Mustard and Mulberries

Mustard and Mulberry

In Luke 17 Jesus describes the nature of a community of His followers.

In some ways it is a very realistic portrayal of the reality of human society.

  • People will cause each other to ‘stumble’, that is, to fall short of the calling of a follower of Jesus, to behave in inappropriate ways.
  • People will offend each other and fall out.

None of this is a surprise to anyone who has lived with other people in a tight-knit group.

What does come as a surprise is what Jesus says next.

  • That those who cause other people to stumble in their faith are in serious spiritual trouble, akin to mortal danger.
  • That offenses committed within the community of Jesus’ followers are to be forgiven in an unlimited way.

The Apostles are staggered at the difficulty of this calling.

As they honestly examine themselves, they are most acutely aware that they are not the kind of people who are capable of either not causing others to stumble, or of being able to forgive offenses in an unlimited way.

Their shocked response to Jesus’ description of the demands of this impossible community, is to ask that they might be given more faith,

‘Increase our faith!’

Jesus turns things around and states that any real faith can accomplish the impossible,

“If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree,

 ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”

The image is significant. The Black Mulberry (Morus Nigra) is a tree that has exceptionally deep roots. The roots under the ground are as thick as the branches above. It is therefore an image of steadfastness, immovability.

This is related to a similar saying of Jesus in Matt 17:20, where Jesus talks about ‘casting mountains into the sea’.

One of the titles of honour given to great Rabbis was ‘Uprooter of Mountains’ i.e. those who can remove great difficulties.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together – a book about the reality of Christian community – about the fact that,

Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize;

it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.

The great difference in Christian community is that whilst human love is directed to the other person for his own sake, spiritual love loves him for Christ’s sake.

Dietrich BONHOEFFER was under no illusions as to the difficulty of living in Christian community. He came up with 7 ministries that he felt were essential if we were to create Christian community approximating to the ideal that Jesus sets out.

You might want to consider these ministries.

 

The 7 Ministries of Community

The Ministry of Holding one’s Tongue –

Often we combat our evil thoughts most effectively if we absolutely refuse to allow them to be expressed in words.

Thus it must be a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that each individual is prohibited from saying much that occurs to him.

The Ministry of Meekness –

Only he who lives by the forgiveness of his sin in Jesus Christ will rightly think little of himself.

Brotherly love will find any number of extenuations for the sins of others; only for my sin is there no apology whatsoever. Therefore my sin is the worst.

The Ministry of Listening –

The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them.

Just as love for God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.

The Ministry of Helpfulness –

This means, initially, simple assistance in trifling, external matters.

One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly.

The Ministry of Bearing –

The Christian must bear the burden of a brother. He must suffer and endure the brother.

The service of forgiveness is rendered by one to the others daily. It occurs, without words, in the intercessions for one another. And every member of the fellowship, who does not grow weary in this ministry, can depend upon it that this service is also being rendered him by the brethren.

The Ministry of Proclaiming-

Where Christians live together the time must inevitably come when in some crisis one person will have to declare God’s Word and will to another.

The basis upon which Christians can speak to one another is that each knows the other as a sinner, who, with all his human dignity, is lonely and lost if he is not given help.

The Ministry of Authority –

Jesus made authority in the fellowship dependent upon brotherly service.

Genuine spiritual authority is to be found only where the ministry of hearing, helping, bearing, and proclaiming is carried out.

(from Dietrich BONHOEFFER, Life Together, London: SCM Press, 1954)

 

 

The Recipe for Making a Disciple

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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.

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.

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

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Pictures and Poems That Help

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I recently became aware of the fact that the most important spiritual advances in my life have involved things being made simpler.

The “Experiencing God” course by Henry Blackaby helped me understand that, at its heart, the Christian faith was primarily about a relationship, a love relationship with God.

“The Practice of the Presence of God” by Brother Lawrence helped me to see how this relationship with God could be fostered practically in the humdrum heart of everyday life.

C.S. Lewis helped me get a handle on so many of the more mysterious aspects of the Christian faith through his brilliant use of allegory and metaphor.

Brennan Manning helped me to see that a heart-felt conviction of the deep reality of God’s accepting love for me – just as I am in all my weakness, mess and failure – is the only true source, and means of sustaining, a Christian life.

All of these are clear examples of times when some ungraspable mystery of Christian faith was made accessibly simple.
Which sounds like a paradox, how can unfathomable mystery possibly be comprehended?

Well, for me the analogy of art and poetry are helpful.

A portrait may not be an exact representation of someone, but it may nonetheless tell us something “true” about the person.

A poem may not communicate a total, comprehensive understanding of an experience, but it can help us to feel something “true” about the experience nonetheless.

Much, if not most, of the spiritual writing that has been of benefit in my life has fallen into this category – pictures and poems.

Pictures and poems that somehow have helped me grasp, seize, reach towards, some of the deep, imponderable mysteries concerning God, his love and his activity in the world of men.

Pictures and poems that have helped.