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March 9, 2013
To the leaders of OM at the ILM in March 2013 in Bangkok After considerable thought, prayer, conversation, excitement and anxiety my wife and I decided to leave the south London church we were leading and head towards Pakistan. The spark which ignited the idea in the first place was a rejection by other leaders of a particular initiative which I thought essential and they did not. Anyway, all things considered it was time to go. Our last Sunday in the church was memorable. We said farewell at three meetings and one of them was the Sunday School. With 120 children and many teachers present we were called out to be prayed for. As people were praying one of the teachers started to cry, and within a few seconds tears began to roll down my face. Before long many of the children were crying. Questions flooded into my head. Was I betraying these children? How could I leave and make children cry? What sort of Pastor was I to so upset children? To me this was a demonstration of how these people and crying children were going to miss me. At the end of Sunday School my wife and I took two sisters home in our car. The sisters were about seven years old. As they got into the back seat they started to cry some more. Before we pulled away and with my guilt increasing, I turned around and asked them if they were going to be alright. Quietly they said yes. Then through her tears one of them shattered my image of what was going on when she blurted out, ‘Pastor… My rabbit’s dead’ and through more tears her sister said, ‘now we can get a dog’ and more tears rolled down their faces. A little stunned I turned back and looked through the front windscreen. I thought they were crying about my departure and the chasm that was going to open up in their lives once I had moved on. It was not so. They had felt the emotion in the Sunday School and filled it with their own meaning. Sadly, it was not about me but about rabbits, dogs and whatever else was popping into children’s minds when they saw grown people blubbering in public. You often don’t know what is going on in yourself or others. Working out what God is doing can be even more difficult. This can be the nature of leadership transitions. You often don’t know what is going on in yourself or others. Working out what God is doing can be even more difficult. It is also problematic to read the events and changing landscapes of our lives while seeking to work out what they mean. This is that which makes transitions so tricky. To what do we need to pay attention as we go through these times of leadership transition? I want to articulate two critical Biblical themes; engage two scripture passages and draw two conclusions that should help and bring perspective. Theme One: Living the Story Every church and every leader has a story. How fruitful that church and leader becomes connects to how well their story relates to the story of God. Scripture marks out that story moving us from Genesis to Revelation or from Creation to a new heaven and earth. Creation, fall, Israel, incarnation, redemption, ascension, Church and future hope outlines the overwhelming and mighty themes of scripture. The more our churches and leaders are rooted in each part of that Biblical story the more fully alive they will be and the more glory God will have. Irenaus taught us this. For in the end the only thing that matters is The Trinity and The Kingdom of God. The story of Father, Son and Holy Spirit and what God is doing in the world through establishing the kingdom is told in the story of scripture.   If we neglect part of that huge narrative and become selective in the areas we think are preferable a price will have to be paid sooner or later. In other words, if we do not take scripture seriously both in developing church culture and our own lives as leaders we will be bamboozled in ministry and particularly in times of ministry transition. …if we do not take scripture seriously both in developing church culture and our own lives as leaders we will be bamboozled in ministry and particularly in times of ministry transition. Let me illustrate. If you, as a leader, neglect the story of the Fall and therefore miss the nature of your own sinful rebellious heart, it becomes very difficult to access reality. Accessing reality is a critical responsibility for a leader. If the story of the Fall is neglected or underplayed you can easily misread yourself. Having done that, it is then much more difficult to discern what is happening around you. Skimming over the story of the Fall will lead you to becoming the victim to your own eccentric biases because you will not have been able to track the true nature of your own heart. It is the Holy Spirit who gives us awareness of our broken lives in a broken world, granting us the humility to enter into glorious acts of refreshing repentance. When we repent and submit ourselves to God and what He is doing in the world our judgement and discernment return or at least has the chance to. On the other hand, if you miss the future hope ahead and fail to anticipate what Miroslav Volf calls our ‘eschatological maximum,’ another price is to be paid. The world becomes small and you fail to make decisions in the light of the huge future intentions of God. It is only in the light of an anticipation of a new heaven and new earth that we can come to an understanding of what has happened in our lives and what is happening as we pass through times of transition. Leaders stumble when they do not have this future hope setting their hearts on fire when developing strategies and forging church cultures. Another cost of underplaying this part of the story is loss of patience. If you are leading without a rich anticipation of the future of God it is much more difficult to delay the gratifications of success which leadership often offers. Misread the future and misunderstand the present. To flourish through times of transition we need to live the story of God and not just particular parts of the story we prefer. To flourish through times of transition we need to live the story of God and not just particular parts of the story we prefer. All the lenses of the story need to be lined up adequately so we can see as clearly as possible the place where we find ourselves, the transition we are in and what could be the way forward in the future. Theme Two: Permanent Transition Walter Bruggemann explains how the Psalms work and in doing so explains how life and spiritual leadership works. He puts everything in a context of transition. He identifies three movements through which we all move.1 He divides the Psalms up into three divisions; Psalms of orientation, Psalms of disorientation and Psalms of new orientation. David G. Firth2 picking up on Brueggemann renames these divisions as Psalms of the ordered world, the disordered world and reordered world. All the Psalms are intended to be prayed as we go through these various stages of life. Ordered is when life is where we want it to be. Disordered usually describes what happens soon after we think it is ordered. Reordered is when through God’s work and word a fresh position is established and we feel ordered again. The idea is permanent transition both in our conversation with God and in how we engage with life in the everyday. We are on a continual journey through order, disorder and reorder even if we never move home or church. This is how leadership in general, and spiritual leadership in particular, work. We think all is under control and we are doing well. Then some wave hits us and the ship begins to roll, challenging the course we have set. Then as Captain we take corrective measures and equilibrium is established until another wave hits or the weather system changes bringing a new set of issues and decisions. I don’t think there is another alternative to this model when it comes to spiritual leadership or maybe any type of leadership. This is the way it will be because we are forever engaging particular persons, fresh conditions and our own complex lives as we seek to lead people forward. We are on a continual journey through order, disorder and reorder even if we never move home or church. The only issue is the intensity of the shifting sea and the particular weather system we are living through at the time. 3 Realising that we are in a place of permanent change is critical in doing well in specific leadership transitions. Perhaps the illusion is to imagine that we are ever in a safe place of orientation, order and stability where nothing alters when in fact the world is swirling around us all of the time and we are in continual change. The time of transition from one church responsibility to another is just a change in the nature of the transition we face continually. Ralph D. Stacey explains, ‘continuing movement towards equilibrium is a failure; success requires the maintenance of a position away from equilibrium.4’ Perhaps he has read the Psalms. The truth is that everything is in transition all of the time be it at glacial pace or tsunami thunder. It is going to be challenging to adapt to transitions and change unless we work with these categories of order, disorder and reorder in one form or another throughout the whole of our lives. The Psalms are key texts for leaders in transition because they are the praises, prayers and complaints of leaders who have gone through it before us. Story One: Jesus at Nazareth Transition was intended in Nazareth. The shifting relationship between the leader and the led – or in Nazareth’s case the not to be led – is starkly explained in Mark 6: 1-6. This is how I see the story. Jesus and the disciples arrived in Nazareth which was his home town. Before long the relational and organisational distance between Jesus and the people of Nazareth became apparent. Things had clearly changed. This was not only home town for Jesus it was also small town because Nazareth would not face the big world Jesus was opening before their eyes. It seemed that the people of Nazareth could not adjust to what they saw in front of them. Jesus was the boy to them but now he was returning as the man, or even worse a leader. It appears his transformation had outstripped their ability to adapt to what he now was. Jesus even had a following of disciples and assistants. Home town Nazareth appeared struggled with this. You can hear the relational gears grinding and jamming together as Nazareth tried to work out what was in front of them and who this Jesus was now. Nazareth failed to navigate the transition in a healthy way. They preferred their unbelief. It seems like it was all too much for them to grasp. Many were amazed at Jesus teaching but others – or the same people – took offence at him. It is as though they were paralysed in the middle of the road as the twin headlights of his wisdom and miracles bore down on them. They asked the questions, ‘Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?’ (Mark 6:3). It could also be that they just decided to be offended, therefore gifting themselves a way out of dealing with the stunning realities of what was happening through Jesus. If he was what his life demonstrated then the people of Nazareth had deep challenges to face and new thoughts to think. The implications were immense. We have in Nazareth a community that could not cope with the transition of a boy becoming a man and a follower becoming a leader. How did they resolve this internal conflict they endured? Who can know their exact motivations of the people of Nazareth? Yet, boxing Jesus up seemed to be the solution. It appears that they needed to put Jesus into a box so they could manage him. They were not aware that the box was ridiculously small and was destined to be shattered by the resurrection. We have in Nazareth a community that could not cope with the transition of a boy becoming a man and a follower becoming a leader. The people of Nazareth had congealed into their final selves and little could be done. Nazareth refused to be mentored by the one they nurtured. It seems that they could not cope with a prophet who to them was a little boy. Their inability to change amazed Jesus and rather than it being described as an adjustment problem or some other minor weakness, he described it in much more challenging language as a ‘lack of faith’ (Mark 6:6). Story Two: Peter and Cornelius In contrast to the people of Nazareth are Peter and Cornelius. Their story of transition is explained in Acts 10. Cornelius was a centurion in the Italian Regiment. He was devout, God-fearing and generous. He lived in Caesarea, the Roman capital over Judea. He would have been leading up to 600 men in his Roman cohort who were probably archers. Cornelius would have worked his way up through the ranks being a non-commissioned officer.5 He was helpful to the poor and had healthy prayer habits. Yet, he was a non-Jew leading an army of occupation. He may well have been sympathetic to Judaism, but he was not a follower of Christ until a meeting happened in his house. Cornelius prayed at three o’clock in the afternoon and had a vision of an angel. The messenger spoke Cornelius’s name and filled him with fear while telling him to go and get Simon Peter. Cornelius sent three of his men to complete the task. Ministry transitions do not come with much greater intensity than the one God offered Peter through his roof top vision and the obedient response of Cornelius. We know Peter well. Here is the courageous walk-on-water Apostle. He was a devout Jew and now leader in the emerging church. God had used him wonderfully, particularly after the resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. He was in the beautiful place of Joppa, which is now Jaffa, part of coastal Tel Aviv. He went up onto his roof to pray. In prayer he had a trance and a vision was given to him. For a Jew this would have been a horrific vision. On a sheet lowered down from heaven came four-footed animals, reptiles and birds. Then a voice said, “Get up Peter, kill and eat”. He replied, “Surely not Lord”! Peter received this vision three times. This is not the first time Peter has had to hear something three times. While Peter was hesitating, doing his ‘wondering’ and ‘thinking’ he found that God has provided some leverage that gave Peter momentum. A Roman soldier and his servants were outside his house just as the Spirit had said. Peter was now in significant transition. His visionary trance was changing into concrete reality. This experience was now very real and standing in front of him in the shape of three men calling out his name. The centurion’s messengers wanted Peter to come and speak to them at Cornelius’s house in Caesarea. Peter’s world was being inverted and transformed yet he responded positively to this request. Up to this point [Paul] was a religious sectarian but now he had the radical challenges of spectacular transition pressing against his nose. Peter went through his normal prayer routine and his ethnical-theological world was shattered in this place of prayer. He was a Jew and was restricted in what he could eat.6 In his vision were clean and unclean animals and it scandalised him. Yet, this was also a staggering vision of future Jew and Gentile relationships to be expressed in the future church. Peter was being introduced to the unthinkable because of the new thing God was doing through Cornelius. This was not only Peter receiving fresh vision it was a picture of the future shape of the worldwide church. Peter said, “it is against our law for a Jew to associate with Gentiles or even visit them” (10:28) but that is precisely what he was doing. Up to this point the Apostle was a religious sectarian but now he had the radical challenges of spectacular transition pressing against his nose. God had just shown him that no race is better than another. Nothing was ever going to be the same again for Peter or for the church. Cornelius and Peter were both on a journey towards each other, a journey that Peter would find very difficult. But it is Peter’s ability to be shaped by Cornelius that helps change him and in the end changes the world. If Peter had not made that transition the gospel could have been locked up for years in some sectarian scheme and never breaking out into the Gentile world. What can we take from these two themes and passages when it comes to ministry transitions? What should shape our imaginations from these themes and passages? I want to focus on two areas. Becoming accomplished in living out of control I have always enjoyed my times of ministry transition. They have always been fresh places of thought and release but this is not so for many. Each of us has to find the grace, imagination, revelation and practice to find our own way through. As Christian ministers and leaders we are not living our own story. One of the reasons why ministry transitions can be so challenging is because we feel vulnerable and out of control for as long as they last. The time of transition is the time of disconnection where everything is being shifted from one place to another. This is the theme of living out of control is summed up by the ever quotable, Stanley Hauerwas who writes, ‘Learning to live out of control, learning to live without trying to force contingency into conformity because of our desperate need for security, I take as a resource for discovering alternatives that would otherwise not be present.’7 Eugene H. Peterson expresses much the same thing in his writing.8 If we are able to let go of the controls of our lives who knows what blessings may come our way that we would not otherwise have noticed if we had kept control. As Christian ministers and leaders we are not living our own story. We cannot live as if we are the sole producers of our own lives. Rather, living out of control, yet rooted in the middle of the story of God opens up our imaginations to all the possibilities offered in times of transition. We cannot control the various events and seasons which come to us as we move through order, disorder and reorder. What we can control is our response to them. Peter was able to live out of control but the people of Nazareth were not. It was as Peter responded to his vision that revelation happened. Significant breakthrough took place in his imagination and world view as he responded to the vision when he merged back into the material reality of Joppa after his trance. Peter explained later that, through his vision, inaccurate and inappropriate judgements were challenged, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean” (9:28) and his parochial local world became global, “God does not show favouritism but accepts those from every nation who fear him and do right” (9:35). This only came to him as he was willing to go with the startling vision of what God was calling him to do and live out of control. Yet, it is remarkable how many Christian leaders, called to follow Jesus wherever he leads, can be so controlling when the process of transition takes place. My guess is that fear quietly injects itself into our hearts and solidifies in our heads so we can’t think straight. Here is a challenge for this is where we are called to be exemplars. How can we call people to a life of faith and risk if we cannot be schooled in learning to live out of control, which is a prerequisite of the life of faith? It is so easy to be seduced by our own expectations of the institution or denomination for which we work and imagine that it must carry us or always find a place for us. For some it is as though there is a debt to be paid to us by our institution or denomination. We feel we are owed even though these same organisations have given us a place to live out our calling. With this sense of being owed worming around our heads we trust the institution to deliver rather than the God in whom we trust. Never confuse the Church of England with the Holy Trinity, the two are not identical. Fifteen years ago I took a sabbatical from a group I was working with. While I was considering the move one of the leaders said to me, ‘don’t do it, you will lose your powerbase if you go’. I took this as another confirmation that it was time to take the sabbatical. Grasping and clinging on to institutional power will make transitions particularly difficult. To flourish through transition we need to learn to let go. Peter could do this. Nazareth could not. Walking through transition with others We are being shaped and mentored in one way or another. All of our assumptions around how life works and our understanding of common sense demonstrate the influence of culture, family and relationships. We are being formed through our choices and what they come to mean for us. Right at the heart of this formation is the company we have kept and now keep. ‘Do not be deceived’ says Paul, ‘God cannot be mocked. People reap what they sow.’9 Our ability to cope with times of transition will be related to the company we have kept before the transition takes place. Who have been the people who have shaped our hearts and minds? For Pastors and church leaders times of transition are intensely related to people. The work of being a Pastor or Shepherd means that times of departure and transition are full of emotional, spiritual and psychological fissures. There are high expectations emotionally, spiritually and psychologically when re-engaging with the next group of people we are called to lead. Moving on in ministry is to do with pastoral responsibility being handed over to someone else and picking up a new set of responsibilities from another once the time of transition has ended.10 Without community to teach us who we are we are lost in a desert of introspection and guess work. Right at the core of ministry transition is mentoring. What ideas have mentored me? What desires mentor me? Who is mentoring me through this transition process? Who am I mentoring? Where am I rooted in my head and heart as the transition takes place? We cannot know ourselves alone. Without community to teach us who we are we are lost in a desert of introspection and guess work. Walking through ministry transition with others is vital to doing it well. I want to identify three areas of mentoring which will help as we navigate ministry transition. Mentored by God Jim Houston explains what a Christian is through stating, ‘Becoming a Christian is a demolition of one’s identity from the ruins of self- enclosure as being individualistic – literally ‘in-human’ – whereas to be human is to be a social being. Instead, one becomes more ‘open,’ not only to other people, but also to become radically reconstituted as a ‘person-in-Christ.’11 Becoming a Christian is to do with the shift from just being self-defined, self-focused and individual to becoming a ‘person’ who becomes who they are because of their communion with God and their community with other people. Understanding ourselves as a ‘person’ in this sense is central to ministry and leadership transitions and to great spiritual leadership. This is at the core of what God is doing in our lives and is our deepest need. Kierkegaard taught us that a human being’s highest achievement is to let God be able to help him (or her). In one sentence he resets the cultural clock of the western world and explains to us what human success looks like. Success is being mentored by God in relationship with Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Reading scripture not only for information but for formation shapes the way in which we respond to God, the world and ourselves. Therefore, right at the heart of leadership transitions are the practices and disciplines of the faith and in particular prayer. Scripture is also central to the process. Reading scripture not only for information but for formation shapes the way in which we respond to God, the world and ourselves. A prayerful contemplative engagement with scripture nourishes us on the journey during times of transition. It was in the place of prayer that Peter was mentored by God through receiving his vision and a whole new world opened up for him. His ordered world became disordered but was reordered as he listened to God. If God does not mentor us through scripture and prayer then we will be mentored by other things which will shape our heads and hearts. Money, sex, power, fear, time and place will tend to dominate and enslave our decision making processes during times of change. Being mentored through scripture and in prayer by Father, Son and Holy Spirit will keep us nourished and receptive in times of transition and able to spot the serpent’s tail. Mentored by community In contemporary western organisational life mentoring is usually seen as a dialogue between two people. The idea is that someone who is a bit further along the road helps someone just beginning the journey. We have many examples of this in scripture with Elisha and Elijah, Ruth and Naomi, Barnabas and Paul, Paul and almost everyone else in the New Testament. But the weight of the mentoring process needs to be communal rather than one-on-one relationships, important as they are. Keeping the right company is critical when it comes to shaping our imaginations and the decisions we make. Jesus developed His disciples in community. He called the group into existence and formed it around himself as the teacher. The motivation behind His mentoring was not to discover the potential of each disciple so they could live their lives well or that they may have a sense of fulfilment. They were called together so they may establish the church. Jesus calls, teaches, walks with and releases His disciples so they will become the leaders of the emerging church. This communal mentoring theme continues into the first centuries of the church. Cyprian, Pachomius, Basil of Caesarea, and Augustine all place an emphasis on mentoring the group and not only the individual.12 However, keeping good company in communal mentoring is important. If you were mentored by the Nazareth community it would have been a toxic experience. Keeping the right company is critical when it comes to shaping our imaginations and the decisions we make. However, keeping the right company does not mean keeping safe company. I have been the member of several mentoring groups. Some have been built around a leader and some have been more peer-focused. The relationships built up in these groups often survive after the conclusion of the group. Many of these sorts of groups go on for decades. These relationships are vital at times of ministry transition. They often contain people who love you but are not so interested in what you can do for them or the particular ministry you have. They usually contain people who are more interested in you as a person rather than in what you can deliver. This is what makes them valuable, particularly in times of transition. They are particularly helpful in absorbing the shock of change and in working out the possible options for the future. Mentored by a person If you are blessed you may also have a person who is your mentor, this is a person who ‘with God-given capacity and God-given responsibility to influence a specific group of God’s people towards His purposes for the group,’13 mentors you. Church leadership is to do with influencing a group towards God but in times of transition those same leaders usually need someone to mentor them. A skilled mentor is able to notice our story and see how it connects or disconnects with the story of God. A skilled mentor is able to notice our story and see how it connects or disconnects with the story of God. They are able to challenge us and call us out of our self-indulgence and fantasies so we may re-engage with God’s story. They are often able to notice where we are in terms of order, disorder and reorder sometimes pointing out that what we considered to be disorder is actually reordering or what we considered as order needs some disordering. They can become Cornelius-like figures in our lives obediently responding to God’s initiative and preventing us from developing Nazareth-like stubbornness when called by God to change. A good mentor leads us out of our boxed up lives and points out the horizons and possibilities ahead. In doing so they prepare us for the next phase of ministry and pastoral responsibility when we will do the same thing for others who are negotiating their way through the labyrinth of money, sex, power, time and place. Living the story of God, allowing room for our reordering, disavowing the unbelief of Nazareth and being open to the voice of God, is cultivated in us as we learn to live out of control and experience a mentored life. At least this is what I have learned on the journey so far. What is the one virtue that brings this together? Courage. We will need the courage to say no to a little life and yes to the biggest life we can possibly live. If we have the title of Minister, Leader, Pastor or Shepherd our calling demands no less. All this is preparation for the time when a weeping little girl bursts your vain imaginings by telling you, ‘Pastor …. my rabbit’s dead’ and introduces you to the realities of ministry transition. This article is adapted from a chapter entitled Letting Go and Holding On from the book Moving on in Ministry (2013) SCM-Canterbury Press. Please do not copy without permission. 1 Walter Brueggemann, 1984, The Message of the Psalms, Minneapolis: Augsburg 2 David G. Firth, 2005, Hear, O Lord: A Spirituality of the Psalms, Cliff College Publishing 3 It is possible to live through all of these phases at one time depending on the various spheres of life we inhabit. 4 Ralph C. Stacey, 1993, Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics, Pitman Publishing 5The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Frank E. Gaebelein ed., 1981, Richard N. Longnecker, Acts, vol 9 p. 385 6 Leviticus 11 7 Stanley Hauerwas, 2010, Hannah’s Child, London: SCM Press, p.137 8 Eugene H. Peterson, 2007, The Jesus Way, London: Hodder, p. 276, where Peterson describes Hauerwas as ‘my theologian of choice as a conversation partner’ 9 Galatians 6:7 10 The intensity of this process depends much on the model, style and ecclesiology practiced. In more collegial models this transition can be easier but it depends on what is really happening underneath the skin of the church and leadership. 11 James H. Houston, 2002, The Mentored Life: From Individualism to Personhood, NavPress 12Edward L. Smither, 2008, Augustine and Mentor: A Model for Preparing Spiritual Leaders, Nashville:B&H Publishing, p.90-91. Smither also points out the importance of correspondence and Church Councils as critical mentoring tackle. 13 Robert Clinton, 1988, The Making of a Leader, Colorado Springs: Nave Press, p.245
Nov. 29, 2012
Barack Obama is a victor. No doubt both exhausted and elated, he has won the American presidential race for a second time. I used to work for a direct sales company, which talked a lot about winning, about being a champion. Whether it was through the hours you worked (12-14 hours per day on average), or the number of customers you had, or the number of products you sold, there were goals for everyone and everyone had a shot at winning something. You could sell zip one week but still be the team champion for having worked 80 hours. That said, some ‘wins’ clearly mattered more than others. There’s a big difference between working 70 hours and earning $1000, and working 80 hours and earning nothing. The first is exhausting but elating, the second merely exhausting. Where is the victory in that? Tensions between hard work, self sacrifice, victory and defeat are visible right through the Bible. Some ‘wins’ are easy to quantify: David’s defeat of Goliath; Joshua’s conquests of lands and kings; Gideon’s victory over the Midianites. Others, less so. Where is the victory in Paul’s profession of faith while beaten and chained in a prison cell, or in the persecution and murder of the first Christians, or indeed in Jesus Christ’s own death on a cross? The Bible has some striking and paradoxical things to say about winning and losing. Quite often winners turn out to be losers and losers come out victorious. Goliath was a mighty man with the right weapons and military strategy to win the Philistines’ battle with Israel. Yet he was defeated by David, a shepherd boy wearing a shepherd’s uniform wielding a shepherd’s tools (1 Samuel 17). Technically, Moses and the Israelites should have been defeated by the Egyptians at the Red Sea (Exodus 14). Technically, Gideon’s 300 men should have been vanquished by the Midian army’s countless numbers (Judges 7). But it is the unlikely candidates that emerge victorious. The fact is that in all these situations there is only one true winner: God himself. And the fact that God chooses weak people, weak nations, the ‘losers’ of the world to fight and win his battles, tells us something very important about God’s character. God cares more about preserving peace than he does about making war. He cares more about making disciples than he does about creating heroes. God’s victories in the New Testament come not in the form of physical battles won, but in Jesus’ conquering of sin, sickness, disease and death through his own life, death and resurrection. God’s victories come in the form of the sick being healed, dead people being raised to life, spiritually crushed people being set free, relationships being restored, sins forgiven, those in despair being given hope. According to Scripture, God is not a politician with votes to win, or a taskmaster with a long list of goals for us to meet before he gives us his approval. God is love (1 John 4:16). God gives victory to those who in every respect are defeated because it gives us life and it gives him joy. In a presidential election, there can be only one winner. Yet in God’s agenda, even a loser may triumph. If this God was my nation’s God, I’m pretty sure our politics could look different. If this God was your God, how might your own gains and losses be changed?
Sept. 19, 2012
 ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose’ – Jim Elliot Jim Elliot was a passionate young American Missionary. He was born in Portland, Oregon in October 1927 and died 8th January 1956. His body was found in the Curaray River, Ecuador along with four others, Ed McCully, Roger Youderain, Pete Flemming and Nate Saint. These missionaries were murdered by about 10 members of the Auca tribe who understood that these five young Americans meant them harm. The Auca were one of the most violent cultures ever documented. In the middle of the 1940’s 60% of deaths in this tribe were murders because of family and clan warfare. The word Auca in their own language meant ‘savage’. Jim Elliot was aware of this but he and his friends went to explain the Jesus way of love and forgiveness anyway. Before going to the Auca and on page 174 of his diary of 28th October 1949 Elliot wrote, in reference to his own life ‘he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose’ and he was probably quoting Philip Henry an English non-conformist preacher (1663—1696). The phrase has shaped much of the modern mission’s movement and the church is bigger now than at any time in history. ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose’ is a succinct statement of what is going on when you follow Jesus Christ. In reality, the phrase comes out of the words of Jesus when he says, ‘Those who want to come after me must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for me will find them.’1 What is Jesus saying when he said this? Save your life and lose it How can we seek to save our lives and end up losing them? We have huge forces working away inside of us. They are shaping our culture and our own lives. Let me just mention four of them. These are our systems of salvation or the horses we put money on in the hope that these will save our lives. On one level all four look good but each can have dark forces working away within them. In our own way we can be just as dangerous as the Auca Indians if some of these forces are let loose in our lives. I must achieve my own goals Simply, the way I will get life is through achieving my hard targets and goals. What is wrong with this? Nothing except for the knowledge that Jesus said, ‘what good is it for you to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit your very self’. In other words what is the price you will pay to achieve your own goals and is there a possibility you may lose yourself in the paying? Do you want to be wealthy? What is the price you are prepared to pay to be wealthy? Will it be at the cost of everything else you value? Do you want a successful career? What price will you pay to be professionally successful? It is sometimes tempting the follow Nike and the Nike swoosh rather than Jesus. Nike was the winged goddess of victory and she helped you achieve your goals but the goals may be damaging and the victory worthless. I must win rather than lose Winning means different things to each of us. A few years ago I took my Canadian sister-in-law to watch a football match. I think I made a mistake in taking her to watch Millwall football club in South East London. Her vocabulary of English bad language was expanded in the stand at ‘The Den’. How did the Millwall supporters re-define ‘winning’? This was important because they are not that successful as a football club. You discovered their idea of winning from their distinctive chant. It went, ‘No one likes us, no one likes us, No one likes us, we don’t care, We are Millwall, super Millwall, We are Millwall, from the Den, no one likes us, no one likes us, no one likes us and we don’t care. We are Millwasll, super Millwall, we are Millwall from the Den’. There is some punk inspiration there. How do we define winning? Personally, I don’t care about winning a Gold medal, the Eurovision song contest or a Nobel Prize but if I had the talent I would have had a go at them all. But I know a little bit of my dark heart in this area. Winning for me is being liked, loved and noticed. I am and extrovert I want attention. So, winning for me is getting an invitation to speak at the right conferences, having influence over the right people, knowing people read my books and maintaining my personal sovereignty. This is always problematic and God has had to wrestle me to the ground on a number of occasions and get me to submit. All of these ‘winning’ snakes in the grass have to be watched and dealt with regularly. I must be powerful and significant The great cultural indicator of power and significance is busyness. When someone says to us ‘you are always so busy’ we feel it is a compliment. They may have intended it as an insult but we feel that busyness must be a good thing so we hear it as a compliment. Often our busyness is the twisted expression of a sigh in our hearts that we need to be noticed, we need to get attention and we need to be seen as moving ahead. In the Old Testament the tower of Babel is the great image of this. Before they built the tower they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the earth’.2 They wanted a name and they wanted to address their fear of being nobody so they built a tower of significance. But God came down and scattered them anyway. We build our God-free and self-made towers and through them create a huge ‘face’ which we present to the world. We do this so we may not be scattered and that we may avoid being nobodies. Maybe this is one of the reasons why Jesus hung around with prostitutes and sinners. Maybe he was flagging up to us watch how I do this. I am hanging around with those who have little ‘face’, power or significance and who have already been scattered. This is why affluence can so seductive. It masks and smears over the cracks plastered on our towers of Babel. Affluence can make you feel powerful and significant when inside fear and loneliness creep silently around your heart. My desires must be fulfilled The Americans have their Declaration of Independence. In it Thomas Jefferson wrote about the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. People have latched on to ‘the pursuit of happiness’ phrase. But when Jefferson wrote this he was thinking in terms of not being locked up for being in debt or for being a Quaker or Baptist. But that phrase has morphed into the notion that we have the right to pursue whatever makes us happy.3 But if we just pursue our own dreams and happiness we develop a life where we use people and love things when we are intended to love people and use things. With only these four things in place you can get the world but lose yourself. Everything is expanding well on the outside but the losses are on the inside, eventually emerging on the outside in relationship at home and work. Lose your life for me and save it Jesus addresses his disciples and says, ‘Those who would come after me must deny themselves’. He is addressing those who would be people who would ‘come after’ Him. He is saying you regain your life and true self when you pursue Him. On the voyage of discovery for yourself you find out who you are as you discover Him because every revelation of God to you is a revelation about yourself. Simply, you get your life back when you place it into the loving hands of Father, Son and Holy Spirit then life and revelation begin to take place as you pursue Him. If you just pursue your own goals, the need to win, power, significance and desires you do not get Jesus so do not receive all you were intended to be. Why? Life is not found in building your own tower of Babel but in entering into the kingdom where Jesus is the King. Jesus is the King and the reason he came was to break the strangle hold of the enemy through his death and resurrection and set up his kingdom. Jesus taught us to pray this, ‘thy kingdom come thy will be done’. Eventually, the whole world will see that he is King of Kings and Lord of Lords as his will in heaven is displayed on earth. It is with this King and in this kingdom that you discover your true self and life. What is His kingdom like? It looks and feels like: Freedom. Jesus walked into a synagogue and read the text ‘the Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor … freedom for prisoners … recovery of sight to the blind … releasing the oppressed’4 and applied it to himself and what he was doing in the world. Healing. Jesus paid attention to people then they were delivered, restored and healed with some being raised some from the dead. Forgiveness. Jesus told the story of the prodigal son who tried to save his life in his own way but eventually needed the welcome and forgiveness of his Father so he would be free. Celebration. Jesus, offered lavish celebration along with forgiveness. When the prodigal son returns to the Father his response is, ‘Quick bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate’.5 Wisdom. Jesus told stories of wisdom. From the story of the wise and foolish builders through to the story of the shrewd manager and all that is said in the Sermon on the Mount, he taught us how to live our lives. Hospitality. Jesus invited people into his company then loved, mentored and instructed them until they are released into the world to do the same with others. Transformed hearts. Jesus focused on the heart so that it will be changed. He knew that being in love with him changed everything. As Pedro Arrupe says, ‘Fall in love with God and let that decide everything’. If you want to follow Jesus this is – more or less – what it will look and feel like. Because Jesus is King Tom Wright says, ‘he commands his hearers to give up their other dreams and to trust his’.6 It is in this kingdom that you discover your true self and all the freedom, healing, forgiveness, celebration, wisdom, hospitality and transformation he offers. Take up the cross and follow How does this work and what is our part in this? We have to make some decisions about Jesus. Is he merely going to be our life accessory? Will we just select him as our lifestyle attachment? Much to my embarrassment years ago I wore a red badge which in bold white letters read, ‘Jesus is my lifestyle’! To find your life means to acknowledge Him as King, which is the first move and then deny yourself which is the inevitable second move. Thousands of people were put to death by the Romans. They liked crucifixion as a way of keeping order. A condemned criminal was forced to carry one beam of his cross to the place of crucifixion. Once the process was started the condemned man was on a one way journey, he would not be back. If you follow Jesus you can expect both death and resurrection. Taking up your cross means a daily death to our own self-made goals, ideas of what winning looks like, our hunger for significance and living life just to fulfil our desires. You die to a whole way of life and you do it daily. Self-help is no help at all in this. You go through the death of your self-made life and enter into his reign of freedom, healing, forgiveness, celebration, wisdom, hospitality and a transformed heart. Taking up your cross does not mean the passive acceptance of a difficult life. Anyone can do this and many do. I don’t just take up my cross, I follow him. Taking up the cross can mean I will decentre myself so that others may develop and grow. Taking up the cross can mean I will let God decide who are the winners and losers in life. Taking up the cross can mean that I am willing to take a path of insignificance so that what is really significant may flourish. Taking up the cross can mean that some of the desires I have may never be fulfilled until the new heaven and the new earth emerges. Taking up the cross can mean discovering the Auca tribe in Ecuador, realising they are slaughtering themselves and putting yourself in a place where you might be their next victim. You do this as an act of service so they will hear the message of love and forgiveness in Jesus Christ. Our lives are found, saved and discovered in the freedom of taking up your cross daily and following Jesus who said, ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light’. This is how we find ourselves. Life through death I was in India in 14 years ago and while speaking at a meeting felt my strength ebbing from me. I felt a pain in my chest and sick in my stomach. I cancelled the meeting and went to lie down. Then I felt a pain in my arm. Up to this point I thought I was responding to curry or jetlag but now I know I needed help. I called out to a friend who brought another friend who had received a heart triple by-pass. He told me I was having a heart attack and we needed to go to hospital. I said if we did that it would ruin everyone’s day but he insisted. After being in intensive care for a little while an Indian doctor came to my bed and said, ‘Mr Thomas, my name is Dr. Vishwenath, you are having a heart attack right now. There are two things we can do. One will work the other may work. What do you want’? I said, ‘let’s do the one that works’. He slapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘good decision’. As he walked away I felt like someone had taken me to the top of Dorchester hotel in London and had pushed me off the top and I was falling. In those minutes after he left my bed I felt aloneness and fear as I have never felt it before. I felt like I was going to die when I hit the pavement below. In my fall and in my imagination Jesus appeared to me and started falling with me. He held my hand as we fell together. This is what I call my moment of presence. In the middle of the fall he turned the tables on me and began celebrating my life. He told me that I had not lived a perfect life but I had lived my life in the right zone. I was stunned by this. Yet, I was unsure if we were going to hit the ground together and my life would come to an end or what was next? I was then moved to the operating theatre and discovered I was going to be awake while they did the emergency angioplasty. It was like I was in the valley of the shadow of death. After working away speaking in Hindi and English with his fellow doctors my surgeon turned to me and said, ‘Mr Thomas that was a 100% blockage but the procedure has been 100% successful’. Two hours later he came into my room and said, ‘You are a lucky Bastard’. And he told me not to do it again. I had the blockage in the ‘left arterial descending’ chamber of my heart, otherwise known as the ‘widow maker’. The descent was now over and the sensation was resurrection. No longer the fall or the valley of the shadow of death I was on the rise with God. I may also have been experiencing the euphoria of pharmaceuticals. The point is the journey. In that heart attack journey I lived through fear and aloneness through to presence and celebration. It can be fearful to die to our own systems of self-salvation, it usually is. The instruction to take up your cross and follow me can look terrifying. Critical in that journey is that he walks with and sustains us on the voyage from death to life. He is with us as we walk away from our self-made lives and learn how to discover life in Him. As Jim Elliott wrote, ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose’. 1 Luke 9:18-27 see also Mathew 10:39-39; 16:24-25; Mark 8:34-35; Luke 14:26-27; 17:33; John 12:25 2 Genesis 11:1-8 3 Jan Johnson, Abundant Simplicity, p.26. 4 Luke 4:18-19 5 Luke 15:22 6 Tom Wright, Simply Jesus, 2011 SPCK p.55
Aug. 15, 2012
It seems to me that the delegation of tasks (better known as the delegation of control) is a bit like asking a friend to cut your hair. You’re probably better off doing the job yourself, you sense things are not going to turn out perfect, but at least you can say you gave them a chance before taking back the scissors (and editing their handiwork later). Delegation of anything can be a delicate issue. Some of us can’t handle the weight of responsibility, and so delegate in order to shirk decision-making at the earliest opportunity. Others of us simply don’t trust anyone other than ourselves to do the job well or to meet our expectations, countenancing delegation solely as a means of assigning unwanted and unimportant work to someone else. So how does God square up as a delegator? How does someone with a world of power, and vision to match, decide who to share it with? How does God get the work done? Looking at the life of Jesus, we find some interesting lessons. Here are a few: Firstly, God invests in people quickly. Within moments, it seems, of Jesus’ taking up public ministry, he calls alongside Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, then James and his brother John (Matt. 4). From the outset, God does not intend to do his work alone. Secondly, God takes the flack for his people’s mistakes. Nobody concerned to save face would choose disciples like Jesus’ twelve. Time and again they misunderstand him, they misinterpret him and disobey him, with the consequence that others misunderstand and misinterpret him. So no, God would not get a gold star for his choice of employees, but he manages the ones he has with exceptional skill. Jesus is patient with his disciples, he takes his time with them, he journeys with them, he repeats and explains things for them, he invests time and prayer in them, and ultimately he stands by them. Nobody gets dropped but everybody is given freedom to leave, however painful to himself and his mission (Matt. 26:31). Thirdly, God’s ‘whys’ are more important than his ‘whos.’ When it comes to choosing who to pass the baton to, Jesus chooses prayerfully (Luke 6) and then merely adequately. I don’t think Jesus chose disciples from among fishermen, zealots and tax collectors because they shone out as skilled learners and leaders. I think he chose them for a different reason entirely: to show that it is only by God’s own qualities, his love, grace and power shared, that anyone can fulfil God’s intentions. God’s associates are not the world’s boldest and best, but ordinary people like you and me, people who may not have it all at the outset but who can learn as they follow, developing skills and traits which mirror God’s own, with everlasting impact. Having been a manager myself in days gone by, I appreciate that these things may not translate easily to the world of business (or hairdressing!), geared as we are to hold on to control more easily than we relinquish it. But I do wonder what life would look like if we had a go at doing things Jesus’ way. We might end up looking like Ziggy Stardust, but perhaps we wouldn’t need the scissors back.
May 6, 2012
Leaders occasionally do wild and radical things to reshape their world. Gandhi went on a fast to death so that Muslims and Hindus would not pursue slaughter. Genghis Khan advanced the Mogul Empire through disaster, slaughter and invasion. Margaret Thatcher confronted Union power in the United Kingdom and changed the nation. Jesus, who was different to them all, died on a cross and was raised to an endless life. There is nothing more wild and radical than his self-sacrifice. Leaders’ hearts are revealed in what they do and model when the pressure is on, when the circumstances are demanding and everyone is anticipating a response. This is when they tend towards the wild and radical and this is where we discover what sort of leaders they are. In John 2:12-22 we get a warning regarding how different and wild Jesus could appear, ‘In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” Who is this wild leader? Jesus Christ of Nazareth is God’s speech. He is God’s Word, God’s articulation. The story of the Christian gospel is that Jesus Christ is God made flesh and this reality must be revealed in the entire world. Every move he made revealed God. He was revealed in every conversation he had, all the acts he performed, each look he conveyed, all the healings he did and the attitude he struck. Finally, the revelation of God comes through his cosmos-transforming death and resurrection. So, Jesus Christ is the light; he is God made flesh revealing the luminous, radiant and incandescent glory of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The passion of the Church is that he must be discovered by everyone in every place throughout all time. What was this wild leader like? In chapter two of John we have one story that looks like grace and another that looks like truth. ‘We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth’ says John (John 1:14). God has come to us in flesh so God’s skin is full of bone, blood, lungs, intestines, ligaments and sinew and yet all mixed up with two things; grace and truth. When He was present anywhere grace and truth were present everywhere and that is how you could recognise Him. In chapter two of John we have one story that looks like grace and another that looks like truth. In the first story Jesus graced a wedding by changing water into wine and filling glasses with celebratory drink. But in the second story he went into the temple and filled it with challenging, table-turning, stress-inducing, truth-telling and reordering zeal. How is it that Jesus behaves so differently? The water-into-wine story looks like ‘grace’ and ejection of mammals from the temple looks like ‘truth’. But He was full of ‘grace and truth’ all the time. Both stories are full of grace and truth with different aspects presented in each one. In Jesus Christ grace and truth are always held together. It is vital to Christian leadership that we pay attention to this because when these virtues are present we can contemplate doing the wild and radical. The presence of grace and truth enable us to do the wild and radical well. Being wild and radical without grace and truth usually emerges as foolishness and/or disaster for all concerned Why did Jesus drive sheep, cows and people out of the temple? The main problem was not graft or corruption although this might have been an issue.1 They needed to have animals to sacrifice and money did have to be exchanged so they could pay their taxes. The deeper problems were much more subtle than graft or corruption. The problem was how these leaders related to God. This brings this story much closer to home. Jesus normally ate meals and drank wine with broken people, bringing his peace into those everyday situations, just as Christian leaders normally do. But these problems were exceptional and so deep that Jesus made a whip of cords; drove sheep and cattle out of the temple area, scattered the coins of the money- changers and turned their tables over, while shouting to the dove sellers, ‘Get these out of here!’ There had been what Michael Stocking calls, ‘the quiet gravitational pull of the status quo’ or what some others refer to as the normalisation of deviance. What were their problems? Leadership problem one: Loss of Direction We have some older friends who went on a driving holiday to Italy. They had their maps, intelligence, experience and a Satnav. However, they leaned heavily on the Satnav. It was only when their wing mirrors were touching both walls along a very narrow street in a northern Italian village and they were shouting at each other that they consulted the map to changed direction. I remember early in my marriage – well before the days of Satnav- heading off for dinner with my new wife. The only problem was I had confused Chorleywood with Chingford. It was very confusing for me driving the car and even more confusing for my wife who trusted me in this matter. We were two hours late for dinner in Chorleywood. If my memory serves me well much of the drive from Chingford to Chorleywood was in deep silence. With the loss of direction came a loss of orientation. They were disorientated and disordered. Their leaders had lost their way. Jesus cleared the temple because there was a loss of direction. What was intended as a place for communion was turned into commerce and what was a place of worship became a place of trade. The place for adoration of God was taken over by animals and money-making. Worshiping God, animal sacrifice and money-making were all important, but a blurring had taken place because their leaders were not paying attention. “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market” exclaims Jesus. With the loss of direction came a loss of orientation. They were disorientated and disordered. Their leaders had lost their way. So, Jesus gave them direction, some order, and it was a temporary ejection from the temple. In rugby this would be a period in the ‘sin bin’. After a serious foul this is the place where you pay a penalty, cool off and think again so you can come back and participate in the game. Leadership problem two: Loss of Memory They had lost their way because they had lost their memory. This temple was meant to be a house for the nations and it appears the leaders had forgotten this. The outer court of the temple was also called the ‘Court of the Gentiles’. This was a place for the rest of the world. This was intended to be a ‘house of prayer for all nations’ (Mark 11:17). Harvey Cox, who used to lecture at Harvard said, ‘In keeping with the vision of their prophets, the builders of the ancient temple in Jerusalem designed it to be a house of prayer for all peoples. There was an inner area where only Jews were admitted. Here stood the Holy of Holies, which only the high priest was permitted to enter, and that only once a year, on the Day of Atonement. There was also a section explicitly named “the Court of the Gentiles.” Throughout the ancient world, many Gentiles worshipped with Jews without ever converting to Judaism. The Jews welcomed them as “God-fearers,” and their presence in the temple reflected the age-old Jewish hope that one day all nations and peoples, including “strangers and sojourners,” would join in praise of the One who created them all.’ Harvey Cox (Common Prayers p.1). If you do not remember well you not only lose your memory but you also lose your vision. The leaders had a huge gap in their memory. They had forgotten the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘for my house will be called a house for all nations’ (Isaiah 56:7) whom Jesus quotes in Mark 11:17. They had forgotten that they were to be a light to the nations. They had forgotten that they were to ‘bless’ the nations (Genesis 12). The Christian leader’s first task is to remember, not to innovate. Innovation only works well when grounded in the right memory. If you do not remember well you not only lose your memory but you also lose your vision. You begin pointless journeys like a spider trying to walk out of a bath. Leadership problem three: Loss of Authority Alistair Darling, the ex-chancellor of the exchequer said, “You know when you are no longer a government minister when you get in the back of a car and it doesn’t move”. The leaders of the temple were losing power but did not know how huge would be their loss. Authority and power were shifting away from the leaders of the temple and heading towards Jesus. The leaders of the temple wanted to know by what ‘authority’ Jesus caused this animal and table-turning chaos. They asked, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” John explains that the temple Jesus was talking about was his body. The Jewish leaders did not understand this; they thought he was talking about the physical temple in Jerusalem. Jesus was explaining that his act of throwing the animals and tradesmen out of the temple was an indication of a much more profound change. The act was an indication that a dynamic shift in authority was taking place. We know now that a new temple was being revealed through the body of Jesus and particularly through his death and resurrection. The shift was away from a physical temple towards the new dynamic of participation in the life of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. No longer would it be walking on the stone flags of the temple. From now on it would be walking in the life of the Holy Spirit in the power of the resurrection. Everything was changing for the temple leaders. They had to adjust or be left behind. So in summary, why did Jesus make a whip of cords and turn tables over? Why did he communicate in such a radical and wild way? The leaders had lost touch with where they were going, what they were for and who was in charge. For Jesus this was outrageous neglect and demanded a response. This situation had to change and Jesus changed it in a most dramatic way. If Jesus was to come into your church or organisation:   What table would he want to turn over?   What would he like to scatter?   Where would he like to bring some temporary chaos? On a personal level   What does he want to turn over in our lives?   What would he want to drive out?   What would be his Word to us? How should leaders respond to losing direction, memory and authority? How do we learn wild leadership? Cultivate a rich relationship with God Jesus was able to be wild and radical because he was full of truth and love. If we are going to lead with wild leadership it will be because the virtues of love and truth are being cultivated in us. Gengis Khan, Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler could all be wild and radical but all it led to was destruction. The Jesus who scattered the money on the ground is also the Jesus who turned water into wine. He is wonderfully complex in his love and purpose. We need to understand and feel his love for us while living out his purpose for our lives if we are going to get his sort of wild leadership. Open up your senses Without opening up your life to the realities of the world you do not know where to deploy the gift of wild leadership you have. Keep your eyes, ears, nose, fingers and tongue working. Watch, hear, smell, feel and taste so you don’t lose touch with what is happening around you. Don’t congeal into your final state but develop awareness with all the capacity God has provided for you. Read, converse, worship, pray and engage the world. Wild leaders learn to engage the world in its fullest sense. Without opening up your life to the realities of the world you do not know where to deploy the gift of wild leadership you have. Become familiar with what has colonised your imagination We have all been colonised by something. What had colonised your head and heart and what does it mean? Who or what is in there, shaping what you say, do and model? What are the repetitive images and phrases that shape you? The first act of table turning needs to be in our own heads and hearts. We need to be scattered and confused so we can be put back together in a healthy way with our imaginations colonised by the Holy Spirit. Anticipate God’s wildness towards you God is a God of surprises. You don’t know what this wonderful wild Jesus is going to do next. Keep your pants on tight! Remember that He is full of grace and truth and anticipate doing the audacious in his name. Jacki Pullinger was advised to get on a ship, travel a long way and pray so she would know when to get off. Her remarkable work amongst drug addicts in Hong Kong was the result. It may be that God’s surprise for you is more mundane but just as magnificent and wild in its own way. With these things weaving through our hearts and head we can ask some other questions:   What outrage does God want us to respond to?   What tables does God want us to turn over?   Where does God want us to enter into leadership that is radical and wild yet full of grace and truth? As we head out on this journey it will be worth remembering the words of Henri Nouwen; ‘The need for a heroic self-image is the biggest barrier to service for Christ … when I have nothing to lose I have nothing to defend. Only then can I have everything to give’ Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. Are we on a journey towards being more like Jesus or temple leaders? Do we have the freedom for wild leadership or shall we just play it safe?   1 DA Carson says, ‘This is true even in the parallel synoptic accounts (Matt 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-18 and Luke 19:45-46) where in most translations Jesus accuses the merchants and money-changers of turning the temple into a “den of robbers”. The Greek expression suggests zealotry not thievery.’
March 9, 2012
Questions of vocation, what constitutes the best use of our working lives, are not clear cut in any religious community. Nor are they clear cut in the secular realm. So how do we know if we’re doing the right thing? How do we determine which is the best day job for us? Aptitude? Inspiration? Divine appointment? A combination? Consider two famous contributors to the worlds of design and cuisine: Philippe Starck and Marco Pierre White. Both skilled, both inspired, both pursuing things that add up to something beyond chairs and chard. Philippe Starck, Picasso of design and ad hoc philosopher, has said this: Look, there are already millions of excellent chairs which are very comfortable, lamps which provide light, and so on. Is it necessary to create more? The only question is: what will it bring to the human being who is trying to use it? The urgent thing today is not to create a car or a chair which is more beautiful than another; what is urgent is for us all to fight with every means at our disposal against the fact that something is becoming extinct: love. Marco Pierre White has been awarded three Michelin stars and returned all three. He has said this: I’ve worked for over ten years for recognition, and now I’ve got it. I’ve got money now, but I’m no happier. It’s not material things that bring me happiness. Perhaps that’s why I work with food, with growing things. I can’t make a carrot, and nor can you. It’s natural. Without food there’s no life. My respect and admiration for life has come from food, through food. Work, food, love, life… They’re not mutually exclusive and they’re not exclusive to the church. Designing a car or cooking cordon bleu have their own rewards yet, as Starck and White reveal, if we fail to pursue something higher, there’ll always be something missing. For Starck that’s love, for White that’s life. Christians have discovered both these things in the person of Jesus Christ. Love is not becoming extinct. God is love and God is eternal (1 John 4:16). Yes we need food to live. Jesus is both the bread and the life (John 6:35). It’s easy to see how those inside the church might consider ‘church work’ the highest vocation. It’s hard to argue with the man who said, ‘Drop everything and follow me’ (Mark 1:16-18) and it’s difficult not to admire people who’ve done precisely that. Christians ascribe great importance to the work of the church: to pastoral ministry, to preaching and teaching roles, to mission, to community service, and so on. And rightly so; these things are important. But they’re not the only important things. For each of the disciples Jesus called directly to leave everything and follow him, thousands more heard and followed without giving up their day jobs. I think that’s just as God wanted it. Christians are called to follow Jesus wherever they live, wherever they work, and to minister the love of God in these contexts. With this as the basic Christian vocation, the lines between sacred and secular become gloriously blurred. Carrots can be cooked with the love of God, numbers can be crunched with the grace of God, children can be raised with the patience of a saint. Diverse vocations, high callings.
March 2, 2012
Christian Smith wrote the book Souls in Transition. It is a study of what he calls ‘emerging adults’ who are the 18-29 year olds in North America. He has noticed that, unlike previous generations, they live an extended adolescence. This group are aware that, at some time, they will probably become mature and adult, get married and buy a house. But for now it is important to keep the options open and postpone settling down. They need to keep nimble and not put down roots. In his book Smith has noticed that this group have certain characteristics: They want to have fun Manage the transitions of boyfriends; girlfriends and career Try not to screw up the future Still believe in the promise of mass consumerism Have little sense of civic consciousness with almost all of them politically disengaged Do not engage the world beyond their fingertips. Have no objective, shared reality and so are imprisoned in their subjective selves Are confused around which paths to follow, and so have a crisis around knowledge and values Therefore, a need to succeed personally is all important. Without personal success there is no life. They need to feel that everything is going well personally because there is nothing of much value apart from personal success. When the only thing that matters is personal success you eventually transition into the old man who still remains the adolescent boy. I think this extended adolescence can go a little further than 29 and cracks on through to early middle age. Who is this ‘boy’ who must die? He is the rootless, uncommitted, self-focused, consumer who wants to avoid and disengage. He is the boy who only cares about the world just beyond his fingertips. He is the boy who is content with personal success, while the world goes on its ten thousand journeys to hell and he can barely raise a finger. He is the boy who has never become a man. John the Baptist, Jesus, Stephen the first martyr of the church, Paul the Apostle and my own journey are the inspiration for what I want to explain next. What do you need to come to terms with on this journey from the ‘boy’ to the ‘man’? How do we get out of extended, or even eternal adolescence, and move on to fulfilling the reason why we have been born? The Wildness of God: His love and power cannot be controlled The boy says, ‘I must control’. The man says, ‘I am learning to live out of control’.  If you are dominated by the question ‘am I safe?’ and ‘am I right?’, you will remain forever the boy. But these are the questions dominating many men’s lives. Is it no wonder that we are boring our women to death? God is wild in his love for you and he is more than content to exercise his power to prove it. The woman you marry, or have married, has the right to require you to ask bigger questions than ‘am I safe?’ and ‘am I right?’ We need to step out of our need to control and learn afresh the wildness and love of God. But there is usually one block in the way. Richard Rohr talks about a deficit in men which he calls ‘father hunger’. This develops into a ‘father wound’ when not addressed. He tells the story of leading a retreat in Peru in 1977 and a nun who worked with prisoners told him she encouraged the prisoners to send their mothers Mother’s Day cards. She kept bringing in boxes and boxes of cards to be sent to mama but never had enough. For Father’s Day she was ready with a box of cards but they remained in her office. Not one prisoner asked for the Father’s Day Card. She could not even give them away. There was a ‘father wound’. The ‘father wound’ is cut when men have never ‘seen themselves as sons of men who admired them’ (Richard Rohr, Wild Man to Wise Man, p.73). In 1959 I was told that my father had died. I was seven years old. My elder brother and I were sitting in the garden of a children’s home at the time. I am sure it left me with this ‘father hunger’ and a ‘father wound’. But I became a Christian when I was twelve through the help of foster parents. As an early adolescent I was overwhelmed by the story of the love of God for me. Before long I started to realise that I was God’s beloved son and that the words of the Father to the Son at the baptism of Jesus, ‘this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased’ applied to me. I was and am a son of God. I am made in his image and deeply loved. This deep, shaping truth has formed and sustained me through all of my stupidities, blunderings and excitements. This love and wildness of God had me church planting at twenty-one, heading off to India when I was twenty-four, choosing a low salary – and sometimes no salary job – throughout my life and starting a new organisation when I was fifty-four. It has been great. Yet God has had me on a journey. I owe so much to the church. I never had a human father substitute but many older men walked with me and loved me in very different ways. I have had so many brothers and sister who have shared their lives with me. However, while sitting in a lecture hall in Regent College in 1995 I realised that through Eugene Peterson and Jim Houston that God was showing me what I needed to be twenty and thirty years on. Through both of these men I learned afresh that God cannot be controlled. He is too big and full of dangerous love – propelling love. For the boy to become the man we have to learn that we cannot domesticate God. Accepting Risk: Preparing to Make Mistakes The boy says, ‘I must not fail because I will look like a fool’. The man says, ‘I will fail but I want to live out the reason why I have been born’. For the boy to die, and the man to live, you need to embrace the world of mistake. You have to take risks. If you have not had some sort of failure the journey towards the second half of life has yet to begin. St. Gregory of Nyssa said, ‘Sin happens whenever we refuse to keep growing’. Risk, mistake and growth are all mixed in together. But if you just want to be ‘safe’ and ‘right’ you will not make this journey out of the boy and into the man. ‘Many depressed people are people who have never taken any risks, never moved either outside their comfort zone, never faced necessary suffering, and so their unconscious knows that they have never lived – or loved’ says Richard Rohr(Falling Upward, p.135). John the Baptist was a wild man and the final prophet before Jesus. He did not fully understand all of what is going on around him, but lived boldly and well. Stephen, the first martyr, reached into his heart and told the truth with his face aglow. Both of them accepted the risk of being men who are going to say what needs to be said and do what needs to be done. The invitation offered by these great men is to a life of continual struggle and wrestling. Sometimes we are wrestling with God but always struggling with the world, the flesh and the devil. There is no choice in this because the needs of the world are too great to be otherwise. We have to learn to risk and confront. For me, church planting at twenty-one was a near disaster. It was as though we read the book of Acts and snapped in two every good principle in church planting. I was single, young, alone, broke and living in the scout hut we had just bought. After a two week Evangelistic campaign on the first Sunday there were four people, three ladies and me. Two of the ladies had a combined age of about 170 and the other was wheeled in by her husband and left at the front. This was a time when I had to put into action every idea, hunch and survival strategy I had known. I had to have a theology working in the real grit of loneliness or choose a new career. I got through the crisis by the skin of my teeth. If you have not been sustained through your first spiritual crisis – and what a risky business that is – you have not yet begun. We rarely learn well in class or church. It is only in the middle of our real lives that we are formed. As Richard Rohr says, we don’t ‘think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking’. At every stage of male development there are risks to take and actions to be done. To move on from being the boy to becoming the man you will need to courage to take risks. Decentre yourself: It is not about you The boy says, ‘I am the centre of the world’. The man says, ‘I am born to serve’. If we are going to journey from the boy into the man we have to cultivate self-forgetfulness. This is a challenge because everything in contemporary culture is telling you to do the opposite. We live in a culture of flattery. We are continually addressed by advertising that flatters us by placing ourselves at the centre of the world. I can’t walk through Westfield -Europe’s largest shopping centre – and not feel that it is all there for me. It is like walking into a cathedral, but in a cathedral it is God who is the centre. In Westfield it is me. Westfield has all the side-chapels of a cathedral, but they are called Apple, Timberland, and House of Fraser. They are full of busy acolytes who are ready to serve me. I am the centre of their world because they want to sell me stuff. ‘He must increase and I must decrease’ said John the Baptist. Before Stephen was stoned he told a story. It was not a story about himself but rather the story of God. To move from being a boy to a man you have to make the shift from being the one served to the one who serves. But if you get the wild love of God in your heart and head this becomes a joy. You live your life out of thanks and joyful service. The boy tends to exploit women. The man loves them. The man discovers that you are not the point of your own life but this can come as a bit of a shock, particularly in marriage. It is a great day when you understand that your life is about the flourishing of your wife and children and not about you. This is the way to true greatness. For the boy to become the man you realise every day that you are not the point of your own life. Preparation for Death: The only place to be free The boy says, ‘I don’t want to talk or think about death’. The man says, ‘I need to face death so I can be free’. We try not to think about death. We are immature when it comes to it. But I am convinced that facing our own mortality is the only way to grow from the boy into the man. One of the jobs of a Church of England priest is to prepare you for a good death. I have had three near death experiences that I am aware of. Well, two near death and one very close. The first was my jumping onto the line at Oxford Circus underground station in 1971. I was pulling a blind man off the line while the train raced through on the other platform. In 1977 I had an emergency appendectomy in Nadiad, Gujurat, India and in 1999 a heart attack while speaking at a conference in Hyderabad, again in India. I had a total occlusion in the left arterial descending branch of my heart, otherwise known as ‘the widow maker’. And there is another continual near death experience, that of riding my bike around Hammersmith Broadway. I have thought much about how I will die and have my own thoughts on how I would like it to happen. Saint Francis said, ‘If you have once faced the great death, the second death can do you no harm’. If we are going to change the world, struggle and suffering have to be entered into. There will be lorry loads of paradoxes and grief around the world before God receives all the glory due to Him. This is right at the core, for you have to be wounded to become a man. In all initiation rites you die before you die, this is what Christian baptism is all about. We die and are raised to a new life. There are two deaths I am talking about: the death to self and the physical death of your body. Both have to be faced so you can be truly free. This is the freedom to say with the Apostle Paul, ‘I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me’ (Galatians 2:20) and ‘for me to live is Christ, to die is gain’ (Phil 1:2). We can face it because we know it is temporary. By the power of a resurrected life we punch through death into our final transformation. So, how do you say farewell to the boy? By becoming a fresh and open child of God who lives with God’s loving wildness. A man who accepts the risks, decentres themselves and anticipates death so they can be free. Our affluence delays and confuses all of this, seducing us into believing that we can be alive without anticipating death and the life beyond. The fear of death and all the other fears spawned by it need to be faced so we can be free. For the boy to die, death needs to be faced so that life can be lived. Jesus lived through all of this and shows us how it is done. In his wild love he turned over the money tables and whipped corrupt people out of the temple. He struggled in prayer, submitting himself to the will of his Father and therefore living out the reason why he had been born. He decentred himself and knelt at the feet of the disciples to wash their feet and finally he died on the cross, rising again to an endless life. What a man! Paul sums much of this up. Here is a description of the possibilities of saying farewell to the boy. This is a man talking. From The Message Paul says, ‘I’ve worked much harder, been jailed more often, beaten up more times than I can count, and at death’s door time after time. I’ve been flogged five times with the Jew’s thirty-nine lashes, beaten by Roman rods three times, pummelled with rocks once. I’ve been shipwrecked three times, and immersed in the open sea for a night and a day. In hard travelling year in and year out, I’ve had to ford rivers, fend off robbers, struggle with friends, struggle with foes. I’ve been at risk in the city, at risk in the country, endangered by the desert sun and sea storm, and betrayed by those who I thought were my brothers. I’ve known drudgery and hard labour, many a long and lonely night without sleep, many a missed meal, blasted by the cold, naked to the weather. And that’s not the half of it, when you throw in the daily pressures and anxieties of all the churches. When someone gets to the end of his rope, I feel the desperation in my bones. When someone is duped into sin, an angry fire burns in my gut’ (2 Corinthians 11) but he says a few verses later that God says, ‘My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness.’ So Paul says, ‘I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.’ (1 Corinthians 12) The boy is dead. The man lives.
Dec. 23, 2011
We are slowly drowning as we slosh around in advertising images and data. We are being flooded by cascading amounts of information about us and in us. More and more information is gurgling through our heads, hearts and lives than any generation before. We now have the ability to know something about almost everything but our crisis is that, even with all our information and data, we are losing our capacity to live. We are alive yet numbed at the same time. Our data swamp has helped us participate in an expediential increase in cleverness, but a catastrophic collapse in wisdom. We know much about the techniques of living. We know how to make money. Don’t spend it unless you have to and keep investing the excess if you have some. We know about the techniques of romance. Pay attention, focus and find our partner’s love language. We know how to get what we want. Set your goals, work hard, network and don’t quit. Yet, we have forgotten how to live. We have forgotten how to build our lives through wisdom and have settled for developing quick and clever techniques to get us through. How can we avoid drowning in information so we can float in wisdom? What can move us on from this crisis? The answer is one word – discernment. What do I mean by discernment? It is the ability to separate, sift and distinguish so that we can be all God has intended us to be. Jesus talked of this discernment using a startling phrase when he said, ‘Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.’1 He was saying be wide awake but pure and be ‘switched on’ yet without guile. Here Jesus puts together two powerful, yet beautiful images of a discerning person – be a snake and be a dove. You do not learn how to become a discerning ‘snake-dove’ by accident. You have to be trained in one way or another. Does it matter if I am not a discerning person? The cost can be high if you do not pursue a discerning life. You borrow money when you can’t pay it back, you enter into relationships that end in train wrecks, you grasp for things that should be let go and you can imagine things are real when they are just passing daydreams. I have done all of these things at one point or other but never all at once, yet, thank you God. John was an unmarried Priest I knew a few years ago. He was quite discerning. In our conversations I asked him how he dealt with sexual temptation. He said, ‘”I pray.” “What do you pray?” I asked. He said, “well, when it comes to sex there are times when I have the opportunity and there are times when I have the inclination. My prayer is that I never have the opportunity when I have the inclination.” Does discernment matter to great people? Yes indeed. In his better days Solomon prayed for himself as he faced the responsibility of national leadership, ‘So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.’2 The Psalms begin with a warning to receive and live out the right counsel so that we will be ‘like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in season and whose leaves do not wither. Whatever they do prospers.’3 Paul prayed for the Philippians this remarkable and insightful prayer, ‘And this is my prayer that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.’4 Love, knowledge, insight, discernment, purity and a fruitful life are Paul’s desires for the people he loves. James says, ‘But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.’5 Jesus gave us a description of the blessed and discerning life in his nine ‘Blessed’ are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, thosewho hunger and thirst for righteousness, are merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, persecuted because of righteousness and are abused because of their relationship with him. Discernment is right at the heart of a rich, meaningful life. How do I acquire a discerning life? This gift of discernment is the most precious gift and you can’t purchase it like a car or a bag of peas. However it can be cultivated.  If you are able to cultivate discernment much pain can be avoided and a great, yet challenging, life encountered. This does not mean an easy life because with discernment comes with increased responsibility. The truth is that if you want to remain a self-enclosed baby for the rest of your life this sort of discernment will not be yours. Discernment is a gift and should not be wasted. It is much more important than sports, owning your own home, the latest model car, designer clothing, international travel, nationality, perfume, your new kitchen or culinary excellence. Our futures depend on discernment. The future of the world depends on it. In Matthew 7, through a simple yet brilliant story, Jesus laid down four foundation stones of discernment. Through them he taught us how to life-build so we can live the best life possible. What does he say? ‘Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.’6  Here, Jesus gives us four foundations for a discerning life, the under-structure on which we can build our lives. What are the four foundation stones, the rocks on which to build our lives and cultivate discernment? First Rock: Follow Jesus ‘It is disadvantageous for us to treat God as a negotiator, both because God needs nothing we have and because God asks more than we could ever give. If all things come from God we can see that it is also unwise to treat God as a negotiator’ – Miroslav Volf ‘Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock’ – Matthew 7:24 Grace and Truth The foundation of Christian discernment is Jesus, who he is, what he has done, and what he is doing. He is the Rock, the Prophet, the Priest and King. He is Son of God, Son of Man, the second person of the Trinity and the Word. You don’t get Christian discernment unless you get Him. To live a life of wisdom and encounter the discernment which flows from it requires a life built on, in and through Jesus Christ.  Our primary gift, wonder and glory is Jesus Christ himself. He is the compass of the future and the nourishment for the present. He is the bright and morning star, the one who shines out above all others in His brilliant captivating splendour. He is our daily bread, living water and the door through which we encounter everything good. Our short or long term emotional, social and spiritual health do not primarily depend on the stock market, pension fund managers or decisions made by business, political or social leaders. Our futures depend on the way we engage with this Jesus Christ. There is a description of Jesus in the book of John, ‘We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.’7 Jesus is the one and only, literally one of a kind, unique, he has no equal, being fully God and fully human, he has no parallel, he will never be repeated. Jesus is full of grace and truth. What does that mean? We love playing games of exclusion, trying to work out who are the winners and losers, insiders and outsiders. Television is full of these games. Ann Robinson in her famous quiz programme, The Weakest Link, tells people, with a delight,  just before they do the ’walk of shame’ and having been voted off the programme that ‘you are the weakest link – good bye’. The hugely successful Big Brother television programme works on a similar basis. One by one the contestants are ejected from the house through public voting. Who is the perceived loser in the house? Who is the least entertaining, sexy, cuddly or cute? The public are able to vote them off the programme through making a phone call, sweeping them into history and television oblivion. How about I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here?  This is similar to Big Brother but the people have some sort of fame attached to them. I can’t help but feel that the real losers in all of this are the people who have desperation to play winners and losers. This is not so with Jesus Christ. He does not play games of winners, losers, insiders and outsiders. His game is grace because His being is love. His game is as much inclusion as possible. However, we can choose exclusion ourselves. Grace was present before Jesus came but He brought it into its full, brilliant and gorgeous flourishing. Three intriguing stories help illustrate this. In Matthew 20:1-16 Jesus tells the story of an estate manager who went into his town square to employ men for work in his vineyard. He did this five times throughout the day and he struck a deal with each group of workers. At the end of the day all got the same money and the men who had worked all day were upset. To them this was unfair and they complained. What they did not grasp was the generosity and grace of their employer. Jesus was saying through the story “watch out, I am full of generosity. I am full of inclusive grace. With me it is possible that the first can be last and the last first.” In Luke 14:15-24 Jesus tells the story of a great banquet. The host sent out his servants to invite the guest to the party but they all have excuses. One has bought some property and has to look at it. Another has bought some animals and has to check them out. Another has just got married and needs to get home to his wife. The host then opens up the invitation to the misfits, homeless and wretched. Jesus was saying that his grace and generosity was open for all. All are invited to a great banquet which he is hosting. In Luke 15: 20-24 we have the story of a disobedient, adventurous and prodigal son. He leaves his Father with his inheritance and heads for wine, women and song. He ends up eating with pigs and, in desperation, finally returns to his father who puts on a huge banquet for his wayward son. The son is brought back into the family. He was welcomed even though he was initially unthankful and rebellious. He was lost but now found. He was dead but now alive. He received undeserved, loving, generous grace from the father. Through these stories Jesus was demonstrating the way he works. This grace is about inclusion, it is about the remarkable discovery that you have found favour with God even though it was never deserved. This grace is intentional love and focused generosity and it is given to confused, rebellious and messed up people. John says Jesus is also ‘true’, He is as straight as an arrow exploding from a bow. He is full of integrity, being pure and whole in every dimension. So, His grace is not some self-indulgence or softness on his part. His grace is full of honesty and correct judgement. When judgement is needed, judgement is delivered. On one occasion Jesus went into a temple and whipped out those who exploited others in the name of God. Through his death He broke the back of Satan’s kingdom and all centres of evil. Through these and similar events, He was demonstrating that He is not only full of grace, but also full of truth and power. He is the fighter. He is heaven’s Champion. This is who Jesus is – God full of grace and truth, yet arrow-straight and tough as steel. He is the foundation and core of a discerning life. Hear and Do Yet, if you want to develop a discerning life it is not long before the realisation dawns that Jesus is not enough. Our hearts are deceptive and at their most deceptive when it comes to our response to Jesus. We can see the grace and truth that Jesus is, but prefer to keep Him at a distance. We look at sports stars, royalty and celebrities from a distance. The good thing about them being distant is they have no effect on us or, if they do, it does not matter that much. We don’t have a relationship with them where we have responsibilities to fulfil in response to their call on our lives. We hope we have control over the way they shape us, if they shape us at all, and we imagine we can switch them off whenever we want. It is possible to respond to Jesus in the same way. If we relate to Jesus as a sports star, royalty or a celebrity He may affect us in some sentimental distant way, but His wisdom and discernment will never characterise our lives. If we keep Jesus at a distance, turning Him into some sort of hero-celebrity, we will ensure our continued spiritual illiteracy. To develop discernment you have a heart and head open, prepared to listen to what God may say to you. Then you listen and listen again. This will take some time and focus to do it well. Then you do what He says, but more importantly you attempt to do what He says. The reality is that you have not really heard unless you have a go at doing what Jesus says. Doing what Jesus says is not as simple as it sounds, but is core to developing a discerning life. What is critical in developing this discerning life? The practices, habits, rituals and routines we live through every day. Even though we are complex people, full of rich differences and histories, what we do on a regular basis creates much of what we are. We become like what we love, ultimately we are what we love. James K.A. Smith explains how our love is formed in us. 8  He sees the education of our desires being one of our greatest challenges. I think it goes like this. The way in which our loves and desires become what they become is because of what fills our imaginations, what we think of and envision. But before that, our imaginations are formed through our dispositions, the feelings and attitudes we chose and possess. Yet, what forms our dispositions? What we are exposed to through habit and ritual? What do I do in on a regular basis most of the time or every day? So, what I expose my senses to and where I place my body will form me into what I am. As Smith says, ‘the imagination runs off the fuel of images channelled by the senses.’9 My love and desire will be shaped by where I put my heart, head and body, by what I do. This is what Jesus was teaching. So our wisdom and discernment are cultivated through hearing and then doing what Jesus says, putting our hearts, heads and bodies into places that cause our love for Him to grow. Love requires no less. We all love something. The question is: what is it that we love? What does that love achieve in our lives as we pursue it with our time, money and attention? If my love and desire is primarily money then my heart will become as numb to others as money is. If my primary love and desire is pornography then my heart’s capacity for intimacy will be as unrelentingly stone-cold as pornography is. If my primary love and desire is power then my heart will become as corrupt as power, left on its own, ultimately is. So, Jesus says, ‘if you love me keep my commandments’. Love me and desire me if you want a discerning life. What do we need to do to put this rock in the right place? We have to engage the practice of saying ‘yes’ and ‘no’. We have to make choices. Because we are listening to Jesus and going to do what He says, we enter into a world of vow and disavow the world of ‘yes’ and ‘no’. When we realise who Jesus is, and are drawn towards Him, we pledge ourselves to Him. We say ‘yes’ to Him. In doing this we shun other possible loves that would take His place. We say, ‘no’ to other idols that are on offer to take His place. A puny response will not do here. We need to say a strong and vivid ‘yes’ and ringing, vibrant ‘no’. The truth is that we are always saying ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in everything we do or do not do, but we might not be conscious of the process. M. Shawn Copeland says that the practice of saying yes and no is to do with ‘learning to live not merely in dull balance or tedious moderation but in passionate, disciplined choice and action.’10 I agree. A life of repentance is vital for the development of discernment. This is the process of mentanoia, the choosing to turn to God. This is at the heart of Christian discernment. When we practice repentance we constantly turn to realign our lives with the call of God in us. In the process we discover our true selves in open, full and joyous relationship with God. To establish this first rock in our foundation for discernment, we need to learn to speak, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and have supple hearts which are able to turn, running back to the one who made us. Jesus is the foundation of our life-house. We start building here.   Second Rock: Anticipate All Conditions ‘The early Church believed that its own fragile and vulnerable state was deceptive’ – Samuel Wells ‘The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had it foundations on the rock’ – Matthew 7:25 Vulnerability and battering House building is about a vision the future. Every nail, floor board and window is an expression of what you think may take place where you live. Quality house builders build in a way that anticipates the possible local conditions, all of them. What effect will the sun, rain, wind and cold have on the house? What can be built that will protect the people who live in it? What are the materials needed to make sure this house is able to stand in all possible conditions? These are the questions that every builder has to ask before they start the building project. Critical are the foundations. What sort of underpinning will this house have? A beautiful house filled with artistry and decoration will be dependent on the solidity of its foundations. The first house Jesus refers to in this story has strong foundations. He was suggesting that your life be like this house. The rain will come down, the streams will rise and the winds will beat this house. It will be tested. He was saying that this house-building is like life-building, it is a great act of faith. As we build our life-house we are anticipating our possible futures. The quality of the foundation is a statement about what we think will happen in the future. Jesus was saying to get ready for all weathers. Prepare now for various conditions be they balmy, sunny days or for when the rain comes down, streams rise and winds blow. Prepare for calm conditions and for intense storm. The whole of scripture teaches us that, at some point, we are going to live with turbulence in one form or other. Life after life pays witness to this. Yet, as you trace the stories of biblical heros there is a significant twist. They do go through turbulent conditions, but these very conditions are the material with which their future is built. These bad conditions help them towards their glorious future, rather than deflecting them into self-indulgence or pity. It is as though they take the rain, floods and wind hitting their lives, submit to God and texture it all in to their future. Abraham was called into constant change and a travelling life as he responded in faith to God’s call. Often it looked like he was living in uncontrollable storm, but really God’s house was being built in him and through that, a whole nation. Joseph was put in a hole by his brothers, then sold into slavery, and eventually dumped and forgotten in prison. It looked like he was spiralling down but really he was being built into a great leader for a critical time. Paul was converted and God’s plan for him was to suffer for God’s name. It looked like these conditions of suffering would damage him, but this was going to make him into the man he became. Jesus died and it looked like His death was the worst of conditions, but in the middle of the story of loss, Jesus rises from the dead. Jesus taught us this; ‘for whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.11’ Being ready for all the possibilities of what that might mean is pivotal in the development of a discerning life. Inner freedom Discernment is often challenging because we are not free. We are not free to allow God to bring to us whatever conditions He chooses because we think we know what is best for us. We can easily slip into religious consumerism where we wander down the supermarket isles of life and think we can pick up whatever delectable item we like and this will always do us good. Dream on. Five hundred years ago a Basque priest called Ignatius of Loyola had remarkable insight on this.12 He described inner freedom as being, ‘where people no longer desire health more than sickness, wealth more than poverty, a long life more than a short life, honour more than dishonour but instead they desire what brings them closer to the end for which they are created.’13 The idea is that you loosen the controls of your own life. This means that you are free from dictating to God the conditions in which you think you need to live. You leave that to God. If we constantly impose our own will on our own lives we will not be free. Rather, we will give to God a list of stuff that we want Him to deliver to us so we can live a life we consider to be good. There are two great prayers of inner freedom and outstanding faith, that when prayed open us up to a discerning life. Firstly, Mary’s prayer: ‘Here I am the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’14 Secondly, the prayer Jesus taught us to pray: ‘your kingdom come, your will be done.’15 Our request, tears, shouts and demands to God for Him to do this or that needs to be saturated in these huge prayers. We will not be open and free unless that is so and we will not develop a life of discernment. What do we need to do to put this rock in the right place? We have to become familiar with our own story. We need to notice the true nature of our own lives. This means being able to cling to the untidy history and jagged edges of what we have lived through so far. In the initial training of learning how to swim you are taught to make friends with the water, how to float. This is the best way to avoid drowning. In a similar way we have to learn to make friends with our own lives and notice what God is doing in them. We can do this through keeping a journal in whatever way is best and then regularly review our reflections. Do this honestly and reasonably consistently and you become familiar with your own true story. This will be critical in cultivating discernment. Choosing challenging options prepares us for living in all conditions. If we focus on ease and softness we weaken our ability to discern. If we do not road test our own lives and see what we are like in various conditions we will not be prepared for the potential storm and subsequent flood. We will not be ready to the fight for the oppressed, the poor and the establishment of the Kingdom of God. It was this sort of freedom that enabled North Vietnam to conquer the South. After the conquering of the South by the North, Duong Van Mai Elliott explains, ‘Nevertheless, for the middle class (in Saigon) the appearance of victorious peasants was a bitter pill to swallow. As if to rub salt into a raw wound their foes turned out the be not a sophisticated army all spit and polish but a force of undernourished peasant youths wearing ill-fitting uniforms, pith helmets and rubber sandals.’ In other words country bumpkins with little education. For their part the soldiers could not believe their enemy had given up the fight so easily. Whenever people came up to them to talk, the soldiers would ask with wonder in their voices, ‘you’ve got so much, hear such marvellous things, such riches why did you not fight harder to keep all of this16’. She goes on to explain, ‘Although the Saigon middle class made fun of their conquerors deep down they felt ashamed that they had been defeated by such yokels. They could not understand that in the end commitment to a cause and willingness to accept sacrifices in order to achieve victory meant more than all the sophistication of Saigon’s army and its American weaponry.’17 Third Rock: Track Your Heart ‘Learning to interpret emotions is one of the best ways to discern God’s will for our choices in life – Michael Sparough, Jim Manney and Tim Hipskind ‘But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on the sand’ – Matthew 7:26 Understand what your heart treasures Jesus explained that the foolish man built his house on sand, choosing not to build on rock. This decision ensured he and all who lived in his house would eventually be overwhelmed. What happened? The wise builder and the foolish builder look much the same. Both were exposed to what Jesus has to say, both received the same opportunity. The critical difference is in implementation.  Both hear but only one acts. Both receive wisdom, but only one turns this advice into concrete action. Why would you build your house on sand? What self-deception could lead to such a bad decision? Impatience? maybe he just wanted the house building to be quick? Superficial? maybe he could not be bothered with research? Pride? maybe he could not take advice from anyone so chose to go his own way? Money? maybe he wanted a fast house sale to an ignorant buyer? Image? maybe his focus was on how it all looked rather than how it all was?  Insecurity? maybe he was competing with the rock builder and wanted to demonstrate his way was faster? Could it be that he just did not know how to do this and so build on sand out of ignorance and dumbness, failing to understand the implications of what he was doing? Imagine your heart is a dog and you have put it on its lead and you are taking it for a walk. Where is your dog-heart pulling you on this walk? Is it dragging you along? Is it really the dog taking you for a walk? What is distracting it as you walk? Does it want to fight all the other dogs? Does it want affection? Or possibly it does not want to walk at all and you are dragging it along while your dog- heart tries to route itself on the road by ploughing its claws into the earth. A distracted heart, a fighting heart, a heart that needs affection and a heart that wants to go nowhere are all possibilities that explain the condition of our hearts. If you want to know where your heart is and where it will go you need to identify what you treasure. ‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’,18 said Jesus. You open up the treasure chest of your life and discover your heart there. Emotional life To be able to develop discernment you will need to become familiar with your emotional life. You will need to track your own heart. Are our emotions useful? The ancient Greeks tended to think we would be better off with apatheia or ‘apathy’ which was freedom from emotions. They thought we should obtain ataraxia or ‘peace of mind.’ Kierkegaard disagreed, explaining that the good life was based on ‘passionate inwardness.’ I am going with Kierkegaard. Emotions give our life meaning; they let us know what is going on in us and around us. Rather than our emotions being dangerous and to be avoided, they are intelligent, extremely helpful and need to be noticed. However, we will need to learn to distinguish between the voice of the Holy Spirit and all other spirits in the process. To understand your emotions is to understand yourself. They are profound and give you the key to the meaning of your own existence. More than that, they are crucial in the way God communicates with us through the voice of the Holy Spirit. To be able to discern well we will need to notice our fear, anger, love, apathy, passion and tenderness and whatever else is passing through our hearts. The contribution of the previously mentioned Ignatius is dazzling in working out how to track our hearts and hear the voice of God.19 There are many other schemes, systems and plans for listening to God but Ignatius is the Big Daddy of them all. Ignatius did serious work on how to renew and deepen our relationship with Christ with his invitation to meditate on the Gospels. He understood the spiritual battle behind discernment. If you want a quick fix to deliver a discerning life he will not help. If you want the quick fix, you are already building on sand and the storm clouds are forming in the distance. Even though, throughout the world, God is speaking through teaching, preaching, prophetic words, dreams and visions, hearing the voice of God at a deeper level is invariably slow. There are rapid breakthroughs in our life with God but if they are not followed up by routine practices they eventually fade away. It is best to imagine yourself as a tree to be watered rather than a rocket to be fired or a resource to be deployed. “God has sped spiritual growth up because we are in a technological age,” I heard one speaker strangely say. I liked the rest of his message. Pivotal is being able to slow down, and in the words of Stephen Cotterell learn how to, ‘Do nothing to change your life.’20 God is not forced to move at the pace of Microsoft or Google. It is still the case that the strong and blessed person is the one who ‘delights in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in season and whose leaves do not wither. Whatever they do prospers.’21 What do we need to do to put this rock in the right place? Mediation in and contemplation of scripture is critical in the development of your own inner life. There is no substitute or short cut to developing discernment. Reading, hearing, mediating and praying scripture has no equal in your spiritual formation. This is where we learn who God is, who we are, what is going on in the world and what we should be doing. It is through scripture that God’s word comes to us and we are able to discern what is upside down and right way up. It is only as scripture is woven into our hearts that we can begin to track what is going on deep down inside. It is scripture that challenges us and pulls our imaginations back into the right shape. Pray for and cultivate a love for the Bible if you want discernment. Then get yourself into a regular pattern of reading and mediation that will go on until the end of your days. Solitude and silence are desirable but not always easy to create. The demands of contemporary life, the data swamp and our high aspirations get in the way of solitude and silence. Solitude does not mean being lonely and silence does not mean dull. In solitude and silence we are in the company of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You are never alone in this sort of solitude. Sometimes fear keeps us away from solitude and silence because we are just scared of what we might have to deal with when we listen. But facing that fear is just part of the process of growing up. It will also mean that we will need to be free enough to not have a full diary. This is a place of high anxiety for many because being busy is one of our tribal markings of so-called success. Why are these practices important? In solitude and silence we are saying to God our time is yours and we are ready to listen. They become places of revelation, but you have to hang around with God to get them and He is in charge of when they come. Fourth Rock: Live inside out ‘Shine, from the inside out that the world might see you live in me’ – A song for children written by Nick Jackson ‘The wise man built his house upon the rock’ – Matthew 7:24 Building for others House building is about others. It is about establishing a place where you can bring up a family, offer hospitality, be safe and participate in the wider community. It is also about making a village, town or city. Building a house is much more significant than the personal agenda of the builder. If you are the house builder then your responsibility is the safety of all the people who will live there for the next twenty years. You must think long-term and you must think other people. This is why building on sand is not just a mistake but can also be a sin, particularly if you have been warned to build on rock. Building on sand, when you have been told to build on rock, is an act of negligence. The negligence emerges out of self-enclosure which is often rooted in pride, fear or both. It can come as a shock when you discover you are not the point of your own life. This is the point when all the walls of self-enclosure, that you might not know are even there, begin to slowly crumble or come crashing down in a flood. The discovery that we are living a self-enclosed life can stop you in mid-sentence or creep up on you slowly like a stalking cat. However it comes, this revelation is central to developing discernment.  I often feel a vague sense of desperation when meeting an older person who has never discovered this. It is surely a significant failure if, when reaching your forties, you still believe you are the sun around which everyone else must revolve. The reality is that we are all part of a huge saga. Our houses are parts of towns, towns are parts of cities and cities are submerged into countries and eventually the world. The saga is the long story of all the rich and often complicated events taking place in the life of a community and a nation. The wise man built his house on the rock. He was building his house so it would be a place where others could live over the long haul. He was building part of a town which was interconnected with every other house in the area. House building, like life building, is a social event. Outside yourself Our self-absorption will rob us of discernment. Self-absorption prevents us from seeing. It is like being at a football match trying to watch the game with some loud hulk in front who is constantly standing up and blocking the view.  In self-absorption this hulk is inside your own head and heart so you cannot see what is happening outside the borders of your own life. You can’t see the game. Self-absorption is also like having a series of mirrors encircling your own head with the reflection sides all turned inward.  It is impossible to see beyond them because you are always the largest thing you can see. You fill your own vision. With these mirrors in place it is impossible to enter self-forgetfulness which is so important in discernment. There is also the possibility that you will bore yourself to death with the dullness of your own life. Self-forgetfulness is a place which not only cultivates discernment but is the place of deep, deep joy. How do we know if we are self-absorbed? Three questions will constantly fill our minds and shape our response, even though we might not be aware that we are asking them. Question one is ‘am I right?’, question two is ‘, am I safe?’22, question three is ‘am I happy?’ If those questions dominate our heads and hearts it will be difficult to develop a healthy life and cultivate discernment.  We will need to get beyond these questions so we can ask other more interesting and important questions that are much more to do with ‘we’ and ‘us’ rather than ‘me’ and ‘I.’ We develop discernment if we can see outside of ourselves and focus on the world around us. Rather than this depleting us the opposite happens. We begin to see our own lives in the middle of other lives. We learn that we are part of a wonderful complex pattern of humans. Wisdom and discernment begin to pour in at that point. What do we need to do to put this rock in the right place? Love the Church. If we are going to live from the inside out we need to pray for an increasing hunger to love the church. For all of her confusions and contradictions the church is the most beautiful of creations. She is the most beautiful of all in the world. She consists of people made in the image of God who want to live the best they can for the one who made them.23 Such wonders happen in church. People forgive other people. People have patience with other people. People encourage other people. People heal other people. People rejoice with people. People suffer with people. People give to people. The church is a wonder because she displays the wonder of God. Certainly there is sin, fear and hypocrisy but the overwhelming vast majority of the church consists of earnest people seeking to live the best they can. I know this to be true. I have spent thirty years traveling the world speaking and interacting with churches of all sorts and she is wonderful. Jesus loves the church and discernment comes to those who love what Jesus loves. Get out and love the world. Archbishop William Temple famously said, ‘the church is the only co-operative society in the world which exists for the benefit of its non-members.’ This is probably an exaggeration but it is an insightful line. Wonderful as the church is, we have not always loved the world well. Apartheid, racism, misogyny and a bias towards the rich have brought much hurt and still does. We cannot change the world by ourselves but we can change our world through one prayerful act at a time. Acts of loving service to our local, national or global world will cultivate discernment in us like nothing else can. You learn so much through investing in the bank of service to others. This brings us back to our first foundation. We hear but then do if we want to develop discernment. If you want discernment turn your attention to the world and work out how you can love and serve the people in it. Consequences of Discernment ‘When Jesus finished saying these things the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority and not as their teachers of the law’ – Matthew 7:28-29 People loved what Jesus said. They were amazed at this story. Why was that? It was because He spoke with authority. He spoke from wisdom, demonstrating His discernment, and that gave Him influence. Discerning people are attractive to people hungry for truth and freedom. Grow in wisdom and discernment and people are drawn to you if they want to know how to live well. But His authority was not only routed in His words, but also in His deeds. They listened to Him because His life was one confluence of word and deed as He displayed His wisdom and power through His discerning life. He taught them how to live and He teaches us as well. He is working with us as we battle our way through the data swamp, media flood and sinking walls of contemporary culture. He teaches us so we can sift, distinguish and discern so that we all can be what we can possibly be.   1 Matthew 10:16 2 1 Kings 3:9 3 Psalm 1:3 4 Phil 1:9-11 5 James 3:17 6 Matthew 7:24-27 7 John 1:14 8 James K.A. Smith, 2009, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 9 James K.A. Smith, 2009, p.57 10 M. Shawn Copeland Saying Yes and No p.67 11 Matthew 16:25 12 Read  J. Michael Sparough, Jim Manney, Tim Hipskind,  2010, What’s Your Decision: How to Make Choices with Confidence and Clarity,’ Loyola Press, where they explore an Ignatian approach to decision making. 13 Spiritual Exercise 23 14 See Luke 1:26-28 15 Matthew 6:9-13 16 Duong Van Mai Elliott, 1999, The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family, Oxford University Press, p. 412 17 Duong Van Mai Elliott, 1999, P. 413 18 Matt 6:19-21; Luke 12:32 and forward 19 James L. Wakefield, 2005, Sacred Listening: Discovering the Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, Baker Books. Wakefield adapts the exercises of Ignatius for a Protestant audience. 20 Stephen Cottrell, 2007, Do nothing to Change Your Life, London: Church House Publishing 21 Psalm 1:2-3 22 Rowan Williams in an interview with David Hare said, ‘If I am not paralysed by the two questions, ‘Am I right’ and ‘Am I safe’ then there are other things I can ask myself,’ The Guardian, God’s Boxer interview 8 July 2011 23 Read John Stott, 2007, The Living Church: Convictions of a lifelong pastor, Inter-Varsity Press, and feel the love and absorb the clarity of Stott’s reflections on the church, see ‘I have a dream of a living church, p.197-182.
Oct. 27, 2011
‘God has a plan for your life.’ These words can be both reassuring and perplexing. Reassuring, because if God has a plan, then that’s good news. A good God must have a good plan. It means that my life and the events that occur in it aren’t completely meaningless or purposeless. A good God wants good things for me. He wants me to thrive. Perplexing, because no-one can see into the future and tell me precisely what’s coming or what I should do next, and when I look into the past, there are losses, deaths and disappointments, things that cause me a great deal of pain. Were all these things part of God’s plan? More precisely, did God plan these things? Perhaps we should distinguish between the things that God plans, and the things that are part of God’s plan. Christians sometimes talk about wanting to live God’s perfect plan, the divine ‘Plan A’ but it can be very difficult to discern what that plan entails. How do we know if we’re living it? Is it even possible or attainable? Curiously, much of Jesus’ own life was distinctly Plan B-ish. Plan A would have been a bed for Mary and a hearty meal to gear her up for labour. Instead, she is denied a bed and is forced to give birth in a urine- soaked outhouse (stench filled cow shed?). Plan A would have been acceptance of Jesus in his home town, but instead he is rejected there. Plan A would have seen all the people heeding his words, and enjoying renewed relationship with God, but all the people didn’t. Looking at the bigger picture, Plan A would have been trust in God from the start; God’s creatures enjoying relationship with their creator. There, in a nutshell, we have it: relationship is Plan A, redemption is Plan B. God’s Plan A has been thwarted by evil and rebellion; the cross is God’s divine Plan B. At the point of his death, Jesus had few friends and fewer followers, no sign that Plan A had been pulled off. Christians follow a God who is no stranger to disappointment; they follow a God whose nature it is to redeem. It’s because of God’s redemptive nature that everything in our lives can be called ‘part of God’s plan,’ even if our lives follow a less than perfect trajectory. God uses everything for good, which means he can use anything for good, even if that thing wasn’t supposed to happen. Plan B can be just as divine as Plan A. So yes, God has a plan for your life. He has a Plan A, B, C and quite likely D, and he’s operative in all of them.
Aug. 10, 2011