The Four Directions of Danger

Psalm 107 is strongly associated with seafarers due to the references to the sea and sailing (vv23-32).

Some went out on the sea in ships;

they were merchants on the mighty waters.

They saw the works of the Lord,

his wonderful deeds in the deep.

Psalm 107:23

The Psalm talks of how, in that dangerous and unpredictable marine environment, God’s protection is experienced and known. So it is no surprise that those with strong connections to the sea find this psalm helpful and reassuring.

The marine setting is further expressed by the fact that this psalm is subtly based around the four points of the compass, it is a cardinal psalm. This is introduced with a reference to those God has,

gathered out of the lands from the east and from the west,

from the north and from the south

Psalm 107:3

(although ‘south’ should almost certainly have been translated ‘sea’, the Hebrew word for south and sea differ by only one letter but the sea was never to the South for the people of Israel, so this is probably a copyist’s error).

The rest of this psalm is covertly structured around the dangers that come at God’s people associated with the four cardinal points of the compass –

  • The dangers of the desert wastes to the East (vv4-9),
  • The dangers of the darkness of the setting sun in the West (vv10-16),
  • The dangers of the pagan nations to the North (vv17-22),
  • and the dangers of the sea (South) (vv23-32).

But whilst this psalm reprises the actual history of the people of Israel, it is also the story of every follower of God – the same dangers, associated with the four compass points, are encountered by us all.

The dangers to the East – of life in the desert – were very familiar to the people of Israel from the time of the Exodus when they wandered in the desert for 40 years. Figuratively it speaks of times of being in need, of having limited resources, of facing challenging circumstances, of times when we are spiritually or physically exposed and fragile.

The dangers to the West speak of the direction of the setting sun. In Hebrew culture this always conveyed the idea of night, of times of gloom and darkness, of moments when hope is in short supply.

The dangers to the North speak of the pagan nations who so often threatened Israel. Sometimes that threat was military, but most often is what the danger of their idolatrous religion infecting the nation. That is why the image of sickness is used. It was from the nations to the North that Israel was always tempted into worshipping other gods, such as Baal. This placing of something other than God at the centre of their lives – which is what idolatry is – is described as having physical consequences, making them ill and sick and near to death. When you place something other than God at the centre of your life it poisons everything.

The danger of the sea (South) – in Jewish culture the sea was always feared as a primeval place where God was felt to be less in control, and it was more the domain of demons and chaos. As such the Jewish people had an aversion to the sea. Such was their dislike that when King Solomon established a navy, he had to do a deal with the King of the Phoenicians to get sailors to man his ships. So, the danger of the sea speaks of evil forces assailing the follower of God.

Each cardinal point represents a danger for the people of God and the psalm treats each in turn where a repeating pattern is seen.

  • God’s people get into trouble. Sometimes because of their failure – ‘they went astray, they rebelled, they were foolish’ – and sometimes because they were simply doing something with an inherent risk factor – ‘they went out on the sea in ships’.
  • They then experience suffering of some kind and find themselves in mortal peril.
  • They cry out to God.
  • God delivers them.
  • Each time they learn something new about the depth of God’s love for them and the power he has to save them.
  • The people of God are called to respond in praise and worship.

So the overall message of this psalm is – whatever danger you face, and however you got there, if you turn to God in repentance and faith and you will experience his salvation, you will learn something more about God’s love for you and his power to help, and your response should be a life of praise and worship.

So I wonder where each of us find ourselves today?

Do you know yourself to be in relationship with God, a relationship made possible by the blood of Jesus? Do you know that whatever direction danger comes at you, and for whatever reason, God will be there for you, he will help you, save you, because he loves you?

Or maybe one of the ‘four directions of danger’ is particularly significant for you today.

  • The danger to the East – the desert – being in need, aware of limited resources, of challenging circumstances.
  • The danger to the West  – a time of darkness, of gloom and of misery when hope is in short supply.
  • The danger to the North – Has God has slipped from his rightful place at the centre of our lives and we are feeling the consequences of that in a general malaise.
  • The danger of the sea (South) – The inherent riskiness of life has manifested ourselves and we feel out of control in a hostile world.

Wherever we find ourselves today we are invited to turn to God, to set right anything that needs sorting and to ask for God’s help and rescue.

And when God moves we are then invited to respond to him in praise and worship.

Faith Confirmed?

There is a well-known psychological reality called confirmation bias. It is basically the tendency to give more weight to data that supports your assumptions, than to data which challenges them.

In the humdrum of everyday life it is something to be aware of but its effects are limited.

Perhaps our political beliefs are less robust than we would like to imagine them, our prejudices less well-founded, our hopes built on a shakier foundation than we might assume.

But confirmation bias is only that – a slight bias in one direction – it does not make us incapable of formulating robust understandings of the world and of challenging these understandings as we try to improve them. If it did human beings would never have made any scientific progress. Ultimately the reality of confirmation bias just means we have to be humbler about what we think we know and the limits of that knowledge.

So, while confirmation bias is a reality in our every day life, we can live with it. However, when it comes to the realm of religious belief – where an accurate perception of truth can literally mean the difference between life and death, between salvation or perdition, between a life wholly fulfilled or wholly lost – the ability to perceive truth is a big deal.

The problem of confirmation bias is the area of religious belief is nicely summed up in the following quote;

Believers of any faith may see everyday occurrences as proof of their religious convictions. Positive events are seen as miracles, while tragedies are seen as “tests of faith.” Conversely, people who do not belong to any religion may see the same events as reinforcement of their lack of faith. No matter how random or innocuous the evidence is, people who have a confirmation bias can use it to validate what they believe.


So how can I as a follower of Jesus be sure that my faith is not just wishful thinking?

I think there are a few things that help us;

The Foundation of Faith –

The Christian faith is ultimately a response to a person – Jesus Christ – and we have quite a lot of data about his life, actions, and teaching. We have 4 eye-witness accounts of his life, all written within living memory and accepted as truthful and accurate accounts by the first communities of Christians.

We can read, study and compare those accounts and arrive at our own conclusion of who we think Jesus was.

Famously, the ardent atheist C.S. Lewis did this and came up with three possibilities for the identity of Jesus. That he was bad (a fake pretending to be something and someone he knew he wasn’t), mad (a mad trapped in a wild fantasy), or that he was God. Lewis could not identify any other option that was consistent with the data. Ultimately, he accepted Jesus as divine, abandoned his atheism and spent the rest of his life living out and sharing his faith in Christ.

The Pragmatic Reality –

The Christian faith has been in existence for 2,000 years, there is a lot of data out there for us to assess on whether embracing the faith whole-heartedly really makes a qualitative difference in a person’s life.

We have whole libraries of hagiography (the writings about the holy ones, the saints). These stories describe the lives and actions of those people who embraced the Christian faith to its fullest extent – obviously if we want to assess the impact of Christian faith it is amongst the most committed followers that we will see the best evidence.

As we examine their lives and teaching do we see evidence of truth and beauty that would give support to the belief that following Jesus makes a difference?

The Positive Place of Doubt –

Interestingly, the Christian faith itself holds that doubt is intrinsic to the experience of living with God. The Bible itself contains many stories of how difficult living with God is. The name of the people of God in the Old Testament was ‘Israel’ which literally means ‘struggles with God’.

The books of Job and Jonah are stories about the pain of living with a God whose actions you don’t understand and cannot make sense of.

The culmination of the Job story is when Job has a revelation of God in all his majesty. Job’s questions are not answered, God’s actions are not explained, there is no Poirot-esque resolution with all the loose ends tied up and explained. just an encounter with a God whose reality manifestly surpasses human comprehension.
Job’s response is to literally put his hand over his mouth, to physically stop himself from speaking any more (Job 40:4).

The Eastern branch of the Christian church developed a concept called apophatic theology (apo – to deny, phanai-to speak, so a meaning something like ‘what cannot be said’).

This concept holds that every way we might try to describe God is ultimately wrong. If we say ‘God is love’ that might be partially true, but our human concept of love is too weak and too limited to accurately encapsulate the reality of God. So, to stretch the concept to its limit it means that ultimately everything we say about God is wrong.

Does this matter? Well to a degree. If we use the analogy of electricity it can be helpful. As an trainee electronic engineer I learned certain formulas about the relationships within an electrical circuit and between power, current and voltage. These formulas meant I could safely work with electricity, predict its behaviour and harness its effectiveness.
If you has asked me to describe electricity at the sub-atomic level, I could not have done that – I’m not entirely sure anyone can completely.
But the level of accuracy we have in describing electricity is sufficient for everyday use.

As Christian do I claim to understand God fully – no – and I need to be humble about the provisional nature of my theology. But is my knowledge sufficient for me to live with God and follow him – yes – perhaps not without a level of discomfort and doubt, but it is possible.

Because of our limited ability to understand God doubt, and it’s corollary, faith are an essential component to living with God.

The book of psalms contains many songs that expressing the most crushing confusion and doubt about God – certainly to a degree that the stiff-upper-lipped English baulk at.

We have books such as Job and Jonah that have doubt as their central theme, we have many incidents in the Old and New Testaments about how hard it is to live with a God who doesn’t behave in a way you expect and which you cannot understand.

Someone has said that

‘doubts are like ants in the pants of faith, they keep it alive and moving’

and there is probably truth in that.

Faith is always a question as well as a conviction.

The Cross – Finally, and perhaps ultimately it is the cross that I think is the most helpful thing as we live with doubt. On the cross Jesus proved in the agony of his voluntary death the reality of God’s love for us and that act puts any and every doubt we might ever have into perspective.

We cannot not trust a God who has proven his love in such a way.

So we must learn to live with our doubts, to be humble about our theology, to see ourselves always seekers after truth, rather than custodians of it.

The life of faith is less like following a programmatic recipe for success, and more like an adventure into the unknown.

Buckle up and enjoy the ride!

A Happy Death

(This post first appeared in LadderLife No. 5 February 2021 – Ladderlife is the magazine of the Heavy Metal Fresh Expression of Church ‘We Are Jacob’s Ladder’, Hugglescote)

In our daily lives we are bombarded with statistics – particularly in these crazy times of pandemic – hospitalisations, case numbers, R rates, excess deaths etc. However there is one statistic that has been called the Ultimate Statistic. It is simply this,

100% of people die.

One of the strangenesses of our contemporary culture is how we try so hard to ignore this statistic.

Earlier cultures – where the prevalence of disease, famine, and violence made death a much more frequent experience. When people had a life expectancy in the mid 30’s, when infant mortality levels were really high, throughout a person’s short life they were going to be confronted with death on a regular basis.

Now, at least in the developed world, the advances in our living conditions, our access to medicine, and the established rule of law drastically reducing violence, we live much longer – now approaching 90 years on average – which means that death comes to us as more of a surprise.

Everyone feels immortal until the moment they die.

A recent post found me musing on the sign of the skull and crossbones, this month I’m thinking about the subject of a happy death, you might be forgiven for thinking I’m in a bit of a gloomy place!

In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth. It is important to think about death. Indeed, it has been said that;

You are not really ready to live, until you are ready to die.

Which maybe sounds crazy but expresses a great truth.

Surely all of us want to live well, to live a good life? I mean, we only get one go at this life thing, it would be a shame to waste it by not making the most of it. But how can we know if we are living well? How do we evaluate our life? Paradoxically, it is thinking about how our life will end that we gain insight into how we can live it well.

Helpfully, there is some good guidance from the saints of previous ages. Cardinal John Henry NEWMAN wrote a prayer about dying which included the following;

that … I may die as I desire to live, in Thy Church, in Thy faith, and in Thy love. Amen.

Another old prayer says;

Give us the grace to prepare for our last hour by a devout and holy life

Do you see the theme emerging? The point is being made that a good death is one that concludes a good life. In other words,

Those who live well, die well.

Those, whose life has been always directed towards God and towards good, will find that death comes gently, as a friend, as a completion.

Some Christian traditions has described death as being ‘promoted to glory’. The idea being that for the Christian death is an advancement, a promotion, not a disaster and not a ruination.

Those who have sought to know and love God more and more in their lives will find that death comes as the ultimate fulfilment of that desire – they get to enter into a quality of relationship with God that have always desired, striven for, but which they were unable to fully achieve in life.

In the Church of England Compline is an evening service that seeks to prepare us for the coming night. However, as with most liturgy, it is richer and deeper than that. As it looks to the coming night’s sleep, and seeks God’s blessing and protection in that period of bodily refreshment, there are also resonances of the final ‘sleep of death’. This is expressed in the opening prayer;

The Lord almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end.

But what is a ’perfect end’?

Picturing a good death we might imagine ourselves surrounded by a loving family ‘old and full of years’. But what about those who die fighting against forces of oppressions, facing down drug barons, who are murdered by despotic rulers because they cried out for freedom? Aren’t those also ‘perfect ends?’

There is a lot of imagery in the Bible of the Christian life as a battle, a struggle, a conflict.

Those who ‘Fight the good fight of the faith.’ (1 Timothy 6:12, NIV), who battle to their dying breath are the ones who are promised eternal life as their reward;

Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown. (Revelation 2 :10, NIV)

Which is expressed nicely in another prayer about death;

Lord Jesus, pour into us the spirit of Thy love, that in the hour of our death we may be worthy to vanquish the enemy and attain unto the heavenly crown: Who livest and reignest, world without end. Amen.

So a happy death is also an accomplishment, a victory, an achievement.
Perhaps the most helpful reminder about dying is that as followers of Jesus we do not die alone.

St Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, seems to have been much older than his wife Mary and he disappears from the scene fairly quickly, certainly before Jesus begins his ministry.
So Joseph must have died while Jesus was a young man. So we can imagine the picture of Joseph on his deathbed with Mary and Jesus at his side.

Which has been seen as symbolic of the death of all those who follow Jesus. Mary, often called the Mother of the Church and Jesus our Saviour, Lord and friend will be at our side at the moment of our dying and bring us safely into the presence of God.

This association with St Joseph has led to him being the patron saint of a happy death.
A prayer that is probably 1,900 years old ends like this;

St. Joseph, patron of departing souls, pray for us. Amen.

So, a happy death? Yes, it is possible.

It is possible; if you live your life in the light of your death; if you set your aim towards good and towards God; if you fight and persevere in the good fight of the faith.

I wish you all ‘A Happy Death’.

Kingdom Ophthalmology

“If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light.”

Matthew 6:22

It’s a strange verse this, on first reading it doesn’t seem to make much sense.

In order to understand it we have to dive into the culture of the ancient world.

Many people will have heard of the ‘Evil Eye’. It’s the idea that people can bring harm to others by looking at them with hatred – an optical curse.

In the ancient world this was very much seen as a reality. People wore protective amulets, or had tattoos to ward off the Evil Eye.

There are many passages in the bible and the apocrypha which refer to this belief.[1]

In Middle East understanding the heart is the source of light which shines out of the eye and rest on those we see around us.

This light can be malevolent (the Evil Eye) or benevolent, as our gaze rests on others it is either a cause of curse or a cause of blessing.

“The eye thus reveals the character of a person.

Good-hearted people possess good eyes and throw off good light;

evil -hearted persons possess evil eyes and throw off evil light.

Moreover, since this light actually falls on whatever a person looks at, it also brings into being what the heart producing it intends.

In this way generous persons can look on others and do actual good, while envious persons can look on others and do real damage.

A culturally sensitive translation would therefore read differently:

The eye is the lamp of the body.

So, if your heart is generous (ἁπλοῡς, haplous), your whole body will be full of light.

But if your eye is evil (πονηρός, ponērós), your whole body will be full of darkness.”[2]

So Jesus’ statement is referring to how we look upon, and by direct inference, how we treat those around us.

Do we see people as deserving of our care and concern? Do we look benevolently upon them and seek out opportunities to do them good?

Or do we look at others with disinterest or contempt, do we ignore their plight, do we fail to help when we can?

How we look is revelatory of who we really are. Our heart is seen through our eyes, through their way of seeing the world and the conduct it leads us to.

How do you see?

How is your ophthalmic health?

Do you see well?

[1] Prov 23:6; 28:22; Deut 15:7-9; 28:54-57; Sir 14:3-10; 18:18; 31:12-13; 37:7-12; Tob 4:15-17; 4 Macc 1:16; 2:15; Matt 6:22-23; 20:1-15; Mark 7:22; Luke 11:33-36; Gal 3:1

[2] Dr. Richard Rohrbaugh, The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation, p3

Symbol of Death?

The skull and crossbones is a very familiar symbol. We see it on poisons labels.

We see it in films about pirates, where the ‘Jolly Roger’ flag is hoisted by the approaching pirates attack. A symbol designed to strike terror into the hearts of those being attacked and to encourage them to surrender without a fight.

The earliest use of the skull and crossbones in a pirate flag. First used by the French pirate Emmanuel WYNN in 1700.

The first use of this symbol as a warning about poison seems to date from 1820 when it appeared on the cover of a book called ‘A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons’ by Frederick ACCUM.

(The biblical reference is to where, in a time of famine, someone accidentally makes a stew out of poisonous plants – the prophet recognises what has happened and cures everyone who has eaten.)

The skull and crossbones is also often seen in old churches and on gravestones.

These gravestones are in Peebles, Scotland

But we might wonder where does this skull and crossbones symbol come from?

Well, interestingly, it seems to originate from the early centuries of the Christian era.

As a persecuted minority, the earliest Christians in Rome were an underground church – literally. They met in the catacombs – the underground tunnels that functioned as a funeral complex for ancient Rome.

Meeting in this place, from time to time, it became necessary to move the remains of Christian burials, to make space.

But this very practical necessity created a theological problem.

The hope of the resurrection of the body is a central aspect of Christian belief. We have it from Jesus himself;

‘…for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.’

(John 5:25, 28-29)

But it was wondered, how much of a person’s physical remains does God actually need in order to be able to bring them back to life?

After much theological debate it was agreed that, God being God, He probably didn’t need any physical remains – given that He made us out of dust originally!

But, just to be on the safe side, whenever a Christian grave was disturbed, the two long thigh-bones and the skull would be kept – the skull and crossbones.

So the skull and crossbones symbol is not a symbol of death, but rather it is a symbol of the Christian hope of resurrection.

Resurrection is central to the Christian story – a story which is founded, even centred on, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. This event is considered so crucial that St Paul wrote;

‘And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.’

(1 Corinthians 15:14)

In Christian theology Christ the resurrection demonstrates Christ’s victory over sin and death and Satan.

‘But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.’

(Acts 2:24)

The late, great Larry NORMAN summed it up well in his song ‘Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?’,

‘Jesus told the truth, Jesus showed the way

There’s one more thing I’d like to say

They nailed him to the cross, they laid him in the ground

But they shoulda known you can’t keep a good man down’

So I think it would be a good thing if the grave of every Christian was marked with the skull and crossbones, it is a sign of our hope of the resurrection.

When my time comes, you can place on my tombstone the skull and crossbones and carve these words:

‘By the unstoppable power of the Risen Christ,

By the impossibility that God should lie,

I’m coming back baby!’

Hellish Bookends

The Holy Innocents

As I write this 28/12/2020 it is the feast of the Holy Innocents – the church’s annual reminder of the horror perpetrated by King Herod.

Having failed to trick the Magi (Wise Men) into revealing Jesus’ location, Herod tries the catch-all strategy of killing all the young boys born in the area around Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth.

‘When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.’

Matthew 2:16, NIV

It was a plan doomed to failure as Joseph had already been warned in a dream to flee to Egypt with his family.

But, following Herod’s orders, all the boys in the Bethlehem area who were under 2 years of age were brutally snatched from their mother’s arms and killed by soldiers.

Maybe it was only a few children, a few dozen at most, but that does nothing to diminish the horror of the act and of the trauma that would reverberate down the decades in those families and communities.

Just imagine…

Jesus’ birth is therefore accompanied by an act of unthinkable brutality.

As we move towards Easter we are reminded that Jesus’ death is likewise an act of horrific barbarity.

An innocent man. Falsely condemned. Brutally tortured and mocked. Nailed to a wooden cross. Dying in intense agony through slow suffocation.

Just imagine…

It seems significant to me that at both Jesus’ birth and his death we see the very worst of humanity on graphic display.

Which, if ever you needed an illustration of why the world needs Jesus, I can’t think of a more powerful one.

Films, Beer and Jesus

Whilst the title of this blog might sound like an interesting night out, it is actually an attempt to think through some of the major cultural changes we are currently living through.

We live in a time of rapid cultural transition. This is brought about in part by the possibilities of new technologies, but is also driven by changes in behaviour that are chosen for a variety of different reasons.

Industries are being forced to adapt to this new and quickly evolving reality. This has led to some major changes.

For much of the history of the UK the local pub has been an important place for social meeting. People went to their local, had a pint or two of beer and spent a pleasant hour with their neighbours.

‘Since 2000, a quarter of pubs have closed in the UK, totalling more than 13,000 locations. Four out of five people have seen a pub close down within five miles of their home.’[1]

The recent COVID-19 pandemic looks likely to accelerate this process. There may be around 25% of pubs who will not survive.

This would have been very bad news for brewers, who traditionally sold most of their product through the pubs. However, the brewers have changed their business model. So much so that in 2015 beer sales in supermarkets overtook pub sales for the first time[2].

They have responded to the new social reality – people prefer to drink at home – and adapted their business model to work in this new situation.

The film business has also been in a period of rapid change. It used to be the case that cinemas were the only place you could watch films. But, first VHS and then DVD technologies, enabled people to buy films to watch at home, then the internet enabled the creation of streaming services that allowed you to download a film direct to your tv.

The film industry has had to adapt.

Cinemas have adapted –

  1. they have either become more broad in their offering – more screens, more variety – quality and comfort of seats, food options, loyalty schemes, 3D showings, event packages etc.
  2. or they have become more niche – tailoring their offering to a specific customer group.

The film business has also embraced the new options of digital delivery of content.

‘This year, OTT[3] revenues will overtake theatrical revenues for the first time, according to Ampere Analysis. SVoD[4] has already surpassed cinema in the US, and the trend is widening to include European and Chinese markets. All in, OTT is predicted to reach US$46 billion in 2019, beating worldwide box office receipts of US$40 billion[5].

So the beer industry and the film industry have adapted to the changing realities of modern life and their businesses have survived.

If we turn now to the church we see a similar effect at play. Between 1980 and 2015 church attendance halved in the Church of England in the UK[6]. I attended a Christian Vision for Men event a few years ago, where it was stated that if the current rates continue, the last man will leave the Church of England in 2030.

So, if we find, as brewers and film producers have, that our offering is no longer something that people find attractive, what should we do?

One answer might be ‘Nothing’. Maybe we just hold out, dig in, maintain our existing practices. Maybe the world just needs to come around to our way of doing things?

We could circle the wagons and create an exclusive club for the cognoscenti.

Whilst this might have the quality of ‘faithfulness to Tradition’, (or at least our most recent ‘tradition’), it does not sit easily with the history of the Christian movement from its earliest days.

The Christian faith has always considered itself as being for the masses. The foundation charter of the Church is the command given by Jesus to his discipes;

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”[7]

In other words the Church is fundamentally about world-wide expansion; about creating communities of faith centred upon Jesus and living in the experience of his presence.

The early Church quickly learned to adapt itself as it expanded into different contexts. We see the first example of this in the way that it quickly adapted itself from a Jewish movement to one that was more open to Gentiles.

We see this adaptability at play in the ministry of St Paul. He wrote about becoming ‘all things to all men, that I might save some’[8]. We see this played out concretely in the way that he quoted Greek poetry when speaking to the Athenians[9], in how he used a lecture hall in order to share his ideas with the philosophers[10]. Yet he also made his Gentile assistant get circumcised, so that no offence might be given to Jewish Christians.

The content of Paul’s message never changed, but the manner of its presentation and the way in which he led people into an exploration of it, was always contextually shaped.

Those who study how we can take the Christian message to different cultures (missiologists) are ahead of the game in this. Contextualisation – the process of expressing the unchanging message of Christ in a particular context – is vital if the Christian message is to really live within that culture. Often this process enables those taking the gospel to see it with new eyes, appreciate aspects that were underdeveloped within their own culture[11].

So, as our culture is changing and we see industries and businesses adapting in order to maintain themselves, in what ways might the church change?

More Variety –

Our culture is less monolithic than it once was. Relationship and family patterns have changed. Working patterns have changed. Leisure patterns have changed. The idea of holding one particular event, once a week, in one place for the whole local community to come to, is unlikely to survive.

People will need to have options, both in terms of the day and the time but also in terms of content and form. It is rather hopeful to think that one event can help –

– all ages – seniors, the middle-aged, young adults, teenagers, small children,

– all personality types,

– all stages in spiritual development, etc. etc.

to help them explore and/or express faith.

I think that the future is more likely to be multiple – multiple activities at multiple times in multiple locations.

More Innovation –

In order to develop these new ways of exploring faith and being Church we will need more innovators, explorers, pioneers. More people with the capacity and skill to see possibilities and explore them.

In technical Christian language these people are apostles – they take the gospel in to new contexts and see it established there.

More Failure –

The one certainty about innovation is that it involves risky experiments that often don’t work. Also I think the future is inherently unstable – things will be successful for a while, but not necessarily endure long-term.

This will require a process for continual evaluation and of implementing a good death for things that have served their purpose but then looking to see how resurrection might come in a new form.

More Prayer –

It is a truism to say that mostly we pray only when we have to. When our circumstances are stable, when life is plodding on predictably and comfortably, we have little felt sense of the need of prayer.

When we are in the maelstrom of constant change and things around us and being birthed, flourishing, dying and resurrected, I think we will feel a much greater need for prayer. The fact of mission being God’s work (missio dei) will become more obvious and our reliance on God’s activity more urgent.

Less Professional –

Whilst the complexity of church looks likely to increase, with this new landscape of rapid change and multiple forms, I think that this will not lead to more highly trained, full-time, tertiary educated, professional ministers but it will actually be more about unpaid, part-time activists.

I think the church will be more artisanal than professional. It will be more about having a passion, an idea, a vision and chasing it, than about people being formed within an institution in order to maintain that institution.

There may certainly be a mix but I think that the kind of smaller groupings we can envisage as the new ways in which Church will express itself will be capable of being led by people with less training but with on-going oversight and support, and achievable as a spare time, or part-time engagement.

More Fun –

I think that the Church will be more interesting, more varied, more playful in this new future. In a word more fun.

I wonder what your ideas are? What have I missed? Where am I wrong? It would be good to hear your ideas.



[3] OTT = Over the Top – streamed film content over the internet (the content provider is going ‘over the top’ of existing internet services).

[4] SVOD is a video sales strategy based on recurring revenue, usually monthly or annual subscriptions and stands for Subscription Video on Demand.



[7] Matthew 28:28-30, NIV

[8] 1 Corinthians 9:22

[9] Acts 17:28

[10] Acts 19:9

[11] The classic example of this is Vincent DONOVAN’s book ‘Christianity Rediscovered – An epistle form the Masai.

Pray Short, Pray Often

I’ve been reading about the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) recently.

Their lives are challenging.

They chose to lives lives of intense deprivation and hardship in order to grow closer to God.

Their lives are a strange mixture of the banal and mundane and the esoteric.

They express some piercing spiritual insights, and also some uncomfortably odd words and actions.

There are also, many, many stories of failure, of them getting it wrong, of their spiritual ‘blow-outs’ and temptation ‘cave-ins’.

Ans the stories sound all the more real because of that.

As I approach the final third of my life I have reflecting on the spiritual progress that I have made – or lack thereof.

One quote that I came across recently reminded me of something I learned that I think has been the basis of any progress I have made.

Spurgeon was said never to have prayed more than five minutes at a time,

but he seldom went more than five minutes without praying.

Spurgeon, the great Victorian Baptist preacher had learned something that Brother Lawrence had promoted a few hundred years earlier – the practice of the presence of God.

Seeking to live each moment with God,

in God

and for God.

Which was itself an expression of St Paul’s teaching;

And whatever you do, whether in word or deed,

do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus,

giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Collossians 3:17, NIV

In our distracted age, the model of the great saints of prayer who could pray for hours at a time, seems, frankly, unattainable.

However Spurgeon’s approach – pray short, pray often – seems much more achievable.

And anything that helps us to live in moment by moment communion with God is a great help and to be embraced.

A wise Roman Catholic priest once told me that in building Christian community WHAT you did was not that important, rather it was the fact of doing it TOGETHER that created community.

I think spiritual progress – deepening our relationship with God – operates on the same basis.

The WHAT of our activity counts for little, it is the fact of our doing it WITH God that makes spiritual growth possible.

Go and await the day of your death

In the 15th chapter of the Voyage of St Brendan, the saint meets a monk who lives alone on a deserted island.

The monk tells the tale of how he came to be there.

The dead St Patrick had appeared to him and instructed him to go down to the sea shore, where he would find a boat. He was to set sail in it and it would bring him,

‘to the spot where you will await the day of your death’.

He had followed the instructions, found the boat, climbed in and set sail, and it had brought him to this island where for 90 years he had lived as a solitary monk.

So the injunction ‘to await the day of your death’ was not a statement about an impending doom, but rather a call to live his whole life oriented towards the certainty of his own death, and hence focused resolutely and singularly, upon God.

I recently watched a brilliant film by the independent film-maker Nick HAMER. It was called ‘Outside the City’ and was based on the life of the monastery of Mount St Bernard’s Abbey, Leicestershire.

During the course of the 18 months the film-maker spent with the monks several of them died.

It was very moving to hear the monks talk of their approaching death with calm and a sense of completion.

What was more striking was that even the young monks spoke often of their own death and of their desire to live and die well.

This monastic outlook that stares death squarely in the face in peaceful acceptance, is in stark contrast to our contemporary culture.

In our culture death is denied, pushed out of sight, it is seen in entirely negative terms.

It is interesting to look at St Francis of Assisi’s view of death. As he lay on his own death-bed he wrote a final verse to his great Canticle of the Sun.

Praised be You, my Lord,
through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living man can escape.

Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom she will
find in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.

Praise and bless my Lord,
and give Him thanks
and serve Him with great humility.

St Francis of Assisi, Canticle of the Sun, composed 1224-1226

We see here death personified as a ‘sister’, a friend whose ministry completes our human life.

For St Francis it was not Sister Death that we need to fear, but rather meeting her unprepared.

For the faithful follower of Jesus, Sister Death is harmless, merely the mechanism by whose ministry we are released into the full presence of God.

It strikes me that the monks of Mount St Bernard’s Abbey can fully embrace life precisely because they fully embrace death.

Holding their own death before them does not lead to depression or morbidity, but rather to the ability to focus on the important, that which brings life, to enjoy the joy of each moment of life, which is a gift. A gift that we take, give thanks for and offer back to God.

So I invite you to ‘go, and await the hour of your death.’

Being Jupital

Jupiter (‘Jove’ or ‘Iove’ in Latin ) was the chief Roman god. Therefore it was logical that the largest planet in the solar system would be named after him.

In astrology those born under the influence of Jupiter were believed to be blessed with a cheerful and good-natured disposition.

It is from this that we have the word ‘jovial’ (lit. ‘of Jupiter’) which designates someone with a cheery, pleasant nature.

As a Christian I find it interesting that someone under the influence of the great god was believed to be of such a positive disposition.

This corresponds with the expectation that followers of Jesus should also demonstrate positive personable characteristics.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

(Romans 15:13, NIV)

This is the day which the Lord has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

(Psalm 118:24)

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.

(Proverbs 17:22 ESV)

I found a prayer from Richard ROLLE, the 14th century English mystic, that expresses this well;

‘… lead your life in lightheartedness;

keep hopelessness far away;

do not let gloom remain with you;

but in God’s cheerfulness forever sing out merrily. Amen.’[1]

In a similar vein, Eugene PETERSON described priestly ministry as,

‘…helping people to see grace operating in their lives, as speaking ‘God’ in a situation where God has not been named before so that joy – the ‘capacity to hear the name and recognise that God is here’ – can break out.’[2]

So in a deep sense the Christian life is about the cultivation of joy.

  1. Joy that comes from knowing ourselves to be loved by God.
  2. Joy that comes from recognising God’s activity in and around us, giving our lives significance and meaning.
  3. Joy that arises from knowing that our eternal home is to be with God in fullness of joy, forever.

Ironically this perspective on life means that even difficulties can be lived as joys;

‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, a whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.’

(James 1 :3-4, NIV)

We can be joyful facing difficulties for we know that they can bring about deep transformation of character, they can therefore help us to grow in likeness to Jesus. This in turn gives glory to God and enables us to show others Jesus more clearly.

So I commend Richard ROLLE’s 700 year old prayer to you,

‘… lead your life in lightheartedness;

keep hopelessness far away;

do not let gloom remain with you;

but in God’s cheerfulness forever sing out merrily. Amen.’

[1] ‘Ghostly Gladness’ by Richard ROLLE

[2] quoted in COCKSWORTH and BROWN, Being a Priest Today, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2002 (2nd ed. 2006), p193f