About fuelforpilgrims

I work for the Diocese of Leicester helping to develop Pioneering and Fresh Expressions of Church. I write on spiritual themes and these books can be accessed through lulu.com or the usual online retailers of paper and ebooks.

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 lie 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?

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As Iron Sharpens Iron

Iron-Sharpens

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

(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

FrontCoverScanRedoneepub

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.

St Joseph Barsabbas – The Unchosen

St Joseph BARSABBASSome people just have no luck.

Finalists but never winners.

Get so close but never quite make the cut.

Those kinds of experiences can mark a person, make them bitter and twisted, sour them.

St Joseph of BARSABBAS had that kind of thing happen to him, twice.

He was part of the group of 72 disciples that Jesus formed and trained and sent out into ministry(1). But when Jesus chose the 12 who would be his inner circle, his apostles, Joseph didn’t make the cut.

When Judas betrayed Jesus and there was an opening amongst the 12, Joseph was in the frame again. This time it was only a choice of two – Joseph and Matthais. Guess who was chosen?

Twice up there, twice passed over. Can’t have been easy.

This is something very close to my own heart as I’m currently looking for a post in ministry. So far I’ve had two interviews for posts, after both interviews I have been rejected. Which is tough.

I mean you can be stoic and breezey, don’t panic, just carry on. You can be fatalistic ‘What’s for you won’t go by you’. You can spiritualise ‘God’s in control and all will be well’. All of which have some positive aspects, but none of them does anything to alleviate the crushed hope, the bruised ego, the lost dreams.

So I know exactly how Joseph must have felt. To be the unchosen hurts.

And when it happens again and again it can be crushing.

So I was interested to find out how St Joseph reacted to this double rejection. Did he become bitter and twisted? Was he the critical voice from the wings carping and pointing out the faults and failings of those who were chosen?
No.

St John CHRYSOSTOM notes;

but the other candidate (Joseph) was not annoyed; for the apostolic writers would not have concealed [that or any other] failings of their own, seeing they have told of the very chief Apostles, that on other occasions they had indignation (Matthew 20:24; Matthew 26:8), and this not once only, but again and again .

In fact his life was of such piety and holiness that he was nicknamed ‘the Just’ and is most commonly known as St Justus of Eleutheropolis – although the town name Eleutheropolis is an anachronism as the name is later, it was a mere village called Betaris in the 1st century when he was made bishop of it.

Not only was St Joseph a man of exemplary holiness he was also brave.

When the Emperor Vespasian came to quell the rebellious Jewish population in 68AD he attacked Betaris and the surrounding villages and 10,000 people were slain – St Joseph amongst them for refusing to renounce his Christian faith(3).

So St Joseph is a particular help and encouragement to all those who are unchosen, passed over, neglected. If your spirituality allows it, you might ask for his intercession when you face such experiences, that you might meet the challenge of being unchosen with the same grace and goodness that he did.

(1) Eusebius Historia Ecclesiastica, I, 12

(2) St John CHRYSOSTOM, Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, Homily 3

(3) Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book 4, chapter 8, section 1

 

 

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

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