The God who Runs


By any measure the story of the Prodigal Son is an amazing story.

If just for a minute, we forget that it was Jesus who made it up, if we forget that it is a story from the Bible – just hear it as a story – it feels REAL.

You can imagine myself opening up a newspaper and reading this story, it just feels authentic, the characters are so compelling, the twists and turns so captivating.

And we read this story and we kind of ‘get’ it, but perhaps we miss some of the shocking nature this story would have had to Jesus’ audience.
In Jesus’ time the more important a person’s place in society, the slower they walked.

So the Father in this story – a wealthy and significant person in his society – should have had a slow majestic bearing that befitted his social status.

But what does the father do when he sees his returning, wastrel son – he runs!

Jesus’ hearers would have been shocked and stunned to hear this.

They would never have heard or seen anything like it in their lives.

Effectively the Father shames himself in front of the whole village, he ridicules himself.

But he is so relieved to see his son alive, so delighted to have him back safe and sound, so happy that his family is restored, that he runs.

But what is Jesus telling us through this story?

In this story both the sons are estranged from their Father.

The elder son is outwardly obedient to his Father, but his behaviour and subsequent conversation shows that there is no love in his heart for his dad.

The younger son is more honest in that he wants money so he can get as far away from his father as possible. So he can reject his father’s rules, live in any way that pleases him, do his own thing.

In the story the Father is meant to represent God – a God from whom his children are estranged.

Do we see ourselves in this story?

Maybe, maybe not.

Maybe we know that we have already been restored to God’s family. We know that He loves us and we are daily trying to love Him and to live in a way that pleases Him.

Or just maybe we do see ourselves represented here – if not constantly, perhaps from time to time.

Perhaps we live in a way that outwardly looks like we are in relationship with God – but actually it is all for show, and we know in our hearts there is no real love for God.

Or perhaps our separation from God is more obvious, our rebellion more evident?

There is one thing that we need to know absolutely:

God loves us deeply, desperately, unflinchingly.

And the very moment that we realise that God is good, the second we desire to be living in relationship with God, the instant that we accept that living with God is something wonderful and to be desired, at that exact moment that we turn around and head back towards God, what will we find?

We will find a God that opens his arms and runs headlong towards us, who will wrap us in his embrace and restore us into his family.

We will discover ACCEPTANCE.

And the ACCEPTANCE of God is a glorious thing.


The Recipe for Making a Disciple


Jesus final commandment to his followers was very clear;

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.”

(Matthew 28:16-20, NIV)

Notice that Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples to make converts, or even to make Christians; they are to make disciples.
And there is the problem. For the one thing that churches, of all spiritualties, have struggled to do throughout history, is to consistently make large numbers of disciples.

However, the Spirit of God is doing something remarkable in our time. Across the whole of the Christian Church there is a renewed focus on discipleship and mission.

The World Council of Churches recently put out something called the Arusha Call to Discipleship.

In the Roman Catholic world in Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) which calls for discipleship to be our primary focus.

Closer to home, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Nottingham has recently expressed how he wants his diocese to respond to Pope Francis’ call.

He expressed three elements;

“I would like to ensure that people of all ages in our parishes, schools, and chaplaincies are helped to discover, or discover more deeply, the importance of a personal ENCOUNTER with Christ; so that they can become convinced that they are each loved by God and are invited to grow in their relationship with him.
Because of that personal encounter with Christ, I would like to encourage each of us to hear and respond to his invitation to be his DISCIPLES, to follow him more closely, and to seek to serve him generously in our daily lives.
…with a greater recognition of, and openness to, the help, guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we can all become MISSIONARY DISCIPLES; faith-filled, joyful and outward-looking Christians who are growing in confidence to speak humbly of the difference that knowing Christ makes to our lives…”
(Right Reverend Patrick Joseph McKinney, Bishop of Nottingham, Pastoral Letter November 2018)

In our own Anglican church, we have seen the recent publication of the ‘Setting God’s People Free’ report. This report is a clarion call to put discipleship and mission front and centre.

In our own diocese, Bishop Martyn’s recent initiatives are all seeking to follow the impetus of this report.

Now it cannot be an accident when Churches across the world and across the broadest spectrum of spirituality are all converging on the same call to make disciples who are on mission with God.

Someone once told me that the Christian life can be summed up as praying for the Holy Spirit to move, and then when He does, trying not to fall off!

So if the Holy Spirit is moving across the whole world calling the people of God to put discipleship front and centre, how can we join in with what God is doing, how can we join in with making disciples?

Perhaps we can best understand the process of making disciples if we focus our attention on Jesus’ calling of his first followers;

Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted,
and they came to him.
He appointed twelve that they might be with him
and that he might send them out to preach
and to have authority to drive out demons.

(Mark 3:13-15, NIV)

If we consider this passage about the calling of the first disciples, I think we can see 4 elements that show us how disciples are made.

And perhaps that is something we need to state right at the start. Disciples are only made intentionally – they don’t happen by accident.

If you don’t have a process, or a programme, or a model for making disciples,

then you probably won’t make any.

So how does Jesus go about intentionally creating disciples?

The first element is having a sense of Jesus calling us to follow Him and making a response to that call.

‘(Jesus) called to Him those He wanted and they came to Him’.

As churches cannot make disciples without being intentional about it, neither can we become disciples without a chosen and serious engagement.

There is a sense here that these followers of Jesus allowed Him to interrupt and re-orient their lives. They chose to centre their lives on Him.

Their relationship with Jesus would no longer be peripheral, some vague and sporadic meetings, but rather it was to be at the very centre of their lives and their primary concern.

So the discipleship question is;

How central is Jesus in our lives?

How far up our list of priorities does Jesus come?

The second element in discipleship is that the primary calling of a disciple is to BE with Jesus;

‘that they might be with Him.’

These would-be disciples were called to spend time with Jesus, and this in community.

This is what is going help them to become disciples and this is what will enable them to go out on mission.

This is a key fact about discipleship, it only happens in small groups, or one to one. It almost never happens in large assemblies of people.

That’s because discipleship is more like a virus than a training programme. You catch it from someone that has it, and in order to catch it you have to live in close proximity to them.

A man joined a fresh expression that my wife and I led. He had been an Anglican his whole life, but to be honest he’d never really connected with the spiritual side of things.

Like most blokes he was happy doing the practical stuff. He was certainly always ready to help others with their car problems and DIY, but the spiritual practices – prayer, engagement with the Bible, had never really been his thing.

With the result that he was a kind helpful person, but not an effective disciple who could lead others to Jesus. He couldn’t really talk about his faith, he didn’t really know how to pray. He was a cultural Christian not an engaged disciple.

He and his wife started to come to our fresh expression of church – primarily because it was a warm friendly group of people who had fun together, who supported each other, and who shared their lives with each other. And as they grew closer to this group of people, things started to happen.

When we decided as a group that we needed to start praying seriously for our community, this man and his wide came along to the prayer times.

We would introduce a topic for prayer for our community – perhaps local businesses, the schools, sports clubs etc. and we would pass a holding cross around the group. When you received the cross, it was your turn to pray. We made it clear that you could pray silently, or out loud.

The first few times this guy prayed silently, but after a while, hearing others pray, he gained confidence and started to pray out loud.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so overjoyed to hear a prayer. Not because it was an eloquent, impressive prayer, but because it was a real step forward in this guys practice of his faith and his prayer – however inarticulate – was genuine expression of his heart for his community and a desire to see God’s blessing upon it.

Over the months and years that followed, this man’s faith grew through the support and encouragement of the fresh expression community. He started to have spiritual conversations with other dog walkers that he met, simply sharing his faith when there were opportunities. He even grew in confidence enough to start leading sessions of the fresh expression.

How did that all happen? By being part of a small group with some mature Christians in a space where spiritual practices were engaged with in an accessible and non-threatening way.

So the discipleship question is, where are the spaces in your community where people can grow in discipleship through engagement in the spiritual practices – prayer, engagement with the Bible etc. with a small group of Christians?

The third element in Jesus’ model for making disciples is that they are sent out to preach;

and that he might send them out to preach

How do we preach?

Do you remember at Primary School taking part in ‘Show and Tell’?

You brought an object to school and then told your classmates the story of the object – here’s a shell I found on the beach on my holiday etc.

Well when we are sent out to preach we are sent out to ‘Show and Tell’. We Show by our life, and we Tell by our conversation.

The Early Church saw rapid expansion before there were structures, training centres, professional missionaries, even church buildings.

Why? Because ordinary Christians lived differently to their neighbours. They were loving, kind, they shared together, they looked after the poor and oppressed in their communities.

In Peter’s first letter we read his advice to Christians living in a culture that was hostile to them;

Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, …
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect

(1 Peter 3:8-9, 13-15, NIV)

Do you see here how the ‘show’ and the ‘tell’ of Christian witness are intertwined?

A life which demonstrates the kindness and generosity of God provokes questions and these questions give an opportunity for witness to the difference Jesus makes.

The greatest weakness in the Christian Church is that we often separate the ‘showing’ of the faith and the ‘telling’ of the faith.

Some groups are very good at showing Christian love in service to their communities, but they never get around to sharing how these actions are an expression of their faith in Jesus.

Other groups are very good at telling people about what they believe, but they don’t demonstrate it in generosity towards, and loving service of, those around them.

A recent book ‘The Desecularisation of the City’ has looked at the churches in London that are seeing vibrant growth and this is their conclusion;

“The strongest growth seems to be occurring where congregations are committed to social transformation, without reducing the faith to a purely social gospel.”

In Leicester Diocese we are trying to hold both the showing and telling of gospel proclamation together.

Bishop Martyn’s ‘3 Questions’ challenge us about growth in numbers of disciples, growth in the depth of our discipleship but also about growth in loving service of the world.

So the discipleship question would be, are we showing the love of Jesus in concrete ways to those outside of the Church and is that accompanied by an explanation of why our faith motivates us to this action?

The fourth and final element of Jesus’ discipleship model is seen in the spiritual power that is given to them.

and to have authority to drive out demons

Those who have grown in their relationship with Jesus through putting Him at the centre of their lives, who have developed through spiritual practices in community, who have been obedient to the call to go out and preach the gospel in word and deed, these people are imbued with spiritual power.

The reality of our lives is that we are in a spiritual battle for people’s souls.

We are fighting against determined opposition to establish the Kingdom of God in a hostile world.

You can only do that effectively when you have spiritual power. You can only be filled with God’s power through a life of discipleship.

So to conclude, the question to ask ourselves is, ‘Where are we in our discipleship?’

Have we heard Jesus’ call to come to Him, to make Him the centre of our lives? Have we responded to that call?

Are we engaged in spiritual practices with a small group that will enable us to grow in our faith?

Are we engaged in a life that preaches the gospel by word and deed?

Is the power of God’s Holy Spirit evident in our lives bringing change, destroying that which diminishes human life and establishing the kingdom of God?

In this time of Lent may God enable us to examine our lives and the activities of our churches and respond to this world-wide movement of the Spirit of God to place the creation of disciples at the centre of all we do.

May God help and bless us all.

Wearing the Mark of God

images (37)

It is quite an odd thing to do to put a smudge of ash on our foreheads.

Why do we do it?

What does it mean?

When you look in the Bible you see that it has a rich significance and meaning.

If you know your Bible you will remember that Cain and Abel were the two sons born to Adam and Eve. But that, horrifically, Cain murdered his brother.

What makes it even worse is that it is a religiously motivated murder.

Cain is jealous because God accepted his brother’s sacrifice but rejected his.

Which is a salutary warning that in worship, it is not what we bring in our hands but what we bring in our hearts that counts.

As a punishment God curses Cain and banishes him to a life of restless wandering.

Cain is terrified and says that wherever he goes people will try to kill him because of his crime.

But God puts a mark on Cain and this mark is both a sign of his guilt, but also a sign of God’s protection of him.

Then in Ezekiel 9 we have a story that occurs when the people of God are turning their back on Him.

They have abandoned God, embraced violence and vice and even set up idols in the very temple of God.

God decides to act in judgement to bring His people back to their senses, but before He does God sends an angel saying,

“Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.” (Ezekiel 9:3b, NIV)

Interestingly in the Hebrew it reads ‘mark with a Tav’.

Tav was the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet and had the symbolic meaning of ‘a sign’ or a ‘mark’. In its ancient form Tav was written as an x.

Image result for forehead marked with a tav

So 600 years before Christ, the people of God are saved by the sign of the cross on their foreheads!

Then in Revelation 7 God is about to execute judgement upon the earth but before He does He sends an angel to mark the foreheads of those who serve God.

“Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” (Revelation 7:2-3, NIV)

And we see that as the waves of God’s judgement fall, each time we are told specifically that the people who bears God’s mark on their foreheads are kept safe.

And then, finally, in the very last chapter of the Bible, in Revelation chapter 22:3-4 we read;

“No longer will there be any curse.
The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.
They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.”

The mark that begins as a sign of guilt ends up as a sign of grace and forgiveness.

The mark that begins as a sign of God’s curse, ends up as a sign of God’s blessing.

The mark that begins as a sign of separation ends up as a sign of belonging.


We receive this sign today as people who are living in the middle of this story.

We’re no longer in the Old Testament, but we’re not yet in Revelation.

We receive this sign looking both ways.

This mark that we receive this day has something about it of the mark of Cain; it is a reminder that our lives are still far from perfect and that we are not cooperating with the Holy Spirit as fully as we might to bring about our transformation into people who resemble Jesus.

Lent is a time where we are called to examine our lives in the light of our calling and the coming judgement.

But we also receive this sign looking forward to the end of the story.

We receive this mark as a sign of grace, as a sign of hope, as a sign that God is powerful and faithful.

We receive this sign as a promise that the story ends well.

We receive sign as the mark of God’s promise that He will bring us safely home.

The Power of Bare Trees

bare tree

‘The first time I saw Brother Lawrence was upon the 3rd of August, 1666. He told me that God had done him a singular favour in his conversion at the age of eighteen.

During that winter, upon seeing a tree stripped of its leaves and considering that within a little time the leaves would be renewed and after that the flowers and fruit appear, Brother Lawrence received a high view of the Providence and Power of God which has never since been effaced from his soul.

 This view had perfectly set him loose from the world and kindled in him such a love for God, that he could not tell whether it had increased in the forty years that he had lived since.’

(Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, 1693, p1)

This is the story of the conversion of Brother Lawrence, an unschooled peasant born in 1611 in eastern France. As a young man he went off to be a soldier and was soon wounded. This led to a life-long disability that made him clumsy and awkward.

He recounts here the story of how he came to faith.

All it took was the sight of a bare tree in winter.

Which is amazing, as I know that I have seen many thousands of bare trees in my life-time, none of which has been a moment of spiritual epiphany for me.

I imagine Brother Lawrence had previously seen many of them too.

Yet such is the power of the Holy Spirit in a human soul that when he chooses to act he can take a mundane ordinary object that we have seen thousands of times before and yet use it to bring insight and whole-life transformation.

I imagine if Brother Lawrence were to have lived in our time the story might have been very different.

There would have been books written about how to use bare trees in evangelism. There would have been conferences and seminars. No doubt there would be good-hearted Christian groups going up and down the country tearing the leaves off trees as a missional act.

Which is, of course, to completely miss the point. What made the moment a spiritual revelation that altered the whole direction of Brother Lawrence’s life and made him one of the most valued spiritual guides in the world-wide Christian church was not the tree – but the activity of the Holy Spirit in his heart and mind.

When the Spirit moves He needs almost no material to work with. He can take anything at all and make that a means of open a person’s heart and mind to God. And that can happen in an instant.

It is interesting to read that Brother Lawrence says that at that instant there was born such a love for God in his heart that after 40 years of monastic life, centred on living for God and for others, he was not sure at all that his love for God had increased one bit.

I suppose that is a bit like falling in love. When you encounter someone and your heart goes ‘boom’ and you feel such an intense attraction to them – does that ever get stronger over the years? I would say it alters, it matures, it widens and deepens, but I am not sure it gets stronger than that initial ‘boom’ moment.

All of which is to say that;

  • we need to have more faith in the accessibility of God’s grace.
  • we need to have a greater expectation that God can reach people where they are in the midst of their ordinary lives and activities.
  • we need to re-focus our energies and efforts less on programs and methods and more on prayerful bringing people to God asking that His Holy Spirit would be at work in their lives, ambushing them with God’s love where and when they least expect it.

A bare tree – who would have thought what it could do?

As Iron Sharpens Iron


As iron sharpens iron,
so one person sharpens another.
(Proverbs 27:17 NIV)

There is something fundamentally true in this statement. Indeed I think it can be stretched our further.

Every day we are making the people around us better or worse.

We make each other better by :

• Affirming good actions,
• Affirming good choices,
• Congratulating on the development of new competencies.
• Deprecating bad actions,
• Pointing our poor choices,
• Indicating areas where improvement is possible.

These are not things strangers can generally do for each other.

To be criticised is a painful existential experience.

To have some part of yourself held up to scrutiny and exposed at weak and wrong, can only be borne when the person doing so has earned the right to do so. A right they can only earn through proving consistently and convincingly their esteem for us. In which case their motives can at least be hoped to be pure – that they want our best – rather than being unworthy.

This process transforms not only individuals but their communities and societies.

When this process is absent, we make no forward progress in becoming a nobler, better person, in fulfilling our human potential and, at best, individuals and communities stay as bad as they are.

In the worst case scenario, in the presence of negative character reinforcement – applauding that which is base and poor and deprecating the good – we quickly take each other and our community into the deepest experience of hell.

So how do we choose to live?

Will we establish ‘sharpening’ relationships, invite mutually close observation and truth telling, in the hope of growth and advancement in character?

Or will we avoid the pain, difficulty and discomfort and accept the status quo?

Or will we embrace a pathology of mutual negative reinforcement that will take us all to hell?

The choice and the consequences are ours.

Disrespecting the Structure


(Noah and his sons by Andrea Sacchi C17th)

There is an interesting story of only a dozen or so lines that quickly follows the flood story in Genesis.

Noah and his family come out of the ark, saved from the flood, they re-establish life on a pristine, cleansed planet[1].

Noah plants a vineyard and then gets drunk on the wine.

His middle son, Ham, comes inside his father’s tent and sees him naked, sprawled out on the floor.

He then goes and tells his elder and younger brother what he has seen.

The two siblings, by contrast show respect for their father by averting their eyes as they place a covering over his nakedness.

When Noah sobers up and realises what has happened he curses Ham and blesses Shem and Japheth and tells them that Ham and his descendants will always serve them – be their slaves.

At first glance this is a confusing story. What on earth is it about?

Well Noah represents the patriarchy – order. In archetypical imagery patriarchy is order, which can also become tyranny, Matriarchy is chaos and danger, but which is also the place where new information is found.

So what is this story representing? Ham the middle son sees the vulnerability – the weaknesses and failing of the structure and instead of respecting it for the good it has done – saving the world from destruction, saving his own and his wife’s life – he shows contempt. The biblical phraseology ‘saw his father’s nakedness’ text might even be hinting at sexual assault. Not only does he personally show contempt, but he then tells his brothers what he has done.

It seems very much like a will to power action, he is trying to take a position at the top of the hierarchy – but the story tells us you cannot do that by disrespecting the hierarchy.

You cannot rise to the top and to a position of influence within a structure by attacking the structure itself.

If you do behave like that you will undermine your ability to ever be in a position of leadership.

What do we learn from this?

We learn that criticism has to be expressed in a framework of gratitude in order to be healthy.

When you see the ‘nakedness’ of a person, or an institution – your criticism of that vulnerability is only positive when it is expressed in a framework of gratitude for the valuable and praiseworthy elements of the person or institution.

I knew someone who wold only ever let a person say something negative about a person or thing, after they had said something positive.

I think he was wrong.

I think you need to say at least two or three positive things and really establish a framework of gratitude before criticism is appropriate.

This is why encouragement is such an important part of human interaction. In our encouragement of others we establish a normalcy of appreciation and valuing. Once this is established then we earn the right to have our criticisms heard (which are existentially very painful, even if, or especially if, they are true).

So look for reasons to be grateful,

express that often,

criticise in a spirit of wanting the best for the thing you are criticising

and don’t disrespect the systems that have protected and enabled you to flourish as much as you have, just because you see they are imperfect.

[1] Genesis 9

Brother Angelo


On Sunday I found myself worshipping in York Minster. Bizarrely it was the second time in under a fortnight that I was served communion by an Archbishop! But that’s another story.

The most significant person I met that morning – apart from Christ in the Eucharist – was not Archbishop SENTAMU but an old man called Angelo.

In a packed congregation of hundreds I found myself sitting next to an old man who turned about to be Italian but who had lived in York for many years.

In the few moments before the service Angelo and I ended up chatting and I asked why a Roman Catholic Italian was attending a Protestant service in York Minster?

He shared his testimony of how many years ago he had been far from God but was still attending Catholic church from time to time.

One Christmas his Catholic church in York was closed as the heating system had broken down. So he went to a Christmas service at the Minster.

At that service he encountered God in a new and life-changing way and since that day he has attended evensong each day.

He spoke of how he now knew that ‘labels’ mean nothing and that we all worship the same Jesus Christ.

I was then able to share with him my testimony of serving the French Catholic church as a Protestant Evangelical missionary for 14 years.

We embraced as brothers.

That felt like a ‘God-moment’ to me, like God was reminding me of how He has done something in Sharon and my hearts and lives which has opened us up to the ecumenical imperative of John 17;

I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message,

that all of them may be one (John 17:20, NIV)

I’m not that sure what this encounter ‘means’.

But I think it was at least a reminder to Sharon and I that in our hearts God has put a deep love for our Catholic brothers and sisters and of all the other ‘sheep that are of a different sheep-fold’.

I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold (John 10:16, NLT)

As we approach the end of this ministry in Leicester, whatever we do, and wherever we go, we will do and go as people who embrace our brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of their spiritual tradition.