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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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.

crown2
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.

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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.

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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.

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    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.

Grief and Religion. (part 1)

Religion often doesn’t handle grief well.

Many people I have met who have walked away from church and as a result pushed God away to what feels like a ‘safe’ distance have been hurt through hollow religion at a time of intense grief.  When those who are bereaved are handled by the cold, rough, unyielding hands of hollow religion, the damage can be irreparable.

Two weeks ago, my brother-in-law died in a cycling accident whilst out on an early morning ride with friends.  He leaves behind my wife’s sister and two young children and a huge archive of fabulous memories.  The words said about him at his funeral on Thursday were overwhelming in their honour of his eccentric, generous, joyful, character.  But when we grieve we don’t want memories, we want to turn the clock back and prevent the tragedy, or rush it forwards to resolution.

George’s tragic death has hit my wife and I hard, because of our deep love for him and his family.  We have  been plunged again into the dark wild seas of bereavement and thrown around on it’s turbulent waves.  I’m convinced that we can’t control grief, it buffets us around.

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I wrote earlier this week about my experiences of grief at NewWine (Grieving-in-a-crowd/) I have had a remarkable response to that and as I’ve reflected further, I have been considering the interaction between grief and religion, linked the the material in my forthcoming book ‘Awakening: from Hollow Religion to Heavenly Relationship.’   Having first drafted this, I’ve had a number of nudges from God and encouragements from people that what I’ve written can help others.  In the midst of my own grief, my passion to rid the church of hollow religion has intensified because when we are grieving, we are at our most resistant to all that’s inauthentic.

I hope what I have written in the book can speak hope and life to those who have been hurt by hollow religion at the most painful times in life. Recognising the contrast between hollow religion and heavenly relationship can help the church to love and not control those who experience intense pain.  This is the first reflection I’ll post on this, with further parts to come.  If you are yourself in a place of grief and bereavement right now, I pray that this can help you.  If you are supporting someone through grief then I pray this can help you to love them effectively.

Hollow Religion tells us what we should believe but in the kingdom we’re invited to know the King, and believe what he says to us.

Through my own experiences and study of grief, I’ve encountered the 5 recognised stages of grief; Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and resolution.  I am convinced that they aren’t linear, we are all different and go through them at different pace, different order and sometimes a few all at once!  Someone could probably tell me what stage I’m in right now and why I’m writing this, but that doesn’t really interest me.

Striding edge - 1One thing that does interest me, is that those who are walking this path are not helped by being controlled or told what to do.   Religion tries to either offer a dogmatic grid to tell people how they should be feeling, or facile answers attempting to rush the process.  Hollow religion isn’t comfortable with death, grief and raw emotion, it’s too messy and dangerous, many religious beliefs are attempting to prop up an ‘everything is awesome’ culture.  As I’ve considered how religion cack-handedly makes a mess of caring for the bereaved, it’s usually because religion wants to pull people through grief too quickly, damaging them on the way, rather than let them encounter God in the midst of the pain.

When we’re grieving we need freedom not regulations, space to be found by God, not information about Him.

That isn’t easy to write, because one of the most painful and challenging parts of grief is that we both experience the depth of engaging encounter with God and the desolation of wilderness feeling separate from him.  In many ways we can’t do much about that, yet grief screams within us that we need to do something to make things right.  Over the past fortnight I’ve once again experienced the troughs and crests of the unyielding waves of grief, one hour bursting with creative ideas and drive, the next crashing into a drained numbness.  One thing I’ve experienced in grief is the restless angst of not knowing what to do with myself. I long for stillness and then crave distraction, all activity loses it’s appeal and yet doing nothing seems worse, I have a jumble of thoughts to bring to God and then find they disappear when I try to pray.

Bereavement card - 1It’s not easy to find God in the midst of the internal chaos, but that’s made worse by the external pressure of religion attempting to meddle in the holy ground of knowing God.

When supporting a bereaved person please, please don’t tread on that holy ground, don’t invade it, don’t try to tell hem why they can’t feel God, don’t give them your tips and techniques to find God, don’t invade their space with your autobiography, however amazing you are! Lovingly pray for them, listen to them and do what you can to offer practical support, to clear space around them, so that they can pause and let God find them.  Let the Holy Spirit do her job, she’s better at it than you!

Religious lies which push God away.

Hollow religion develops when we believe lies about God’s character and start to live at a distance from him, hoping to appease or please him.

A few years ago, I took a funeral of a man in his 40s who had died suddenly, it was a huge crowd.  He and his family and friends had almost no church background, as I prepared my talk, I heard a whisper from the Holy Spirit; “Please tell them that it’s not my fault”.  I could sense God’s pain, that those He wished to comfort were pushing him away and blaming him for the tragedy.  As I delivered the talk, I could feel the tension in the building, a sense of defiance.  As I shared the Bible’s truth I could almost hear the resistance; “How can he dare speak about God when all this is His fault?”  The Holy Spirit enabled me to speak a very clear and simple prophetic message.

“God did not cause this! He is the one who fights with us against death, not the one who makes it happen”.

Death is the enemy, not God.

The New Testament is joyful and triumphant in it’s declaration that death is defeated.

Hollow Religion mixes a cocktail, combining a view of God’s sovereignty based on philosophy not Jesus, with the desire for simple answers and trying to make everything awesome.  It both leaves a foul aftertaste and is hugely unhealthy, don’t drink it!  Trite comments like;

“He does everything for a reason” or “He wanted them in heaven” are both unbiblical and very damaging. – We will not go to the one we are blaming for comfort.

Religion is what we do, when we believe that we are distant from God.

When we walk with God through this process, he leads us through the valley of the shadow of death, besides still waters, through the wilderness and into his presence.  He sets the pace and the rhythm of that journey, let him lead you however long it takes.

Something weird is happening to me.

Something weird happened to me last Sunday.
As I baptised four people who have recently encountered Jesus & been saved, set free & renewed by him, something new and fresh & quite overwhelming burst inside me.

I JUST LONG TO SEE MORE PEOPLE SAVED!!

The taste of salvation testimonies has given me a craving for more, that’s what real Spirit inspired testimony does to us, it raises our faith.

It’s burning in me, whenever I stop the daily busyness of family & work & pause to listen to my heart, it cries out the same longing to Jesus. “I want more”.

I still want renewal of the church, maturity disciples in St.Chad’s, to see my boys grow up as contributors not consumers & all the other things on my list of things that matter.
But a depth charge of longing for salvation has gripped me and I want it to become infectious.

So will you pray just two things right now?
Let the Holy Spirit do the same to you.
Pray for Romiley, (my community) & your community, that many will encounter Jesus.

Tender Shoot

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He grew up before us like a tender shoot

Like a root out of dry ground,

 

I’ve meditated on this verse from the start of Isaiah 53 a number of times.  I find the simple vulnerability of a tender shoot to describe Jesus approaching the cross as a very powerful and yet unsettling image.  The more we dig into the depths of Jesus’ amazing vulnerability the more it challenges and realigns our subtle, conscious and subconscious attempts to find power to protect ourselves.

God’s great master plan, was one man dying for the sake of the rest of us.   As Jesus spent his last week in Jerusalem, the rest of the world were totally unaware of him, In the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia tribal people were living their lives on different continents unaware of what was happening. The Egyptians were a developed nation but waning against the might of the Roman empire and Britain was very much a primitive tribal backwater.  Yet God planted a tender shoot in Israel and he planted it into dry ground.  In worldly terms, God’s plan was high risk, tender shoots can be eaten by rabbits, squashed by something bit big feet or crowded out by other bigger plants.  But God protected his plan, he planted Jesus into the right place at the right time and then he caused the growth to happen.

And all this happened like a tender shoot bursting out of dry ground. 

We see the desert, the infertility, the difficulties the dismissal of God’s purposes.  God sees the potential, God knows that in every seed there is all the potential for a vast tree and multiple more trees.

I look at our ‘village’ and I look at the generation of young adults in the UK and I can choose to see desert, tough resistant ground.  But when I hear of stories from around the world of God at work, of renewal, of many coming to know Jesus, of God transforming communities, I’m stirred and challenged that not long ago that place was dry ground, that place could have seemed like a desert.

So I pray Isaiah 35 for where I live and for those places and people God has given me a passion for;

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. 

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” 

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water;”

(Isaiah 35:1–7 ESV)

There is hope for wherever you live and whomever God has given you a love for, because all around us God is planting tender shoots and what seems like a desert to us, is an opportunity for him.