Clocks With No Hands

20190719_113441_001

At Peterborough Cathedral I came across this very early clock which dates from the 15th century.

We would struggle to recognise it as a clock, given the fact that those things we most associate with clocks- a face and hands – are entirely absent.

It was an interesting co-incidence coming across this clock, as I just happen to be in the middle of reading a book by John Swinton called ‘Becoming Friends of Time’.

Swinton reminded me that the driver for creating some of the earliest clocks was the monastic life.

It was important for monks to turn to God in worship and prayer at regular times during the day and night, and the earliest clocks were made to enable them to fulfil this vocation.

This was why a face and hands were irrelevant, all they needed was a bell to ring, to remind them to stop working and turn to prayer.

So the measurement of time was conceived originally as something that helps us in our spiritual life.

When I was studying theology one of the students was from Africa. I remember his horror when we were told that we had two minutes to get from one lecture room to another between classes. He could not conceive of a unit of time as short as two minutes.

At the end of the first year, he was invited to address the college and give us his reflections of a year living in a European culture. He said,

‘I have learned that you Europeans have watches, but we Africans have time.’

Watching my African fellow-student, he always had time to chat, to respond to people, to say ‘hello’. Whereas I was often rushing from one place to the next, trying not to be late.

One of us was a slave to time, and one of us was a master of time.

This African approach to time was also experienced by a group from the college who went to deliver some training in an African context. They were given 3 days to deliver training on a particular subject.

They had prepared a 3 day programme starting at 9 am and going through until 5pm every day. Each session was allocated in terms of content and who would deliver it. A full programme in effect.

Early on the first morning they went to the place where the training was taking place and set up everything ready.

9 o’clock came and went, no-one was there. 10 o’clock likewise. At 1130 the first people began to arrive. Finally by late afternoon all the expected participants had arrived and they could begin.

They learned that in Africa things start when everyone is ready, not when the clock demands.

Europeans have watches, Africans have time.

I often think about my own relationship with time.

Is time for me like monastic time, something that helps me to orient myself towards God at regular moments in my everyday?

Or do I experience time as a tyrannical pressure that works more to squeeze out ‘God-time’ from my day and which also prevents me form being available to others?

Advertisements

The Recipe for Making a Disciple

handwrittenrecipe

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

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

Lessons from the dram

dram

I had a holiday in Edinburgh recently, which was wonderful, although somewhat bizarre, as I once worked there every day for about 3 years! But you approach a place very differently when you are in holiday mode rather than work mode.

I discovered many things that I had never seen before. I hadn’t even known that you could climb to the top of the Scott Monument – which is awesome, if a little claustrophobic getting to the top and then vertigo inducing once you’re there!

I discovered Saint Margaret’s chapel, inside Edinburgh castle – a small place of worship dating back 900 years.

During our few days’ stay we did lots of stuff and one of them was to visit ‘The Scotch Whisky Experience’. Which was fun and informative and explained the whole process of whisky production and included a guided tasting of a single malt.

As I reflected on the process of whisky making synapses started to fire and I realized that there are many parallels with spiritual growth. You might say that;

increasing the spirit content of a dram

and increasing the Spirit content of a man are analogous.

The first thing that I noticed is that increasing the spirit content of a dram does not diminish the differences between the whiskies, rather it augments them. As with beer and bread, two other ‘simple’ recipes with only a very few ingredients, an infinite variety of taste, texture and aroma seem possible.

As the spirit content of the dram increases, this is expressed in a character that is completely original and dependent upon a large variety of factors – the ingredients themselves, the peat used to toast the grain, the processing and brewing, the shape of the still, the skills of those involved in the process and the qualities of the barrels used to age the whisky etc. etc.

In a similar way, as a man opens himself up more and more to the Spirit of God, an utterly unique character will be expressed. A man does not ‘lose’ himself in becoming Christ-like, rather he finds his true, unique self.

The second thing I noticed was that making a dram takes time. Three years at the very minimum and most good whiskies takes at least 12 years to reach their full potential. They wait, in obscurity, quietly developing their character, until the day when they are sent out into the world.

Spiritual growth in a man is also a slow, time-consuming process; where it often feels like nothing is happening and that God has forgotten about you. You are just quietly soldiering on, doing the right things, living the right way and imperceptibly your character is growing. One day, when the time is right, God will release you into your service in His world.

The third resonance that I noticed was something we were told during the guided whisky tasting. Our guide said that whisky should be experienced through colour, nose, body, and taste. He said that in the ‘nose’ phase people often make the mistake of sticking their nose right into the glass in order to appreciate the whisky’s aroma. This in counter productive as whisky is a strong spirit, and all this does is to ‘burn’ their nose, to overpower the nose’s capacity to discern the complex nature of the whisky. Rather you should hold the glass at a hand’s distance below your nose and swirl the whisky, this will release the vapours in a less overpowering way, allowing a fuller appreciation.

It is here that the analogy between ‘growth in the spirit’ and ‘growth in the Spirit’ break down. For it is precisely at the moment when a man feels himself about to be overpowered by the Spirit that he should not draw back, but rather totally let go and abandon himself, in his entirety, to God. It is a wonderful adventure but to embrace it you have to grab it with both hands, you must jump off the cliff if you would experience the wonder of flight.

I love a fine single malt scotch whisky, and I really enjoyed the Scotch Whisky Experience, which has further developed my appreciation of this good gift of God; but I had not expected that it would inspire me in my own Spiritual growth too.

Remembering that you have forgotten.

String-tied-on-finger

There is a fantastic film called Memento. In it the central character is seeking to avenge his murdered girlfriend – so far, so formulaic. The twist in this film is that the man suffers from short-term memory loss, so every time he wakes up he has forgotten everything that happened the day before.

His strategy for coping with this handicap is the use of a notebook, Polaroid photographs and tattoos. When he awakes he looks at the marks on his body which re-tell his story, he looks through his Polaroids and his notes and he works out where he is in his quest and then seeks to move forward.

The plot gets even more complex as things go on, but suffice to say, it is one of those films you need to watch again and again, it is such a brilliantly clever film.

As I thought about this film, and it does make you think, it struck me that there are many resonances between this film and the life of Christian discipleship.

Like the character in the film we are on a quest – not for vengeance but for the re-establishment of the rule of the rightful King over His Creation; we are fifth columnists fighting against an evil usurper, working for his overthrow and the coming of the King.

Unfortunately, like the character in the film, we all too apt to forget about our quest.

I wrote in one of my recent running blogs about how a two word greeting, ‘How do’, triggered a whole flood of memories about my beloved and long-departed grandad. Such unlooked for ‘memory triggers’ are a grace, and quite rare.

If we are not to forget the quest that is the meaning of our lives, we need – like the character in Memento – a strategy to help us remember.

It strikes me that the first stage in remembering is the realization that there is something that you’ve forgotten.

The classic ruse of tying a piece of string around your finger will probably work for helping you remember simple things, like to buy a loaf of bread on the way home from work. However, more complex memories such as the meaning of the universe, your place in it and your task and engagement in the work of deposing the usurper and re-establishing the rightful King on his throne, require a more complex system.

It is for this reason that gathering together is a vital part of Christian discipleship. At these times we help each other remember the meaning of our lives by telling each other the story so far, re-stating the goal of our quest, recounting past battles won and lost, the deeds done.

At our times of gathering the King Himself walks amongst us, dispensing words here and there of encouragement, exhortation, rebuke, challenge, and appreciation. In a real and physical way we meet Him and are strengthened by His presence.

Our King has also left us a manuscript in which He sets out his goals and His means, His battle plan. Our duty as faithful warriors, who want to be as prepared as they can to fight well, is to read and study this text- it is our Bushido text (The Way of the Warrior).

Our King has also given us a system of instantaneous and unlimited communication, through which we have unfiltered and unrestricted access to Him. We can turn to Him at any and every moment, during our communication with Him we attune our thoughts and priorities to His, we attune ourselves to Him.

It is through these three activities of gathering, study and communication that our King is able to enthuse us with His Spirit and to embolden us for the fight.

No successful conclusion to our life of quest will be possible without the disciplined use of these three helps.