As Iron Sharpens Iron


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

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

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

We make each other better by :

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

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

To be criticised is a painful existential experience.

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

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

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

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

So how do we choose to live?

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

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

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

The choice and the consequences are ours.


A Harvest Surprise


There is a discourse of Jesus that takes a rather surprising twist.

After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them,

“The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.
Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.
Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.”

Luke 10 :1-2 NIVUK

The last three sentences of this are very unexpected.

From Jesus’ statement about the abundance of the harvest and the lack of workers, the last line would very naturally follow on, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.”

But, surprisingly, these two lines are separated by a rather incongruous and unexpected exhortation to prayer. Indeed, if this line about prayer was missing and we had to complete Jesus’ words, I doubt that any of us would complete it in the way that Jesus does.

Perhaps the most logical follow-on would be something along the lines of; “The harvest is plentiful and the workers and few, so everybody get out there and get harvesting!”

So why this interjection about prayer, what is Jesus telling us by including this unexpected phrase?

1 Whose harvest it is.
The harvest belongs only to God. Human beings should not presume to try and take the initiative and control how the harvest is gathered, nor who gathers it. This is God’s harvest; we need to follow His leading and guiding.

2 Those gathered, are gathered by grace.
Harvesting souls into the Kingdom of God is a divine act and one that is dependent upon miracles of grace every step of the way. Those who turn to Christ need a miracle of grace in their hearts and minds; grace to enable them to perceive the spiritual truth about themselves and about Jesus and grace to enable them to receive that revelation and to respond in saving faith.

3 Those who gather, gather by grace.
Not only are those who are to be brought into the harvest totally dependent upon grace, so are those who gather the harvest.
Every messenger of the gospel, every gatherer of the harvest, is likewise a miracle of grace. No one involves themselves in the work of God, other than God moves in them by His Spirit. No messengers send themselves out, rather they are sent out through a divine stirring, calling, commissioning and sending out by God.

4 The gathering is dependent upon grace.
The gathering of the harvest is also totally dependent upon grace. Those who are sent out need to be indwelt by the Spirit of God, who will then call and motivate and drive them to mission, who will enable them to proclaim the good news about Jesus, and who will anoint their proclamation with evangelistic power for the transformation of lives.

Mission is therefore completely different to every other human endeavour. In most human activity effort, technique, skill, hard work, and good methodology will more or less guarantee you positive results – not so with mission.

In mission nothing we can do has any efficacy in and of itself. A positive outcome in mission activity is entirely dependent upon God, in His grace, sending forth His Spirit; something we can neither predict nor control.

In this passage Jesus is therefore telling us something very profound and surprising about the nature of mission. Jesus reveals that mission is a mystical, mysterious activity. An activity in which God invites us to participate – and we do so in a meaningful way – and yet there is a degree to which we participate in a rather clueless, befuddled and uncomprehending fashion.

This reminds me of an experience I had at school.

At school I really struggled with maths and I remember learning about quadratic equations. I didn’t understand the concept. However I did manage to work out that if I had a string of numbers and letters in a certain format, and I carried out certain manipulations on them, then that would enable me to get a string of numbers and letters in a different format, which would be the correct answer. But I had absolutely no idea of what I was actually doing, or what it meant!

It was only when I got to university and studied maths as part of an engineering degree that I finally understood what those strings of letters and numbers meant and what the manipulations were doing and what the answer signified.

Our involvement in mission is rather like my schoolboy maths. Most of the time we have little comprehension about what we are involved in, what might be happening, or how God is working through us.

There is deep mystery built into the heart of mission and we are required to embrace it. The Lord of the harvest works as He wills and our involvement is merely to pray for the workers to be sent out, and to hold ourselves available and obedient to His call when it comes to us.

We just obey – God does the clever stuff.

I need bigger pants


I‘m not a natural athlete. I can run, but it is hard work and it is not pretty to watch.

Out for an early morning run today I met several dog-walkers along my route. Some of the dogs were running too. It was amazing to see how fast they can run.

It doesn’t look like it is hard work, or an effort for them. It looks more like a joyous expression of their nature – the Franciscan in me would say that it was a physical hymn to their Creator.

As I contemplated this it struck me that in nature animals get good at the things that keep them alive. Dogs can run because this was essential to their ability to catch food, to survive.

Of course man has interfered with this ability somewhat. We now have dogs that have been bred to have certain bizarre physical characteristics. There are dogs with short legs which are able to go down rabbit holes and badger setts. I saw a corgi the other day – a dog with 2 inch legs. A dog for whom an inch of snow is a deeply unpleasant experience – especially for male corgis – no wonder they tend to be bad tempered, I think I would be too.

But dogs in the wild can run and run fast – for that is what enables them to survive.

Meditating in this direction I was suddenly struck by an insight into Psalm 42:1

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.

The reason the deer pants is because it has just been running for its life. Its ability to run is the only thing that keeps it alive. At the limit of exhaustion and endurance it seeks the water it needs to enable it to continue, to survive.

It is only when we understand the nature of our spiritual life in this way, that we will really seek God with the kind of earnestness that is appropriate, as something vital in our life. Only then will we understand our relationship with God for what it truly it – a survival issue.

Formerly Ordinary

Don and Sancho

I love the Don Quixote books by Miguel de Cervantes.

The author himself was almost more amazing than his fictional creation. Having lost the use of his left hand in a military battle, he simply recovered and re-enlisted! Only having one hand was not going to stop him fighting!

He was later captured in battle and spent five years in captivity being held for ransom. He led an escape with his fellow prisoners but after a few weeks hiding out whilst trying to send for help, they were betrayed and re-captured.

His family finally paid the ransom, which left Cervantes enormously indebted.

He tried to write his way out of debt but was only intermittently successful.

Hs book Don Quixote, is the last book of the medieval age. In it Cervantes looks over his shoulder wistfully at the glories of the medieval age – valour, chivalry, duty, romance (in the fullest medieval sense of the word).

The world Europe was becoming – a world of lace-draped courtiers, hangers-on, flunkeys, sniping gossip merchants fighting for courtly favour and advancement – was anathema to Cervantes, the man of action.

Don Quixote is a love poem to an age that is fading, whose glories are passing, a red-blooded age which is being replaced by something pitifully anaemic and colourless.

There are many things that I find inspirational in Cervantes’ book. One in particular is the name of his horse. It is a rather bedraggled, knock-kneed beast, past its prime. Yet on embarking on his quest Quixote gives his faithful old nag a new name. He calls it “Rocinante”. It is a play on words for in Spanish “Rocin” means “an ordinary horse” – nothing special, no qualities that would give it value or significance –  the suffix “ante” means “formerly”. So “Rocinante” means “Formerly, an ordinary horse”.

There is something in this that deeply moves me.

There is the idea of anticipation, of hope, the conviction that whatever the quest may bring, even the mere fact of engaging on it is, in itself, somehow decisive, honourable, and glorious.

What the horse used to be counts for nought, it is on its way to becoming something new, as yet unknown, its qualities and capabilities are about to be revealed.

Of course, you can see the resonance that I find here with the Christian faith.

Once we engage with Christ we are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), we set on a journey that has our total transformation as its goal (2 Corinthians 2:18).

What we were, the old limits, failings, weaknesses no longer apply. It is Christ’s own life in us that is determinative of what we shall become. As we cooperate with Him there is no limit to what the divine life, flowing through, us can achieve.

Interestingly, the Bible also speaks of us being given a new name, a secret name, a name only known to us and to God but which will perfectly express the essence of our identity. This name is not given at the start of our adventure, but at the end. As such it is not so much the hope but rather the reward, the concrete expression of all that God has worked in us.

“To the one who is victorious … I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” Rev 2:17 NIV

Maybe for someone, that name might just be “Formerly an ordinary man”.

The Spirituality of the Tortoise

tortoiseI have discovered that the tortoise has a lot to teach us about the Christian life. Let me start this reflection with a story.

My Mom and Dad once moved into a house and found that the previous owners had left behind a rather odd garden ornament – a life-style and very realistic model of a tortoise.

Now, my mother has a somewhat twisted sense of humour and the temptation to have some fun was just too great.

She put this tortoise in the front garden, where passing neighbours would see it and every day she would move it just a few feet.

It gradually became an object of fascination to the neighbours who couldn’t quite make up their minds whether it was a real tortoise or not. Couples would stop and begin arguing amongst themselves, one pointing out that it was over there yesterday and the other saying look it’s clearly just a model.

And my mother would be peeking out from behind the curtains doubled up laughing!

Just to ramp things she started putting bits of lettuce out in front of the thing, with nibbles taken out of them! It went on for weeks!

What made it such an effective prank was that the difference between a live tortoise and a dead one, is actually very little.

As I reflected on Mom and her practical joke I thought there is quite a lesson here about Christian spiritual life.

A lot of Christians are a bit like the tortoise – not much in the way of evidence of life, not much growth, not much movement. They are actually alive, they have been born again by the Spirit of God, but there’s not much evidence of that divine life flowing through them. In fact they look rather dead.

I have to be honest here and say that this was me for quite a long period in my Christian life. Alive but rather dead looking.

Jesus didn’t send his 12 Apostles out into the world in order to make Christians, he told them to make disciples. The goal was not about saving souls but creating a community of people who lived differently.

Discipleship is the on-going and life-long process of cooperating with the Holy Spirit so that every area of our lives can be transformed. Every aspect of our lives has to be held up to divine scrutiny so that we can see is it rightly ordered, rightly prioritised, rightly focussed, rightly pursued?

Which sounds like (and is) hard work. However it is also joyful work.

For God calls us to make these changes in order that we might draw closer to Him, experience more of His love, be more involved in His activity – all of which is the greatest joy and privilege a human being can ever experience.

So the challenge of the tortoise is to examine the state of our spiritual lives, and if necessary to shake ourselves up, to knuckle down, to go for it, to embrace the challenge and adventure of Christian discipleship.

The second spiritual lesson that we can learn from the tortoise concerns its defence system.

When the tortoise gets into its defensive posture it is pretty hard to hurt. When it pulls its head and its legs inside its shell there is not much you can do to it. It is pretty safe.

The big disadvantage that it faces in this defensive posture is that it can’t actually do very much, anything even. It can’t see, it can’t hear, it can’t move, it can’t eat, it can’t drink. All pulled in and huddled up it’s safe, but actually in that position it is also rather pointless.

In our Christian life there is often the temptation to be a bit tortoise-like – to withdraw when things looks a little threatening, or scary, when they require us to venture a bit outside of our comfort zone.

John Cleese once said that it was each Englishman’s goal to get safely into his grave without ever having been seriously embarrassed. I can relate to that remark!

However if we are to be of use to God then we are going to have to take risks. If we are going to move where God wants us to move, say what God wants us to say, do what God wants us to do – we are going to have to take risks. And yes, there may well be moments of embarrassment along the way! But wouldn’t you rather be doing something risky which counts for eternity, than being safe but pointless?

The final lesson we can learn from the tortoise is related to its lifestyle. A tortoise strikes me as rather an odd choice of pet. I mean you buy them, give them a kind and loving home and they then have the audacity to spend half the year asleep! They just go into hibernation, close down for months on end, and enter a kind of half-life stasis.

Looking back on my own Christian life I can recognize periods when I did this spiritually. I just closed God out. Shut things down. I went into a kind of spiritual hibernation. During these times days, weeks and months were just wasted because I wasn’t alive to God, listening to Him, available to Him.

So these are the three spiritual lessons we can learn from the tortoise. Three dangers we must be aware of:

  • Don’t be alive but dead looking.
  • Don’t choose safe over useful.
  • Don’t spiritually hibernate.

This Life-Giving, Holy and Terrible Sign

Perhaps the greatest gift that poets and artists give to us is the ability to see familiar things in new ways.

In so doing they give us the gift of newness and freshness, they restore to us the vitality of our familiar possessions.

The description “this life-giving, holy and terrible sign” had such an effect on me.

The writer, Joceline of Furness, a 12th century monk, used this phrase to describe the Crosses erected by Saint Kentigern everywhere he took the gospel to people.

Life-Giving :
There is a paradox in that this Roman instrument of torture and execution has been turned around by God and now becomes a source of life and healing. Doesn’t that just sum up the Christian faith!

Holy :
The cross is the instrument by which God both showed us the awful enormity of our sin and also dealt with it, once and for all. After the cross event there is only one kind of sin in the world – forgiven sin. We just need to receive this forgiveness which is freely offered to all who will take it. We take off our shoes and fall on our faces, this is sacred ground.

Terrible :
This is used in its arcane meaning indicating that which inspires awe, which is of great seriousness or extreme.

As I read on, it was interesting to read why Saint Kentigern erected these crosses.

“…so the enemies of the human race, the powers of darkness of this world, melting away in terror before this sign, might disappear and in terror and confusion might be banished far away.”

The first reason is that of spiritual warfare. Christ’s victory is the only victory the Church has, or needs. It is only in presenting the reality of this victory to the dark powers that we defeat them.

“…that the soldiers of the Eternal King, recognizing by a glance the unconquerable standard of their Chief, should fly to it, as to a tower of strength, from the face of the enemy”

The cross is a rallying point, the reminder of our unshakeable victory, already won by Christ. The battles we find ourselves in might be fierce, but the outcome of the war is never in doubt.

“…that they should have before their eyes that which they adore and in which they glory”

The cross symbolises all that is central in the Christian faith; all that is precious to the faithful.

“…as … the wrestling against spiritual wickedness in high places, and against the fiery darts of the evil one, is continual, it is meet that they should fortify and protect themselves by signing themselves with this sign”

Looking to the cross, signing oneself with it, have been basic elements of Christian spirituality since its first days. They are weapons in our warfare.

“…and by imitating the Passion of Christ … they should, for the love of the Crucified One, crucify the flesh with its vices and lusts, and the world to them, and themselves unto the world.”

The cross also sums up the calling of Christian discipleship. Bonhoeffer famously wrote,

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

The calling and duty of the followers of Christ is to respond to their Lord’s crucifixion with their own. We are called to kill in us all that is unworthy or opposed to the life of God in its radical holiness.

As Constantine was told in a vision, “In hoc signo vinces” – In this sign you will conquer.

Soul Friendship or Advancing Together in God

St-KentigernIn Joceline’s Life of Saint Kentigern (also known as Saint Mungo) who lived in the latter half of the 6th century and is the Patron Saint of Glasgow, there is a fascinating account of Kentigern’s meeting up with Saint Dewi (also known as Saint David).

It is a moving and insightful account of the way in which two Christian brothers (or sisters) can be soul-friends, can help each other in their Christian pilgrimage.

I would like to go through the brief account of their time together and pull out some principles of soul-friendship from this.

“…Bishop Dewi rejoiced with great joy at the arrival of such and so great a stranger. With eyes overflowing with tears, and mutually embracing, he received Kentigern as an angel of the Lord, dear to God, and, retaining him for a certain time in his immediate vicinity, always honoured him to a wonderful extent.”

The first principle of soul-friendship is the mutual acknowledgement of the inherent value of the other and the desire to honour each other in the Lord.

Each Christian is a much-beloved son or daughter of God and, as such, we must seek to appreciate each other and to value each other in the same way that God Himself values us. This is practically expressed in acts that honour the person.

“Therefore these two sons of light dwelt together, attending upon the Lord of the whole earth, like two lamps burning before the Lord, whose tongues became the keys of heaven, that by them a multitude of men might be deemed meet to enter therein…”

The second principle of soul-friendship is the mutual standing in worship before God. It is always God who is central in a soul-friendship. Out of this mutual standing in worship before God we find that there naturally emerges a holy conversation, a sharing of what we have received from God and this conversation is missional, it reaches out beyond the two friends and touches others with divine revelation that sparks faith and brings salvation. In one way, you might say that if God is the central concern of a soul-friendship, others are the secondary concern. It is almost as if the two friends are somewhat peripheral in their own relationship!

“…like the two cherubim in the holy of holies in the temple seat of the Lord, having their faces bent down towards the mercy-seat. They lifted their wings on high in the frequent mediation upon heavenly things; they folded them down in the ordination and arrangement of earthly things.”

The third principle of soul-friendship is that it is not merely mystical; it is also earthed and rooted in the realities of daily life. The two saints not only shared in worship and divine contemplation, they also helped each other in the complex organisation and practical arrangement of their ministries.

“They touched each other mutually with their wings, as by the instruction of each other in the Doctrine of Salvation; and in the alternate energizing of virtues they excited in each other to a more earnest advance in sanctity.”

The fourth principle of soul-friendship is mutual instruction in the faith and mutual exhortation in sanctity. Each of us has our own grasp of elements of the faith, grown out of the particular crucible of our experiences; therefore we always have things to share with each other, things to teach each other.

We are all also “works in progress” when it comes to sanctity. We have our particular strengths and weaknesses. We can inspire and challenge each other to do better, to advance. Any genuine friendship desires the very best for the friend. In Christian terms this is expressed in loving encouragement and also exhortation. A man sharpens a man, as iron sharpens iron, says the Bible.

“…and bidding farewell to Saint Dewi, after mutual benediction, he betook himself to the place aforesaid.”

The fifth principle of soul-friendship that we can draw from this meeting of Kentigern and Dewi is expressed in their parting, the principle of mutual benediction. This is the primary goal, our desire is that our friend might be blessed. Blessed in their walk with God, blessed in a deeper understanding of God’s will, blessed with a life that expresses closer harmony with holiness, blessed with a ministry that more clearly presents the love and call of God to men.

“Thus the most holy Kentigern, separated from Saint Dewi as to bodily presence, but by no means withdrawn from his love and from the vision and observation of the inner man…”

The final principle of soul friendship is that it is a committed, continuing relationship. Although the two men parted, they did not cease to remember the other, to pray for the other and to be present to each other in their thoughts. Their relationship expresses the reality of the Universal Church, that it t say, all those who are in relation with God are by that same relationship also in relation with each other. If we have God as our Father, we have each other as our brother. This relationship, as t depends upon God is not limited by time or space. Soul friendship seeks to hold on to the reality of this mystical bond between believers. It will not allow a little thing like geography to interrupt their communion.

It is appropriate that we learn these principles from the saint also known as “Mungo”, for this name signifies “beloved”. Who better to instruct us in how better to love one another in God?