Sent as Light.

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

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

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

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

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

Light brings life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secondly: Light attracts butterflies and repels cockroaches.

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[©Mirai Takahashi and razordu30 on flickr.com]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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To be sent as Jesus is sent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Love

Timing

Kingdom

Rejection

Father

Home

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

Before we unpack these aspects, consider this question:

Who are you sent to?

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

Adventure in Kaunas day 2.

Lithuania blog day 2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pilgrim not tourist

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Having read this story, how will you approach tomorrow?

God’s provision in a risky adventure to Kaunas

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

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

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

The team:

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

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

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

Kaunas

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

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

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

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

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

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The Main square in ‘old town’

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

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

Kaunas - 7

A Lithuanian delicacy

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

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

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

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Kaunas Fort

 

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

 

 

Reflections

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

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

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

More to follow…

Kaunas - 20

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

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

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

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

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

What more could they do?

And they are greeted with an obtuse question…

Why do you search for the living among the dead?

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

But the women weren’t like us.

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

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

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

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

On earth, all was black and desolate.

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

In heaven, all was glory and victory.

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

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

Why does God ask us questions? –

So that we see things differently.

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

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

From fear, into faith.

From passivity, into purpose.

From decay, into creativity.

From anxiety, into prayer.

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

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

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

 He is not here, he has risen.

 

The Cross has said it all

Good Friday meditation

I’ve meditated on Jesus death on the Cross this morning and seen the flood of pictures and quotes on social media as we seek to express and celebrate this most wonderful event.  As I’ve done so, it occurred to me that we respond differently.  Psychologists have described us according to 5 archetypes, I’ve found Jim McNeish’s teaching on Bioenergetics hugely helpful in this.

So this is a meditation on the manifold ways we might respond to the cross today.  My hope is that where we recognise ourselves, the truth may sink a little deeper.
Our first group are those who love to escape, our home is the world of ideas, data is our rock, understanding is our language.  How can we handle Good Friday?

The_Way_of_the_Cross_at_sunsetWe look at those silhouettes of Crosses against sunset backgrounds and our first thought is of the technical skill of the photographer (or editor, I wonder what software they used?)

The bleeding of others’ emotions only triggers our guilt, but today we can’t use cynicism to label them as sentimental, we can only yearn to feel like they do.

For us the Cross makes sense of love.  We are justified, its just-as-if we had never sinned.  Guilt gone, dealt with, finished. It brings love alive and into three dimensions.  Now we can understand it.

Meanwhile, the dying saviour slowly demolishes our fear as we encounter perfect love.

 

Our second group: we love to be loved.

Where is it all happening? Who can I talk to? Give me people or I die!

What a night the Last supper must have been! last_supper1b

“Jesus, at supper with his friends…” a meal, a celebration, the coming together of a group of friends and then Jesus loves them, washes their feet, shows them each that they are precious.  Oh to have been there, to have been part of the group, to have been so close, to have had my feet, washed, by him.

But we can hardly cope with the horrors of Good Friday.  It’s…just….too… awful.

The pain, the separation, the desolation of Jesus alone, dragged away by those brutal soldiers, betrayed and rejected.

Yet, he did it for me!  Yes, he died for me! Even if there was no one else, he died to show his love.

He poured out his love and his grace and his mercy and his acceptance, of us!  He paid the price to buy us back, we were worth paying that ransom.

Today as I feel the despair, the loneliness, the darkness and desolation, I begin to feel his arms of love wrapped around me, he did this so that I can know him.

CM Prodigal

Third we meet those of us, who can only describe ourselves as ‘humbled’, by the amazing sacrifice Jesus made.  Today is the time to honour him, to lift high the cross.

We remember Jesus’ words ‘When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself’.  What a glorious saviour, what an amazing king, the model of true kingship for us.

We celebrate the Cross as the great demonstration of true power.  Darkness defeated, Satan crushed under Jesus’ feet as the curse and the fall are overturned.  Love conquers death, the old reality of self righteousness, replaced by the new reality of grace.  Those crowds who turned on him, his close friends who betrayed him, all turned around by his mercy, his amazing demonstration of a better way to live.Crown

“Crown him, with many crowns” we chant with every breath, exalting the greatest king, the greatest victor; our king, our Lord.

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We bow the knee in surrender to him, grateful to be included in his great purpose of redemption, humbled to be a part of his new kingdom.  Let’s tell the world all about it.
How strange that a crown could hurt.  How would it feel to wear a crown of thorns?  How could he endure that mockery and humiliation?

In stark contrast is our fourth group: those of us who love the suffering servant.

As we clear up the dishes from the Seder meal, we reflect on that amazing moment of washing their feet.  Jesus, the leader, was willing to serve – how beautiful.

wonky wineWe find a discarded bread roll and a half drunk glass of wine, and remember how he took those simple symbols of hospitality and shared about pouring out his life for us.  It all brings back the beauty of Isaiah 53, the one who poured out his life, for me.

He did it in our place.  He stepped in and took the pain for me.  That guilt and shame, the agony, that punishment, he took it instead.  He paid the price, so that we can be free. We are the ones who should have been beaten and nailed to that cross and yet he was, in our place.  We are so sorry that he had to do it for us, so all we can feel is gratitude, he did it, so that we didn’t have to.

He made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a slave and became obedient to death, even death on a cross.

Maybe today, we are allowed to pause, to sit and enjoy that.  It might feel strange, passing through that layer of guilt that we should be doing something for him to say thank you.  But as we sit still, as we let him serve us, even that guilt can be washed away, it’s a delicious taste of freedom.

 

And our final group, are smitten by what love can achieve.

We long for change, we long for connection and we believe that love really can overcome the agony of separation and rejection.

The cross has said it all.  It is the ultimate, the greatest demonstration of love.  Death is defeated, guilt washed away, freedom won, salvation is secured, light overcomes darkness.  What a victory!

But it’s a victory of self sacrifice and powerlessness.  Jesus shows us something that we can all learn from, that victory comes not through a demonstration power, but a choice of powerlessness.  Love wins, through humility, through vulnerability and being willing to soak up the pain for a greater good.

Today we celebrate all that Jesus achieved on that cross.  The great turn around, the fulfilment of prophesy, the moment of breakthrough.

He was punished, for our mistakes.  That is an extraordinary transaction, it hardly seems fair.  Maybe, just maybe it isn’t, and that’s ok, because love is greater.

So which are you?

How do you respond to the Cross?

Which truth today can slowly erode your deepest fears?

Beauty in India and Nepal

Last night my plane touched down at Heathrow, but like many a traveller before me, as I battle jet-lag, my mind and my heart are still far off, refusing to come down to earth.

I’ve returned from an intensely stimulating yet refreshing week in India and Nepal, visiting the churches and partners there which Tearfund train and support in the pursuit of protecting vulnerable children from sex trafficking.  Cliches communicate so weakly, but please pause with me to engage with just one: “There’s beauty everywhere.”

RLP IndiaNepal - 15I saw beauty in people’s faces everywhere, in the resilience of humans finding a way to survive, in the sunshine and colours of India, the breathtaking mountains of Nepal and the amazing work of God in the fast growing Nepali churches.

 

Tearfund’s goal is to partner with local Churches around the world, where the needs is greatest. Serving the poorest and most vulnerable to empower them to overcome poverty and become a blessing to their communities. I’ve known Tearfund’s work for decades and I’m sure of one thing, they have thought, prayed and shared wisdom to a great extent in how to best help the poor.  The genius priority they have discovered is that to overcome poverty, we can help people to discover their own solutions to the problems they face.  One such form of poverty is the stealing of young girls from Nepal, who end up as women in prostitution in Indian cities, enslaved by debt and an underground corrupt system of exploitation which deceives and controls them.  I went expecting to encounter extreme ugliness in a messed up world of sexual exploitation, but amidst it I found incredible beauty in what people are doing, motivated by God’s love.

For the past 5 years the Holy Spirit has been teaching me about the key kingdom priority of empowerment rather than control.  This past week has been one of the most powerful and exciting modules in that learning.

The first part of the trip was spent in Mumbai, many writers have attempted to capture the mind blowing experience of visiting India for the first time, my wise cousin’s simple description: “Brilliantly mental”.

RLP IndiaNepal - 3Our focus was to visit the red-light district there, the foulest, darkest, busiest place I’ve ever been.  On our first evening we took time to prayer-walk through it’s streets, my heart simply yearned for God’s kingdom to come and His will be done.  There was ugliness everywhere.

I expected it to be a trip of two halves, the beauty of Nepal and the ugliness of the red-light district in Mumbai.  One of our group described it as protecting girls from being tricked out of heaven and trafficked to hell.  Yet what surprised me was that amidst the extreme dirt and ugliness, we found beauty.

Years ago my sister started working for a charity helping ‘women in prostitution’. I asked why she used a long wordy description, was it fussy political correctness, rather than calling them ‘prostitutes’?  Words matter and what she explained then, I have seen clearer than ever.  I expected to encounter ‘prostitutes’, women emptied by exploitation, lifeless units abused by broken men.  Instead we met women and children, who are enslaved by prostitution, yet still alive.  We met the children of these women, being protected and educated by Christians.  Still living with their mothers, but having a safe place to sleep and a happy place to learn and laugh.  They were so beautiful, it was genuinely impossible to get my head around their situation in life.

Then we met some of the women in an group which teaches them life skills, relational and practical ways to rebuild their lives and escape the slavery of debt.  Two pieces of beauty amazed me: Their friendships were a genuine source of life and hope, they loved one another.  And when I asked what we could pray and ask God to do for them, they had real faith, we prayed for them and saw the Holy Spirit powerfully impact them, bringing healing and hope.  I had nothing to offer them except God’s power and love.  Seeing Him move there will transform my boldness to pray in other places too.

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We moved on to Nepal.  A truly remarkable place, so different from Mumbai.  The central part of the trip was a visit into the remote mountain villages.  On the edge of steep mountain, small communities live so simply, in such beauty.

RLP IndiaNepal - 18What God is doing there is totally amazing.
We met Ashora, a young woman who was dramatically healed from a crippling stomach illness 7 years ago when she encountered Jesus.  She started a church in her community and then planted one in the next door community, (45mins walk away down a steep mountainside) These two churches have a combined membership of 500 people now. 400 of them have come to Christ directly as a result of them or a family member being physically healed by God!

The healings and growth was exciting, but the culture of the church was beautiful.  This was a church planted and led by a 17 year old girl.

 

They loved to pray, they loved one another, they weren’t driven by angst or in competition with their opponents, I didn’t sense a trace of hollow religion.

The  church is often persecuted because the kingdom of God overturns the caste system that traps people in a social structure of exploitation that dehumanises the poor.  These churches had received anger and violence in persecution.  As the church began to serve those around them, for example by helping people to save money and start small businesses to rise out of poverty, the persecution was pushed back.  In this village, when the earthquake brought unimaginable devastation, the church was mobilised to do a door-to-door review of what people had lost.  That audit data, meant fairness when government and NGO relief aid arrived.  We heard of how many communities elsewhere had turned on one another, lying and fighting over relief aid, in Ashora’ s community because of the church, there was peace and that is beautiful.

These snapshots of the beauty which we experienced everywhere have been so hugely refreshing for me personally. So now, as I try to land back in England, the question is how do I link this trip to the rest of my life?  Yes St.Chad’s will continue to support Tearfund and I encourage you to do so personally.  Through Connected Church  we will also stay in touch with the believers there and pray for them.

RLP IndiaNepal - 26

I’m left asking ‘what is the poverty I face in my community and what solutions do we already have to overcome it?’

After being a husband and Dad, my calling is to facilitate St.Chad’s to see the kingdom of God invading Romiley and be part of the renewal of the Anglican church, out of Hollow Religion.  As I come back to England, I have an inbox and ToDo list full of problems and issues.  Coming home I see that so much of what I do as a church leader is to deal with problems.   My twitter feed is full of friends tackling those at General Synod, God bless them! We are swamped by problems, I’m usually so busy looking at them that I miss the beauty all around me.

One thing I learned was that poverty isn’t just about food or shelter, but about broken relationships.  A huge part of how the Nepali churches are empowering people out of poverty is  by building trust.

What do we already have which can help us overcome the poverty of relationships in the UK church?  How can we continue to build trust?

This week I have seen local churches, started through healing, growing through sharing Jesus and overcoming resistance through serving and empowering others.  Their life seems more beautiful than ours, but we do have beauty and the more we empower one another in local churches, the more we will see it everywhere.

Do we know how to pray for salvation?

The Church of England is shrinking.

 

‘Church of England attendance declines below 1 million’

‘No religion now the new religion’

‘Decline is accelerating…’Picture1.png

3 weeks ago I attended a training course, which focussed on
church growth.

During that week, new statistics came out with harrowing evidence that attendance in Anglican churches is still in decline and weekly attendance has dipped below 1million. There is a growing urgency and momentum in radical and bold thinking about church growth.  Whilst you could be excused for believing that the only thing senior Anglicans talk about is unity and sexuality, the reality is that a lot of leaders are very aware that if we want to turn things round and see change, we have to change what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and assess why we’re doing it.

There are many facets to this: church growth, decline, attendance, sociological change, ‘Christendom and the kingdom’, and much more.  I came away from the course focussing on one aspect: Prayer.

I am convinced that the Church of England won’t grow until we get serious about praying for salvation of those who are not following Jesus.

As I engaged afresh with the complexity of numerical decline and the place of the Anglican church in the UK, what grew in me was a stronger and stronger passion to pray and to motivate others to pray for the salvation of those who don’t know Jesus.

I first drafted this blog on the day I got back from the course, but have sat on it for a few weeks, mostly due to busyness, but also a sense from the Spirit to wait and ponder.

This weekend the Archbishops have announced an initiative for the week of Pentecost to inspire Christians to focus on an intense week of prayer for evangelism.  Excellent news.

The challenging question I’ve been pondering is this:

do Anglicans know how to pray for the salvation of non-believers?

Or put it another way:

Is praying for ‘salvation of those outside God’s kingdom’ core to Anglican spirituality?

Are you ready for a broad sweeping generalisation with no data to back it up?

In my experience, if you ask a group of Anglicans what to pray for, the focus of the list will be:

  • To ‘remember before God’ with empathy: the sick & those struggling with challenge.
  • And more traditional Anglicans will follow the biblical mandate to pray for the Queen, Bishops etc.

What if you ask a group of Pentecostals, or members of new church movements?

I think the focus would be for the salvation of people in their community and transformation of society.

As a brash young curate I wrote a course called ‘Intercession made slightly less complicated’ which had a contrast as it’s central premise.

On one hand, the definition of intercession being someone at the front of church reading out prayers for the Queen, government, key news item that week & the sick. (I’m not dismissing that it is a very valid part of corporate worship)

On the other, Intercession being a passionate, sacrificial, extended process of crying out to God for the lost to be saved and communities transformed.

One of the key things I learned on the course on church growth, was research (found here ) that the characteristics linked to decline are: empathising, persisting and managing.  Whereas characteristics linked to growth are: motivating, envisioning and innovating.

IMG_1430

Manchester at dawn – my love for a city grows as I pray for it.

In my experience, motivating (encouraging, inspiring, calling, urging) others to pray is most effective when we inspire with a vision and a target.  For empathetic prayer this is the comfort or healing of those in distress, by contrast much Pentecostal prayer is motivated by a longing for Revival or Awakening.  We pray, because we long for something, so a starting point is to question what do our hearts long for?

If I had the skills, time and money I would love to do a statistical research to assess how the content of different church’s theology of prayer is linked to church growth or decline.

I believe for the Church of England to stem the tide of decline, the first strategic step is to learn to pray.

Teaching prayer isn’t as easy as I thought it would be.

It’s hard to measure invisible results.

It’s a reality that we are one body with diverse parts, passions and priorities.

When a leader preaches ‘we need to pray more’ or better still says ‘let’s pray’ – then that means a vast range of things to all those listening.

In my sabbatical this summer I’m committing some time to study and research this challenge more.

As I’ve reflected on this subject and my own weakness in this area, I’m aware that it’s actually quite challenging for some to call others to pray for individuals to be saved.

  • img_2494

    How confident are we to publicly lead others in praying for the rescue of those who don’t believe they need help?

    We have to overcome the sensitivities that we’re praying for people we know and love to repent and change, how will they react to knowing we’re doing that? Are we somehow uncomfortable with them knowing that we believe they need rescuing?

  • Or we’ve got to overcome disappointment, where we or those in our churches have prayed for decades for friends or family and then seen them die without knowing if they did turn to Christ.
  • Or maybe we know deep down that when we pray, God will also call us to action, so we back off a few steps back.

It takes boldness to call people to pray for the salvation of those whose backs are turned to Jesus.

I’m delighted to hear that bold leadership from both Archbishops, calling the Church of England to prioritise prayer for salvation this Pentecost.  Can I encourage us to really think now about how we can prepare and resource our congregations to know how to pray for evangelism.

I would love to hear other’s perspectives on this.

[As always I welcome positive contributions aimed at growth above defensive debate, points scoring or destructive judging]

Are our children too tired to celebrate Jesus?

I have 4 children under 12 and at least 20 people in our church family who work in education.
Leaving aside (temporarily) the impending fear of surprise Ofsted, which keeps teachers tense, the irrational abandoning of levels just as we all got used to them, the ludicrous expectation of paperwork and data for teachers…
A term running from 1st Sept to 18th December (with 1 week off) is TOO LONG! – By this stage children are too tired to learn and teachers are probably too tired to teach. I’ve just heard of a school being visited by Ofsted today, amidst Christmas celebrations and totally exhausted staff and pupils, that’s as ridiculous and hideous as Donald Trump and US gun laws.

I know there are bigger issues in the world right now, but no one around me has the energy to really be constructive because most people I meet are too tired to function.

I dislike using my blog rant as much as the next person and I’m supposed to be writing a sermon on speaking words that build up not corrupt…. so here’s my constructive version….

Let’s find a way to enable children to work, rest and play in a healthy balance with some holidays, so when they get to celebrating Jesus’ bringing hope and good news of salvation, they can enjoy it.

Victims

A perfect media storm hit on Sunday morning as news broke that major cinema chains had ‘banned’ a short film advertising the ‘Just Pray’ website.  The outcome was that (so far) over 350,000 people have watched versions of the film on youtube, plus many have shared on social media and many others have blogged discussing the issues raised.  I recommend Stephen Croft’s blog (once you’ve finished this!)

David Cameron, Boris Johnson and even infamous atheist Richard Dawkins have all been quoted as critical of the cinema’s decision. This perfect storm excites attention with some major collisions.  The national institution the Church of England, (the video opens with a shot of the hugely respected Justin Welby) big business (Cinema chains), religion, pluralism, freedom of speech, taking of offence and the question of what is controversial viewing? – pitting wanton violence and gratuitous sex against prayer and faith.

It also raised a question of how we see the Lord’s prayer.  Is it a beloved piece of our cultural and religious history, a political statement offensive to other faiths, a gentle heart’s cry to a God others don’t want people to believe in, or a powerful experience of realigning our lives to God’s will and asking him to reshape the world around us?  Or maybe all of those things, – I’m a both/and person.

As someone who enjoys social media, I found the timeline of this perfect storm fascinating.  Many anglican clergy get up early on Sunday morning, to pray and engage with the news, to prepare for the day ahead.  Early on Sunday lots of church leaders tweeted the news of the ban immediately, promoting the advert and baffled by the cinema’s extreme censorship.  It then went fairly quiet from Christians, as we went to church to worship God.  Later in the day, reactions and responses abounded.  Was it outrageous to promote prayer? Was this really offensive to other faiths? Was the C of E being churlish? Lots of freedom of speech on social media means lots of opinions, reactions and many people playing the ‘I know best’ game.

One theme emerged for me.  It’s foolish for Anglicans to play the victim in this row.

The nature of a victim is that they are powerless on one level.  However a victim mindset can give us alternative feelings of power.  A victim can harness the empathy of others to gain support for their cause, a victim can use blame to attack or undermine others.  To take a victim posture can be a powerful form of defensiveness, it is seen as cruel to reflect back to a victim their own faults or self destructive behaviour, a victim can absolve themselves from responsibility. A victim mindset can alleviate a sense of powerlessness, with a damaging form of subversive power, which grabs power for ourselves (immaturity) and prevent us from empowering others (maturity).

The early church was persecuted very soon after Jesus ascended to heaven.  Disciples of Jesus have been persecuted throughout the past 2 millennia and the atrocities of persecution continue around the world today, accelerated currently through the atrocities of Daesh in the Middle East.

The church in the UK experiences very little of this persecution, but we are increasingly marginalised, mocked and restricted bureaucratically from explaining the good news which we long to share with those around us.  Just as a rational person needs to acknowledge global warming, we too have to acknowledge there’s a powerful secular agenda in our culture which wants to silence Christians from sharing the message we know brings hope and new life to others.

Let us not become victims in facing that challenge.  We are adjusting to a new era sociologically where the power and public voice we once enjoyed is rapidly eroding away. It is tempting to believe we are victims and attack those who try to silence us in the public square.  To yield to that temptation would be foolish.

Ironically, praying the Lord’s prayer, (rather than just tweeting about adverts portraying it) prevents us from becoming victims.  Whether we pray the Lord’s prayer as a set piece of liturgy, or as a structure line-by-line for a conversation with God. (My brain needs that time to engage with the huge truths in it)  we recognise our powerlessness and God’s power.  To pray the Lord’s prayer moves us from victims to citizen’s of God’s kingdom.

My friend Hugh Balfour many years ago highlighted that in the Lord’s prayer we ask God for His Presence, Provision and Protection.  All of these demolish the victim mindset.

As we turn to God as Father, we recognise that He is in heaven, enthroned above every power.

In our powerlessness, we invite heaven to invade earth, trusting in God’s power to bring change around us.

We ask for daily bread, not the power of luxury of riches, but the humility of dependence upon God.  Through history his creative answers to that simple prayer have been stunning and miraculous.

We ask for forgiveness, because the opposite to a victim mindset isn’t using our power to win, it is choosing to yield.  When we recognise our mistakes, we humble ourselves and take responsibility for how we have hurt others.  We yield to God, not to defend ourselves but to trust Him.

The same is true as we choose to forgive others.  A victim blames, attacks, undermines, a disciple of Jesus forgives, releases, breaks the cycle of power games and oppression.

And then we ask God to protect us.  Not from ‘those evil nasty people’, but from the influence of spiritual forces of evil.  We recognise that our battle isn’t flesh and blood, it isn’t cinema execs or secularist trolls on twitter, but the principalities and powers in the spirit realm which battle against the God who overcame them through sacrificial love.

Finally, we pray declaring that the kingdom, the power and the glory are not ours, but they do belong to our Father.  We don’t ask for vindication, political or cultural power, but we choose instead God’s kingdom, power and glory, as we wait for that to be fully seen here in earth.  In praying this we choose patience rather than taking offence.

Praying the Lord’s Prayer with our heads and hearts engaged, demolishes our temptation to play the victim mindset.