The Disturbing Spirit

please_do_not_disturb

In a recent book George LINGS[1] shows how much mission was something the Early Church was forced into reluctantly, often against its will by the Spirit of God using circumstances to disturb the status quo of the Church.

In Acts chapters 8 to 11 we see successive examples of a ‘Spirit-generated disturbance’ that forces the nascent church into unexpected mission activity.

(8:1-4) The first story is of the persecution that the Jewish religious authorities brought to bear on the early Christian communities. This led to a diaspora of Christian cultural Jews who fled their homeland and went to all corners of the Roman empire.

(8:5-25) Then we see the unexpected conversion of the Jews hated neighbours, the Samaritans. This group having come to faith in Christ is not amalgamated into the Jewish worshipping centred in Jerusalem, but becomes the first recorded Christian community outside Jerusalem.

In other words the gospel is taken out from Jerusalem to the Samaritans, but there is no expectation that those who accept the message will be sucked back into the sending church. Rather they establish their own church in a new place, in relation to, but not dependent upon, the mother church.

(8:26-40) Then we have the story of Philip and the Ethiopian. This was not the result of a plan or strategy of Philip, but of an unlooked for impulsion of the Spirit who brings together an evangelist and a seeker. Again this does not establish a link of dependency upon the Jerusalem church, but rather a new African church emerges.

(9:1-30) The conversion of Saul is again something that is brought about by the Spirit, almost against the will of the Church! This then opens up the possibility for a new thrust in mission towards Gentiles.

(10 – 11:18) Peter’s vision and subsequent encounter with the Roman soldier Cornelius, is again something that came unlooked for, was challenging and difficult for the Church to accept and which opened up new  cross-cultural missional avenues.

(11:19 – 20:25) Then we have the story of the church in Antioch. A church that was expressing the message of the Jewish Jesus in Gentile culture. There were some differences that were deeply challenging for the Jewish Church – they referred to Jesus not as Messiah (a Jewish concept), but as Saviour and Lord (Gentile concepts); they did not practice circumcision, they did not follow Jewish dietary laws.

What was the Jewish Christian Church to do?

Talking of Barnabas who was sent to visit the Antioch church in order to decide what to do, Bishop Steven CROFT states;

‘Note that Barnabas did not come to Antioch and apply a definition.

He comes with open eyes and ears and sees the grace of God.’

LINGS notes,

‘Assessment should be by fruit, not by past external forms.’

All of this has serious applications for how we understand how we are to do mission.

We must expect disturbance, we must actually embrace it.

We must learn to recognise the work of Christ when it presents itself in strange clothing – to quote the tile of a brilliant book by Dr Rev David E. BJORK[2].

Perhaps we might even be brave enough to pray the following prayer;

‘Disturb us, Lord’ by M.K.W. HEICHER

 

Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves,

When our dreams have come true

Because we have dreamed too little,

When we arrived safely

Because we sailed too close to the shore.

 

Disturb us, Lord, when

With the abundance of things we possess

We have lost our thirst

For the waters of life;

Having fallen in love with life,

We have ceased to dream of eternity

And in our efforts to build a new earth,

We have allowed our vision

Of the new Heaven to dim.

 

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,

To venture on wider seas

Where storms will show your mastery;

Where losing sight of land,

We shall find the stars.

We ask You to push back

The horizons of our hopes;

And to push into the future

In strength, courage, hope, and love.

 

(Appears in ‘The Minister’s Manual’ Vol. 37, 1962 as ‘Stir us, O Lord’ but is often falsely attributed to Sir Francis DRAKE from 1577)

[1] George LINGS, Reproducing Churches, Abingdon : BRF, 2017, pp132-141

[2] David E. BJORK, Unfamiliar paths – The challenge of recognizing the work of Christ in strange clothing, Pasadena : Wm Carey Library, 1997

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Between Womb and Worm

wombandworm

The book of Job is about a righteous and an innocent man, who lives through an absolute nightmare. Every disaster that can happen to a man is falls upon Job. In quick succession he loses his wealth, his family, and his status within his community.

To compound his misery his ‘friends’ then tell him that all this is happening because he has been evil and God is punishing him.

Job cannot and will not believe this. He knows that he is not perfect, but he also knows that he is not a monster to be punished in such a way.

He believes, like his friends, that God does enact justice on each human being, but he knows that this process is neither mechanical nor sufficiently formulaic to be predictable. God remains a mystery to humankind, and His ways of working will always remain outside human comprehension.

Yet Job expresses his faith that ultimately, there will be justice for all.

In spite of all he is living through he still believes that ultimately the wicked will be punished for their wickedness and the righteous rewarded for their good conduct.

When he thinks about the wicked Job expresses their fate in the following startling words;

As heat and drought snatch away the melted snow, so the grave snatches away those who have sinned.

The womb forgets them, the worm feasts on them;

the wicked are no longer remembered but are broken like a tree.[1]

Human life is described, somewhat shockingly, as a journey between womb and worm.

For those who choose to live an evil life, their wickedness erases their own existence; makes it nothing, like water vapour under the hot sun, their lives disappear with no trace left behind.

Their wickedness erases their own existence

The unexpressed contrast is with those who choose to live life well – to live lives characterised by goodness, kindness, love and compassion, and holiness before God.

Their good lives are affirmed by each act of goodness, made more real, underscored, and concretised.

Each positive action – no matter how small – affirms and makes more real their existence. Something Jesus Himself expressed when he said;

And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.’[2]

As you have to be alive in order to receive a reward, this verse hints at the continued existence after death of those who have chosen to live well and do well.

So as we each make our journey between womb and worm we are presented with the opportunity to either affirm, to make more real, to validate, and to concretise our existence by acts of goodness;

or we can gradually erase our own existence by acts of wickedness.

Choose this day…

 

[1] Job 24 :19-20 NIVUK

[2] Matthew 10 :42 NIVUK

Quick, Slow, Slow – The Discipleship Rhythm

dance_steps

 

I remember vaguely being told that the waltz rhythm could be described as ‘Quick, Quick, Slow’. How this was meant to help me dance I don’t know; it didn’t. But I digress.

Today I came across a verse that described the rhythm of discipleship as ‘Quick, Slow, Slow’.

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this:

everyone should be quick to listen,

slow to speak

and slow to become angry[1]

Why does James, perhaps the practical of the New Testament writers, describe the rhythm of discipleship in this way?

Being quick to listen and slow to speak is about relating to others. It is about valuing the other person and believing that they have something interesting and valuable to share.

The great danger in the life of a disciple of Jesus is that as we learn more through our study and experience, we know quite rightly that we have more and more ‘good stuff’ in our heads that we can share with others which might actually be a blessing and a help to them.

Indeed, it would not be kind nor Christian to refuse to share the good things we have received from God.

But our sharing is only valuable and useful to the degree that it speaks into the situation and needs of our friends and that is something that can only be determined through listening.

So there is a paradox here; the more you have to share, the more listening and not speaking becomes important.

We need to explore by active listening where our friend is, what they are going through, where God may be working in their lives, and it is only when we have developed an understanding of them and their situation, that we can start to think about what might be helpful and appropriate for us to share with them.

So if we can understand why we need to be quick to listen and slow to speak, what about being slow to become angry?

We know that anger is a valid emotion sometimes, we are right to get angry at some things. Jesus Himself got angry on occasion. Perhaps the most famous example of that was when he visited the temple at Jerusalem and found that the Court of the Gentiles – the only space in the temple to which women and non-Jews had access – far from being a quiet and holy place for prayer, had become a noisy marketplace where unscrupulous traders short-changed pilgrims. Jesus was so angry about this that he overturned the stalls and chased the traders out with a whip.

So if anger can be valid and appropriate why does James say we should be slow to become angry?

Perhaps it is because anger can have very many causes, and for many of us most of the time our feelings of anger will have little to do with righteousness.

James indicates his rationale about anger in the next verse when he goes on to say;

because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires[2].

James reminds us that anger often leads to conduct that we later regret. We shout, we swear, we insult, we demean, we wound with our words, or even our fists. None of which is helpful in building up a Christian community.

Perhaps it is here the greatest danger in anger – it often destroys relationships. Once we get angry with someone – for whatever reason – it can create a barrier in our relationship with them and it can be a long and very slow path back to mutual forgiveness and restoration.

For this reason anger is a dangerous emotion within a Christian community and we should reflect very carefully on the reason for our anger, and whether it is justified and righteous, or merely the expression of our human frailty and imperfection. Slowness in getting angry will save us a lot of heartache and prevent a lot of harm.

So I think we should all learn to dance the discipleship dance – Quick, Slow, Slow.

God help us all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] James 1 :19, NIVUK

[2] James 1 :20 NIVUK

Come and See

whatareyoulookingfor

At the Bishop of Leicester’s ‘School of Prayer’ event at St Botolph’s, Shepshed this evening we were encouraged to experience 5 different ways of praying.

One way that particularly helped me this evening was praying with scripture.

One of the biblical passages we were given to pray with was John 1:38-39

Then Jesus turned, and seeing them following, said to them, “What do you seek?”

They said to Him, “Rabbi” (which is to say, when translated, Teacher), “where are You staying?”

He said to them, “Come and see.”

Meditating on this led me to write the following poem:

You ask me a question

‘What are you looking for?’

I don’t have an answer

Something, someone, help?

I can’t truly say.

Your response to me

Is not an exploration of

My question

But an invitation to experience

Your answer

Come and see.

 

The Flying Fish

fishcross

Our NEARER community met on Wednesday and we explored how poetry connects with prayer.

We were challenged to respond to different objects placed around the room.

The object that caught my attention was a Fish Cross. It is a cross that when viewed from the front looks perfectly ordinary, however when viewed from the side it looks like a fish.

This is a reference to the fact that the early Christians used the fish as a secret symbol of their faith. The word for fish in greek is ‘icthus’ and this can be used as an acronym – iesus, christos theos huios soter (Jesus, Christ, of God, the Son, Saviour).

As I thought about the fish I suddenly thought of flying fish and this led me into a reflection of how that can be seen as an image of Christians.

I wrote the following poem in response.

 

The Flying Fish

A fish that swims in company,

In playful relation,

Yet with purposeful intent,

Unlike its peers, is a citizen of two worlds,

Soaring now and then,

To its lower companions lost to sight,

Joining brother birds in glorious flight.

 

Then re-entering that heavy, liquid world

Warmed by the sun,

Invigorated by the air,

And dazzled by the light.

 

With a life above and below,

Ambassador between two worlds

That are strangers to each other.

 

So we who live below.

Immersed in torrent and tide,

Yet from time to time receive grace to know

Escape and soar in warmer, brighter climes,

Likewise must we return to share,

Our second life,

To strengthen, challenge, and implore,

Our low-bound companions,

That all might know and taste life on that more glorious plane,

The son to see, his warmth to share,

The joy to soar.

 

Stephen John MARCH, Feast of St. Winwaloc, 2017

The Approaching Footfall – a poem

the_dying_detective_by_herrmagermilch-d4pmbqo

There have been several recent deaths that have touched my life.

There is also a nagging encroachment into my life of the signs of my own mortality.

All of which leaves me no choice but to think.

As I struggle to corral my thoughts and set them in some kind of framework. I find that, as with all of the most profound human experiences, it is only poetry that has the strength to carry the weight of the mystery I find myself staring at; prose just cannot do it.

And so I found myself in the small hours of last night crafting a poem that expresses something of what I am feeling at present, and of something that I am holding on to.

 

The Approaching Footfall

There is flat, focussed footfall,
At the edge of my perception.
Close by, afar?
Impossible to tell.
Yet gaining.

There is no advantage won in running,
Yet nothing lost in standing still.
The meeting, though obscure,
Is fixed inviolate in time.

– And that acceptance made,
The fear is less, the when
And more, the how.

A peaceful passing?
Old and full of years,
A slow decline into the dark abyss;
A live coal that flames,
Then glows,
Then cools,
Then cold extinguished,
Lost to sight.
Or a wild, explosive raging at the dying of the light?

– Do not speak of legacy, that charade,
That myth of lasting worth,
As if a fistful of years,
Would not suffice,
To wipe the greatest from the earth.
The Ozymandian conceit
Is merciless laid bare
– The wind blows,
The sands shift,
No trace remains.
All gone.

-What value then, a life?
If there is a heart,
From which the universe receives its pulse,
And if that heart regards a man,
And scrutes him path and deed and thought
Then only in that heart survives
An estimation, value, worth.

And if that heart were moved so to,
It might recognise itself in dim reflect
And cede that as an offspring child
From which no Father can himself de-turn
But gathers in and shares his life
And suffers not to part again.

Stephen John MARCH the Feast of St Scholastica, 2017

Faith in Three Pictures

godshapedholegregolsenpainting-1hand-of-god

I was asked to talk to a group of young children and tell them about my faith and spiritual life.

I said yes, but then as I started to think about how I might do it, it became really challenging.

I’ve been a student of theology for nearly 2 decades. Almost everything I have learned is complex and in order to say anything I have to spend a lot of time listing exceptions, limiting applications etc.

So how on earth was I to share my faith with little children?!

I eventually decided that the best thing I could do was use pictures that show some of the things I hold most deeply as spiritual convictions.

godshapedholeMy first picture was this one. It shows a despondent man with a heart-shaped hole in his chest.

For me this illustrates that quote from St Augustine, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee”. This is often stated as there being a God-shaped hole in us that nothing but a relationship with Jesus can fulfil.

In sharing this with the children I used the example of the children’s toy with different shaped holes and different shaped blocks.  You cannot fill a hole with any shape other than the one that corresponds. In a similar way I believe that all other attempts to find fulfilment, purpose in life, significance, or to make sense of the way the universe is, with be ultimately unsatisfactory outside of a relationship with Jesus.

gregolsenpainting-1

The second picture I showed the children was this one by Greg OLSEN.

The image shows a young man, a backpacker, sitting down on a bench chatting with Jesus.

The young man looks a little tired, despondent; Jesus looks friendly, interested, animated, and concerned.

For me this picture sums up how fantastic it is to be able to talk to Jesus at any moment in my life’s journey. When I’m tired, sad, angry, losing me way, scared, confused etc. I can just stop. Take a few minutes out and talk with Jesus. It is so great to know that he comes to me, listens and that he will help me find my way forward. Whatever I need – encouragement, challenge, direction, perspective etc. Jesus can give that to me.

Of course prayer is also really great for the positive moments in my journey too. Jesus loves to share my joys and successes and to share my simple enjoyment of the everyday pleasures of life. Expressing gratitude to Jesus for these things is really important and also health-giving if scientific studies are to be believed.

hand-of-god

The final picture was this one by YONGSUNG KIM.

It shows a moment from the story when Jesus walked on the water to his disciples who were in a small boat in a storm.

One of the disciples, St Peter, had had the courage to ask Jesus if he could walk on the water and come to meet him.

Jesus invited Peter to come to him and he was initially able to walk on the water too.

But then Peter took his eyes off Jesus, he started to look at the waves and the storm instead. At that moment St Peter started to sink.

This picture captures the moment when Jesus reaches down to a sinking Peter and draws he back up and brings him safely to the boat. There is no anger, disappointment, disapproval in the face of Jesus, simply a welcoming smile.

I find this picture a powerful reminder that when I foul up, lose faith, make mistakes, get it badly wrong etc. Jesus is not angry, he is not disappointed. He simply comes to me, stretches out his hand, helps me up and says, ‘Let’s try again’.

 

These were my three pictures. The children seemed to understand them and to understand something of what I was trying to share.

Which, I suppose reminds me that ultimately the Christian faith is both a mystery too deep for human minds to fully comprehend and a simple love relationships with Jesus that is accessible even to the youngest child.