Rohr’s stunning book ‘Falling upwards’ (twice), in my early 40s,  the first half/second half of life thesis is one I find helpful.  Brooks is a skilled writer, (a New York Times columnist).  He grabbed my attention with a vision of a better world and the intrigue of answers to the immaturity of our culture. With skilful broad brush strokes, intricate anecdotes and personal vulnerability his exploration of vocation, ambition, relationships and changed priorities is full of wisdom and faith.

7. Dissolution – CJ SansomDissolution cover

Audible has changed my life! I’ve listened to 174hrs of fiction this year (10 novels) I tend to only read paper novels on holiday and listen through the year. My wife Nells loves this, I’ve cleaned up the kitchen so much more now that I can ‘read’ whilst I’m doing it.  I’ve chosen just one, which is the first in Sansom’s Shardlake series having seen so many people reading them on trains.  I now understand the hype.  Shardlake is a very empathetic character, there’s enough history to feel you learn something, ecclesiology to make me ponder and plot to keep you gripped.  Every now and then a book makes me want to wash up, just so I can hear what happens next.

8. The Ruthless elimination of hurry – John Mark Comer IMG_3688

This was published in the States a day before the UK, and I was in New York, so just to amuse myself with the irony, I rushed out to buy my copy late at night before the UK release. (I was rewarded, the USA edition has a lovely red cover).  I’ve enjoyed all John Mark’s books, and found this even more readable, relaxed and accessible.  He diagnoses the issues of hurry in our culture, challenges the grip of tech on our lives and points us to Jesus for restored ways to live.  A great deal of this I’d heard him teach before at New Wine and on podcasts, but I needed to hear it again and integrate it into my life.

9. The Spy and the Traitor – Ben MacIntyreSpy and Traitor cover - 1

Utterly brilliant!  A thrilling biography of Cold War spy Oleg Gordievsky, working deep in the KGB, spying for British intelligence.  The story is beautifully told, with an expert balance of biography, intrigue, psychological insight and dramatic tension.  Very different from most books I read/listen to, this also had me washing up, or longing for my next long car journey.

10. Failure of nerve – Edwin FreidmanIMG_3689

When enough leaders you respect are quoting a book, you start to pay attention.  I’d come to realise that Freidman’s work is seminal in contemporary understanding of leadership and his phrase a ‘non-anxious presence’ appears all over the place.  His opening analysis of the mess of contemporary culture had me turning back to the inside sleeve multiple times to check when he wrote it (it was first published just after his death in 1996).  Friedman brilliantly analyses our ‘quick fix culture’, and is piercing in his critique of reactivity, herding, obsession with data and blame.  Like many good leadership books, I was delighted to see someone diagnose the issues of our culture with such clarity.  Friedman’s proposal is that leaders need to combat the underlying anxiety of our society and do so through ‘self-defining’.  There are times for me he pushes too far towards a free reign for leaders being narcissistic autocrats, (maybe based on my negative experiences of such leaders) so this needs careful reading, and comes with a health warning of taking to extremes, or using to self-justify.   But as a corrective to the ills of our society and call to clarity and courage in leadership, there is inspiration here. (But if you want to justify being a narcissistic autocrat, then please read the Bible instead of this!) 

11. Ambition – Emma InesonIMG_3682

This book was only published 3 weeks ago.  Emma has brilliantly captured a key issue in the church today.  We want to be strategic and envisioned, we want to see growth and fruit, without throwing away the core humility and surrender which scripture teaches us.  I loved reading a book by a leader who works in a church and tradition I am familiar with, addressing issues I can so easily identify with.  (I found her reflections on the Green report, ‘talent pool’ particularly intriguing, but that’s another blog).  Emma writes in a winsome, honest and non-anxious manner, her use of parenthesis and inverted commas is very witty.  The final chapter on the beatitudes beautifully brings us back to core values taught by Jesus, it cut me to the heart, challenging my selfish ambition, whilst releasing me in peace at how God created me.

12. The BibleNLT cover

Always my first read of the day, the foundation of my life and lamp to guide my path.  I try to read it cover to cover every year, I’ve lost count but aiming for 50 times through in my lifetime.    This year I chose the New Living Translation, which I’ve found very readable.  It’s not my place to review God’s Word, suffice to say, it is the foundation of my life, the true revelation of God’s character and day after day He uses it to speak, to direct, correct and make sense of the crazy world we live in.