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 ‘King’ 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 ‘King’ 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 ‘king’ 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 and too many kings causes tribalism and factions.  Not many leaders need to lead in ‘king’ 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 kingship in the Bible, and we look to build the one kingdom, with one king, Jesus.  If we lead only from ‘king’ ‘mode, we’ll ignore the real kingdom and burn out our people.  Leaders, be aware that ‘king’ is a temporary operating mode.  Leading in the next stage we need to know whether God has made us Prophets or Priests.  And then we need to know how to value those who aren’t like us.

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.

Priest Prophet
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 Nothing personal, its about role 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 baffle me.  I am undoubtedly on the far brink of the ‘prophet’ 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, go and 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 kingly role is to make decisive action; chop off branches, clear overgrown areas, uproot the brambles.  The prophet’s 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 a prophet not a priest!)

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

But now as we settle into sustained period of lock down, are you going to lead as a priest or a prophet?  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 prophet:priest 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 prophet or priest, 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

NLC Cross & Spirit.002

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. 

I’m a church leader not an academic theologian, 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?

daria-sukhorukova-I51HSIo8k-4-unsplash

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.

Because he rose

He is risen

I love stories! I devour novels and whilst I respect beautiful, poetic language, it’s a good plotline that makes me want to hide in a quiet place and keep reading.

Part of the joy of a story is the climax moment, just a few pages before the end of the book, when everything comes together and the various strands of the story connect.  We finally find out who did it, the couple finally disclose their love for one another and kiss in the moonlight, the villain is humiliated.

We can describe the events of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, death and resurrection in Jerusalem at Passover in AD33 as ‘the Easter story’.  I’m nervous about that phrase, in case calling these historic events a ‘story’ makes them sound made up, but the real life story of what happened is the climax of the story of the life on earth of the Son of God, Jesus.

This year in my preaching at St Chads, I’ve talked about stories a lot.  In our Living Free series, we’ve seen that our identity is found in God’s story and not the scrappy first drafts of the stories we tell ourselves.  And whilst God’s story spans from before creation into our eternity with him, the events of that weekend in Jerusalem are the key moments in that story. They, more than anything else, define our story too.

The world in which we live tries to make sense of life through a whole range of other stories.  Evolutionary biologists tell the story of natural selection, how millions of years of survival shaped what it is to be human.  (I keep meaning to ask one what the evolutionary advantage is of my hair no longer growing on top of my head, but my eyebrows finding a new gear of growth in my 40s!!). There’s the story of human progress, its fragility this week perhaps best shown by the Notre Dame fire, with the majesty of such a stunning a Cathedral built 800+ years ago, collapsing in one evening.  Or the story of political confusion, with egos battling for votes, appealing to greed and fear, and often finding fault instead of listening to constructive ideas.  Or the scary story of environmental crisis, with fossil fuels running out, plastics destroying oceans and the earth warming at a dangerous rate.  Or the myth of progressive tolerance, which has turned into bitter control of anyone in possession of different views.  These stories all have reality in them but they conflict in our minds, leaving us confused. And none of them answers the deep desire of our heart – to know God and experience his forgiveness.

The Easter story has one thing which none of these stories contains: Resurrection.

No humanly invented story of experience would include such a plot twist – death seemed like the end, but Jesus rose!  And his resurrection is more than the story of one man, one miracle, one empty tomb and some baffled Romans.  His story is our story. The God who created us on earth also created us for eternity. Humans gradually improving and then ecological or violence destroying is not the end of the story. Death, decay, devastation are not the end.  The great plot twist, Jesus rising from the dead, impacts how we read the earlier story and how we look ahead, knowing the story isn’t finished.

Because he rose. What he achieved on the cross was real.  The stain of sin is washed away, the gap between us and God is bridged, the enemy is defeated, sacrificial love is more powerful than selfish hatred.

Because he rose. Our future joy is real.  Life is greater than death, hope is greater than fear, and that heavenly banquet will taste amazing.

Cynicism or Sabbath?

Holy Saturday

“Joseph of Arimethea took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away.  Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there in front of the tomb. Matthew 27:59-61 

Waiting…

The agonising tension of not knowing, no rest without resolution.

It was the very worst Sabbath.  The day set aside for renewal, for family, for togetherness, for delight, for recovering peace with God, celebrating work completed, resting in trust, living in hope.  None of that seemed possible on that Sabbath.  The darkest day, ended at sundown, feeling like it might never rise, tomb sealed with a stone, death and evil had won, hope extinguished.

Recently when reading the Bible, I’ve attempted to engage in stories by remembering that when you’re in a story, you don’t know the ending.  Holy Saturday might be a sunny rest for us, maybe the first BBQ of the year. But it was far from Sabbath rest for Jesus’ followers. The women left sitting in front of the tomb had no idea of what would happen the next day. 

Waiting is painful, because our brains feed on the pleasure of resolution.  Think of that surge of happiness you feel when the last piece in a puzzle is found, you know a quiz answer, a story is completed, a phrase of music returns to the original chord, that is the pleasure of resolution.  At those moments of resolution dopamine in released in our brains, giving a pleasure sensation.  When things are unresolved, stories unfinished, children don’t return on time, phone calls or texts not returned, we live in tension.  Our craving for resolution leaves us uncomfortable.

Modern technology is training us to rush to resolution.  In our accelerated culture, you can sell anything that reduces the discomfort of waiting and brings quick resolution.  

God knows the end of every story, but loving us doesn’t always include disclosing his full plans when we think he should. He’s in charge, not us.

Because modern life helps us avoid waiting, we have no training for it.  When we are delayed, we rush to other ways to reduce the discomfort, one of which Is cynicism.  Cynicism is making up a negative story (usually with a dose of blame) to try and make sense of what we don’t understand.  That can be an easy way out from having to live with mystery.  

This Lent as a church, we fasted from negativity, including cynicism.  I’ve discovered that part of fasting from cynicism has been choosing not to have all the answers, not having to find a quick fix to those things that don’t make sense.

Sabbath is usually about resolution, ending the week by returning to God.  When God instated Sabbath in creation, it was because his work was finished on the sixth day.  When Jesus died on the cross, in the afternoon of the sixth day of the week, he too declared “it is finished”.  But until he rose, those he loved didn’t know what he had completed.  

Not everything is resolved in time for Sabbath, and so we find rest through trust. Choosing to leave what we cannot resolve in God’s hands ready for the start of the next week.  That Saturday must have been agony for Jesus’ disciples and the women who supported him.  They didn’t know the outcome of the story, they had no idea of the glorious history changing surprise that awaited them the next morning.

So how do we wait in trust and not cynicism?  

Are you in a Holy Saturday right now?  A situation that isn’t yet resolved, an illness that isn’t healed, a broken relationship where forgiveness isn’t forthcoming, or powerlessly waiting for a decision?

Cynicism seems like the easy way out.  Rather than wait for God’s resolution, it’s tempting to jump to create our own story, to think that knowing best is better than not knowing what’s going on.  But God has another way – the way of trust and not cynicism.  He does know the end of the story, his resolutions are better than we can imagine.  

The Resurrection teaches us that there is always hope.

Good Friday: Jesus and Blame

 

 “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth;  he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested?”  – Isaiah 53:7-9 

 

 “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”  – 1 Peter 2:23

 

This weekend is a festival to celebrate the historic events which are the basis of our hope.  Today’s very name, Good Friday is the greatest expression of what it means to live in hope and not negativity.  We re-tell Jesus’ story of the Cross and Empty Tomb to remember that our sin is dealt with, we’ve left the grave and we live in Resurrection hope.  The very worst injustice – evil crashing down on the only fully innocent man.  Death and darkness become the source of hope when God re-tells his story.

 

As a church we have fasted from negativity through Lent, committing ourselves to intentionally abstain from criticism, cynicism and blame. A key part of our fast from negativity has been to fast from blame.  Blame is a means to defend ourselves, telling a story in which I am the victim and ‘they’ are evil.

 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: ‘Nowadays, to win sympathy for your cause, you have to establish your credentials as a victim.  This has overwhelming advantages.  People empathise with your situation, give you support, and avoid criticising your actions.  It has, however, three drawbacks: it is false, it is corrupting and it is a denial of humanity. A victim is an object, not a subject; a done-to, not a doer.’

 

We could call Jesus a victim. An innocent man was betrayed, falsely tried, lied about and executed. Yet he chose not to behave as a victim.

 

Amidst the many beautiful ways Jesus walked through the Easter story was that he never blamed anyone. He did not open his mouth, he did not protest, he didn’t lower himself to the identity of victim or defend himself by blaming others.  The very nature of the cross was him taking on responsibility for humanity’s sin and rebellion against God, which is the very opposite of blame.

Blame is the first step of revenge, something which Jesus taught us not to do. He didn’t retaliate, he made no threats.

More from Rabbi Sacks:

“When bad things happen to an individual or group, one can either ask, ‘Who did this to me?’, or ‘Given that this has happened, what then shall I do?’…So different are these questions that they generate two modes of being: respectively a blame culture and a penitential culture.  The first focusses on external cause, the second on internal response.  Blame looks to the past, penitence to the future.  Blame is passive, penitence active.”

This is the way Jesus lived, died and rose again.

It was tempting for Jesus to look to the past and blame those who did this to him. Jesus looked to the future at who he was doing this for.

It was tempting for Jesus make himself a victim, a passive object of evil.  Jesus chose to be active, defeating evil and overcoming death.

 

Inspired by our saviour, we too can live free from blame, not just for lent but for life.  When we see pain, mess, brokenness, we can live in penitence, taking responsibility for our part. Recognising that we contribute to that brokenness and knowing that, because of the cross, we can be forgiven and they are not the end of the story.

Christian award ceremonies?

 

IMG_9895

At 9am yesterday I was wandering around the Sant Marti hipster district of Barcelona sipping a flat white and enjoying some sunshine and the gentle buzz of a city getting going.

 

At 9pm I was in the city of London, in the oak panelled halls of a Livery company, sipping red wine and enjoying stories of bold innovative students sharing the good news of Jesus with their friends.

(being herded on a RyanAir flight in between was less fun)

The evening was the inaugural Student Mission awards, run by the Fusion movement.

An ‘awards ceremony’ for student mission … really?

Yes, that was my reaction.

Is ‘honour’ standing on a stage being cheered by the crowds or is it loving the person in front of you, regardless of any identity markers our world or our own choices place on us?  I believe it’s primarily the latter.  Jesus had some pretty harsh words to say about preferential seating (Mark 12v39).

Like everything, to understand this event, we need the context, not react to the headline.

Fusion were offered a generous gift of an evening using the Mercer’s Hall, right in the heart of London for this event.  It was a chance to tell the stories and celebrate the students in universities up and down the land, who are living radically, generously and full of faith, to bring the good news of the kingdom to their campuses.  These stories are inspiring, encouraging and profoundly counter cultural, they are good news and I’m up for shouting good news from the rooftops.  (You can read more about them here https://www.fusionmovement.org/sma)

fullsizeoutput_359f.jpegAs well as being a great party, like everything Fusion do, this was put together with joy, kingdom thinking and a passion to make Jesus the focus.  The student mission was rooted in local churches, but it was the stories of students themselves which were celebrated.  Over 100 stories were nominated, 40 shortlisted and there were awards in 10 categories.  Each winner has been offered a grant to empower these radical world changers to take more risks, develop new ministries and see more of their generation encounter Jesus.

I was on the judging panel of the event, I looked at every nomination and read their stories, saw their videos and discussed each one, I can’t remember any of their names this morning. (sorry winners!) – but I can remember their stories.

I can remember those who fasted, prayed, chose discipline to fulfil daily commitments to share grace and blessing.  I can remember those who put themselves out to pursue justice for the poor, those who offered constructive loving resources to help those with mental health, I can remember those who went out on the streets late at night, not to go clubbing, but to show care and listening support to those in distress from drugs, alcohol and broken relationships.  Those who found ways to discuss Jesus with their sports teams, invite friends to church and make new connections in order to listen and bless.
Celebrating these stories, and bringing people together to hear of the courage, commitment and contagious love of students wasn’t about creating celebrities or awarding success, but letting others know that those in our universities who let Jesus be Lord of their lives are making a real difference.  There are 25 million students in Europe, what can we as God’s church do to value our students and empower them to live out their calling now, where they can make the most difference?

An unreligious Christmas

angels-10One Christmas afternoon, in the midst of a present opening frenzy, (the bit before someone gets stressed by a missing present lost in piles of discarded wrapping paper) one of my sons hugged me thanking me for his present. ‘Oh, what is it?’ I asked. I hadn’t a clue what ‘we’ had given him.  That was when I realised, I was getting Christmas all wrong.

 

When I began teaching and writing on ‘hollow religion’, I used the image of a Christmas tree.  Something cut off from its roots, dressed up to look pretty, but now dead, sparkly but soon discarded.  I came to recognise so much of my Christmas had become like that. Many times, when normal life stopped for 2 weeks over Christmas, I had detached from Jesus, so absorbed in religious activity that I’d hardly talked with him.  I would enter the New Year drained or ashamed.

 

If Christmas gets religious, everyone misses out. Clergy families get burned out parents, congregations get absorbed with trivial non-essentials, non-believing visitors only experience  performance not presence.

 

One year I proposed to our PCC (semi-seriously) that we cancel Christmas because it was just hollow religion, they (more seriously and unanimously) rejected my proposal on the grounds that we exist to glorify Jesus so his birth is worth celebrating.  There have been many times in early January, during worship, I’ve suddenly had a sense of waking up again, filling my lungs with fresh air after weeks of spiritual fog.  I love those moments of reconnection with Jesus, like arriving at friends’ home to be greeted after a long journey.  But does Christmas have to be spiritually foggy? Do we have to ‘just plough through it’? – I am a redeemed grinch, a few years ago I wholeheartedly repented of hating Christmas, here’s how I’ve tried to live out Christmas without religion.

 

Focus on the best bits.   I absolutely love the joyful celebration on Christmas day with our church family.  I absolutely love watching people we’ve prayed for all year coming to church and hearing about Jesus.  I absolutely love the deep rich truths about hope and light in those familiar Bible readings. Take time to study how many times God speaks, miracles happen and angels appear in the early chapters of Matthew and Luke, it will blow your mind.

 

Book ends. Before Christmas begins, we have a ‘soaking’ evening, a night of pure worship (without any carols) to enjoy God’s presence and prepare for the season ahead by investing in connection with him and letting him speak to us.  In early January we make space in our worship to reconnect with God and receive his forgiveness where our priorities got messed up.

 

angels-8
Prayer and Mission.
  Amidst cultural change, still more people come to church at Christmas than any other time of the year, it’s a great time for mission.  To show generosity to our communities, and to initiate ways to take the kingdom outside church, (last year we left 600 knitted angels around Romiley and God used this little act of kindess to bless hundred – you can read about it here ).  To welcome people to hear the story of who Jesus is.  I’ve found all that mission activity shifts from busy burden to joyful anticipation when I pray.  We are blessed to live in a wonderful community, through school connections Nells and I have made many friends who don’t know Jesus.  Through November and  December I partner with the Holy Spirit in praying for them daily (he often has to remind me!). My heart explodes with joy when they turn up in church and I enjoy a moment of private celebration with Jesus.

 

Enjoy those private moments with God.  Christmas is busy and crazy and crowded, normal life stops but that doesn’t mean we lose connection with God.  There is amazing intimacy with those we love, of secret communication in the midst of a crowd.  I take moments of solitude in the midst of Christmas craziness, to stop and just enjoy being with God.  I thank him when things go well, I laugh with him when things go wrong, I ask him to show me little gems of truth afresh each year as I prepare talks.  I’m learning to walk through Christmas with my Father, rather than say “see you in January’ and get on with being too busy serving him (& the expectations of my parish).

 

Spiritual disciplines.  Like many, I was so helped by John Mark Comer’s teaching at New Wine  United week 2, in particular reshaping our lives around Sabbath.  This year I’ll be taking that into Christmas.  What preparations do we need to enable quality time detached from work?

Can I surrender and ask God’s guidance on when to feast and when to fast through this season?

 

Above all, enjoy celebrating Jesus.

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