Thursday, December 24, 2009

Shepherds, stars, and angels

Angel's Wings by polska1 of
A poem by my friend, Loz...

The coming of the stars

For Ken Jolley

The night the stars descended, we were hunched as usual,
dozing in tattered bundles; heads down,
oblivious to the aching air. Only one was watchful.

When he cried out, a wolf scattered my fitful dreams.

I started, came to; beheld my staring mates, stark with wonder,
Arcing up, like young cedars struck by lightning
wedded to the sky by blue white flame, transmitting unearthly energy to the mud.
The sparking multiplied, and a roar like a great song underground
intensifying in eye- watering, naked power. I swore it were the last hour.

You ask how it was that they heard the voices clearer than I?
I’ve often wondered why, but am none the wiser. I was the junior,
always simpler, smaller, quieter than my friends. But even then I had my uses:
sleeping in the gateway, seeking the lost ones, fetching sandwiches.

It wasn’t how they picture it, you know: us all starry eyed,
united, trooping down the bright hillside hand in hand,
like kids following a painted sign to wonderland.
That meeting was fear itself. The others wept, transfixed.
My legs were wet and shaking as I crept between a cleft rock,
jammed my fingers in my ears and prayed and sobbed.

Later, when I reappeared, the stars were gone. My mates
returned and mocked me for hiding, gave me a ribbing, said
I’d missed a treat; “time of their lives” they laughed, exuberant, fiery eyed.
They were changed men. But were they mad? I didn’t know what to believe.
As my dear mum used to say; “tidings that come in a flash are usually bad”.

But now I understand, feel the same thrill they had. I know why
they went to tell the world what they’d seen, share the tale
with one and all. Me; I stayed within sight of the sheepfold wall.

People still seek me out to hear my piece.
I say what I know; that now I sing my flock a peaceful song,
that fear bids farewell as new love is born, how joy
can be found in the lowliest place of all; how happy
is the shepherd when the least among his sheep comes home.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Lord is my shepherd, I am depressed

Hands: photo by chriscandy of stock.xchngI love the honesty of the psalms. Here's a bible study I wrote for our church today, on Psalm 102.

'A prayer of one afflicted, when he is faint', this psalm expresses the agony of someone experiencing what we would today call depression. Every day seems empty; his sorrow feels physically painful [v.3]; his heart loses all vigour [v.4]; he forgets to eat and loses weight [v.4-5]; in sleepless nights he feels horribly alone, only able to think about those who are against him [v.7-8]; even pleasures loose their flavour [v.9]; he feels abandoned by God [v.10]: life is pointless [v.11].

What hope can there possibly be in such sorrow? In the second half of this psalm, this broken-hearted man lifts his sights towards God and His great purposes for 'Zion', His people [v.12-28]. He takes in the big picture of God’s purposes, which cannot fail. Not that this is some kind of 'quick fix' for his distress [see v.23-24]. But it reaches for comfort in the truth that God's plan for Zion includes the ultimate good for each of her members. Even their distress is part of God's larger scheme: their faithful endurance is not, in fact, meaningless.

Godly people in the Bible got depressed. Even Paul, who wrote 'Rejoice in the Lord always' [Phil.4:4] also wrote 'We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself' [2Cor.1:8]. Christian joy is not a denial of life’s very real pains, but a recognition that God’s overall plans for His people will prevail, that His love is eternal, and that, in the end, as one medieval saint wrote:
All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

Obama on peace

"The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached - their fundamental faith in human progress - that must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey. For if we lose that faith - if we dismiss it as silly or naive; if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace - then we lose what's best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass..."
- Barack Obama

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Spectre of hector

Sometimes on this blog I opine. I did it recently about Christmas and got a range of responses, the most hilarious of which was a spammer promoting Christmas hampers. I did it a while back on a book, The Shack, and again got a range of responses.

Most of the responses I quite enjoy - both hurrahs from supporters and shaddups from opponents (many of whom are friends anyway). All in the spirit of healthy debate.

But - confession time - there is one riposte that does bother me a little.

It is the accusation of being a killjoy. Of course, it came up in the Christmas post (that is, my blog entry - no reference to cards depicting softly glowing feeding-troughs). "You have managed to take the fun out of Christmas faster than the Queen doing her annual speech naked" mourned one commenter. And some felt I should lighten up abut the Shack. After all, "it's just a novel", just for fun.

My contention is that while things - from Christmas pressies to Christian novels - may be "for fun" they do have a serious side and we shouldn't shy away from facing them down and, when necessary, making some radical changes to life as a result of the convictions we unearth.

Or... is that all rather, well - over-earnest? Therein lies my fear. The last person I want to become is some kind of moralising thought-policeman, determined to stop all enjoyment of anything. Frankly, enough people labour under that mistaken view of God, without me or anyone else adding to it.

It came home to me today when I read a thoughtful and serious Christian comment on Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series. (See I could see the point the writer was making. But I found myself having the same response I know some others have had to me: "Oh come on, it's just a story - lighten up..."

I ought, further, to confess my own secret relationship with the Twilight series. Please only read on if you promise not to tell. When my wife borrowed all four books from a friend I was initially scornful ("Mills and Boone meets Hammer Horror"). But she left the first book by the loo; I picked it up... Four books later, I admit: I was hooked. Actually, I've always liked a good yarn - mythical creatures? So much the better. I filtered out the rather embarrassing formulaic romance style and enjoyed Stephanie Meyer's imaginative ideas. Rather like Harry Potter - don't look for literary genius, but it's a good page-turner.

You might expect some Christians to be twitchy about a vampire story - just as they might a witches and wizards story. Personally, I've always taken something more like the C. S. Lewis line - "faith is imagination grown up" and all that. A good story is a good thing. Enjoy them, talk about them - sometimes with your children. (Incidentally, that was, broadly, the line taken in the blog on Twilight I referred to above: the writer there was making a different point, worried about a harmful model of romantic love as all-consuming.)

Come on. Life is to live! Lighten up! Enjoy a few innocent joys!

Oops. What about The Shack then? What about the holly and the ivy? Hoist by my own petard? Found out in my hypocrisy?

Possibly. Or is the point that one can be both? Serious and fun-loving, I mean. And, that loving fun doesn't mean abandoning all discernment.

I - seriously - believe that Christmas is pretty much unredeemable, too mired as it is in materialism and sentimentalised religion. And I submit that as my considered and, yes, somewhat heavy conclusion. But - please God - I intend to enjoy a few days off and make sure my children enjoy them, too. It'll be a far cry from the ridiculous depiction of Scroogelike gloom written by an opponent of the Jesus Army on a web forum the other day:

A 7-year-old in the Jesus Army on Xmas day? will be a complete non-event. There will be no Santa and no stockings, no mince pie left out (if you did some strange person would eat it). No decorations, no tree, no cards or any reminder that normal people are having fun. The day will start the same as any other day eating stale bread and cold leftovers from the night before, then it will be on with the chores the sisters cleaning and the brothers cleaning cars. Lunchtime will arrive and all the freaks will gather and bang their tambourines and pray against the forces of evil which are making normal people have fun at this time of year, then will come the same old food (stale bread and mouldy cheese with cold soup). Dinner will end and the brothers will slope off to the kitchen to wash up while the women drag their weary carcasses to do knitting or some other mundane job.

Apart from my amusement at the Dickensian language, I found this sad - and alarming. Man, I thought, is that what people think is the only alternative to a "Sainsbury's and Coca-Cola Christmas"? Worse still, has my tub-thumping contributed to the polarization?

Of course, I did try to express positively what my family and I - and our community - would be doing at Christmas (I wrote about love and - shock! - fun). And I tried to convey some of the good I saw in The Shack. But the danger is still there: people can dismiss me as a crackpot religious killjoy, parodying what I say into morose sourness.

So be it. I cannot just swing into festive forgetfulness of the world's poor and those who drown in sorrows at Christmas. Nor can I not think hard about some of the things I read. I could, of course, not write about them here. But I think I will. Because, on the whole, I like the debate, the thinking, the wrestling.

But - I hope - that this post stands as a brief testimonial that I (yes, I, dour and repressed old me) like to have fun, intend to have fun and will enjoy having fun - whenever I can.

Cheers (without a humbug in sight).

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Addicts welcome (yes, that means you, too...)

Someone took issue with a testimony posted on the Jesus Army website the other day. It was the story of a guy who'd got free from addictions through his faith in Jesus. (Check it out.) They wrote: 'So what ur saying is christians don't have addictions?? Now I've heard it all.'

Actually that wasn't what the article was saying. But nevertheless, there can be a danger that Christians, keen to broadcast the amazing change Christ brings, can over egg the cake and present a picture rosier than the reality. It's misleading.

Christians do suffer from disorders, disease - and addiction.

In fact, I reckon most people suffer from addiction of one kind or another. Some are big and life-wrecking (harmful habits, substance abuse, whatever). Others are more subtle but destructive nonetheless (minor obsessions, skewed thinking...) Christians are no exception to that at all.

But they have found hope of something better in Jesus who breaks the power of all addiction (or, to use the older word, all sin). So perhaps the only difference is they acknowledge their need and ask for help.

As a Christian - I do truly believe Jesus answers that prayer, bit by bit, over a lifetime - and after.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


I read a disgusting blog post today. It was written by a leading Christian.

This particular influential Christian works a lot with students and I've followed him off and on over the years. He has some interesting and thoughtful things to say - what's more, years back he led one of my closest friends to faith. I rate him pretty highly.

But his blog horrified me.

Here's how it started:

Christmas is more than just buying presents, filling up on Turkey and tinsel. Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus. But so that you can focus on the real meaning of Christmas...

Nothing too shocking about that, you might think, but I confess I inwardly sighed as I read even these words. I get tired of the well-meaning but futile 'back to the original meaning of Christmas' line. Why? Not least because the original meaning is in fact a pagan midwinter festival. Christians only hijacked the feast around about the time of the fourth century around the time of the highly ambiguous 'conversion' of the Emperor, Constantine. (Hey presto! A status-quo-challenging, marginal movement morphed into a mainstream imperial power-structure. Historians debate the pros and cons. I'm very inclined to see it as something like a disaster.)

And so it concerns me when I see well-meaning and otherwise serious and deep-thinking Christians swept along by the Yuletidal wave which is the modern and hugely commercialised descendant of a pagan knees-up, or at best a fatally compromised Christianity.

But I realise the pagan-Christian-historical question may seem a bit remote to many. Besides, many Christians would say, 'Face the facts: people are into Christmas, and we may as well use it as an opportunity to broadcast the Christian message of Christ's coming'.

Not so fast. It's one thing if Christmas is just neutral - like art, for instance, something that can be an influence in many directions.

But I contend that Christmas is not neutral. It is immoral. Would you use pornography to promote Christ? I suspect not. Because Christians would generally see that as immoral and wouldn't want Christ to be sullied by association.

Christmas is immoral because it is the absolute epitome of the greedy, consumerist, pleasure-loving, unjust, Western system that is driving many of the world's population deeper into poverty, and many of its own into psychosis.

To link Christ's name with the festival of all this is nothing short of blasphemy.

And this brings me onto the real beef I had with the blog post. Remember where it left off? 'But so that you can focus on the real meaning of Christmas...'? You might expect that what follows would be some creative ideas for worship on 25th December. Or maybe some Christian outreach ideas. Better still, suggestions for how you can engage with the poor or destitute, or use one of the many excellent charitable 'alternative gifts' schemes.

Sadly, no. Cue the next bit of the blog:

But so that you can focus on the real meaning of Christmas I have done some searching online to find the best ideas I can for great christmas [sic] presents that will stand the test of time and keep the kids amused until next Christmas.

What follows? 2,569 words of product advertising. Books, board games, gadgets (everything from mobile phones to Wii to camcorders).

This apparently, is 'so you can focus on the real meaning of Christmas'.

I would like to think that this was a clever and prophetic indictment of the orgy of materialism that sweeps the western world each Christmas. But it just wasn't. He simply took for granted that Christmas was a time to shower one's children with more material possessions they don't need, to force feed them the spirit of the materialistic, consumerism-maddened culture which surrounds us. So he was just doing us a favour by helping us avoid the stress of choosing precisely what unecessary rubbish we should join the queues to purchase.

What's more, two and a half thousands plus words of crazed commercialism aren't enough: the writer cheerily informs us at the end of the post that there are 'More ideas coming soon…'

No thank you. No - please - no.

Because behind the merry-go-round, the Christmas whirl is making many sick. And a highly-informed, leading-edge, blogging Christian communicator should know about it.

An online poll by the mental health charity Mind found that respondents were stressed and anxious about repaying their Christmas spending. 19 per cent felt less able to manage their mental health because of worries about paying off the cost of Christmas; 25 per cent were feeling depressed because of Christmas; Over 50 per cent admitted they had spent more than they could afford on Christmas; 39 per cent used credit cards to cover the cost of Christmas; 33 per cent estimated that it would take them more than six months to pay off their Christmas spending debt.

Debt is a huge problem in our country and Christmas doesn't help one bit. Debt aid charity, Credit Action, reports:

The ghost of Christmas past continues to knock on some doors as nearly 1 in 4 (24%) Brits are still paying off credit costs from last Christmas. Over a third of people on a lower income (34%) are still paying off their bills from last Christmas.

Cash-strapped families who turn to credit to pay for Christmas could be setting themselves up for a New Year debt disaster... [A] survey found that a quarter of people planning to borrow over the festive period will use catalogue credit, a fifth are planning to use store cards and one in seven are planning to go to doorstep lenders - three of the four most expensive sources of credit.

Christians Against Poverty (CAP) commissioned a survey of 2000 adults asking them about their plans for funding Christmas expenditure in September 2008. The results show that 76% of those questioned were worried about Christmas due to the financial cost. 30% of respondents said they did not budget at all for Christmas.

So it's not just abstruse arguments about religion and history. Consumerism is killing people - literally, in some cases - and at Christmas it kills more people then ever.

I want thoughtful, responsible, leading Christians like my blogger friend to be speaking out for simplicity and for sanity. 'You don't have to get on the merry-go-round' I want him to say. 'By all means look for opportunities to bless others and to relax with loved ones over the holiday season. But do it simply, include your poor neighbour, do it as Christ would do it.'

That's what I wished he'd said.

As for me and my house, what will we be doing over Xmas (as I much prefer to call it since it is more respectful to Jesus)? We will throw our big shared house open to our many friends, some of whom have no family (and little else besides). We'll play games with paper and pens, or with nothing, 'give-us-a-clue' style. We'll go for a walk in the country. Some of us will volunteer at our drop-in for the homeless. We'll play with our children. We'll laugh with each other. No-one will say 'bah humbug' but we won't eat turkey, pull crackers, or have a pine tree in our living room. We'll drink no alcohol and be riotously happy. We'll give no presents except for love - which I trust will be shared out generously.

My kids can't wait.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Twits for Christ

I did it. After an initial phase of something like laziness (thinly disguised as moral high ground), this summer I did it.

I became a twit. Or a twitterer or tweeter or whatever you call someone who uses Twitter to talk to the world.

It's long been a subject of debate around our church what our take on the internet ought to be. On the one hand, we want to take seriously the apostolic command 'Do not love the world or the things in the world' (1 Jn.2:15). It'd be short-sighted not to see the that 'the web' can be sticky and tangle Christians up in immorality, time-wasting or whatever. On the other, intensely conscious of the Great Commission and the desire to get across God's goodness by whatever means, we've not been shy of cyber-missioning: was one of the earliest Christian websites to get up and running.

But it's all moved on. Fast. Tech know-alls call it the move from 'web 1.0' to 'web 2.0'. Nowadays it's not just static websites with their content - it's all about interactivity, networking, instant exchange. MySpace, then Facebook, and now 'share this with everyone you know - now!', 'Twitter your "now" stuff all over the place - now!'...

Anyone who knows me will tell you I'm not a tech-guru. (My friends who are would laugh at the notion.) But I do a lot of work for our church in communications - writing and editing mainly - and that has meant I've had to get my head round this stuff. Paper is so last millennium. Even websites are so pre the bursting of the 'Dot-com bubble'.

'I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some' (1 Cor.922). That was how Paul described his voyages to the centre of the culture of his day. And now it's our turn.

So I tweet my life in a colourful Christian church into the web-stratosphere. Mainly it's still received by friends and friends-of-friends. But others have joined in. (It was an exciting moment when the Religion Correspondent of The Times started following me.) Meanwhile my mate is debating with Paul Daniels whether the resurrection is a magic trick, and another is exchanging emails with Alastair Campbell about compassion towards those who suffer from mental health issues.

Evangelising on the streets (that good, old fashioned, first century, method of mission that we still do a fair bit as a church), I often exchange Facebook details with people so that the discussion of the gospel continues online. Meetings are tweeted and Facebooked and bookmarked and left around for others to 'stumble upon'. All the articles I and others write for our website can be commented on and these comments are instantly Twittered. And on it rolls.

But even so, I often feel we're really rather behind the light-speed movement of the world at large when it comes to these things. The (Google)wave sweeps onward.

So the other day we got together a group to talk through the different cyber-channels that may be worth exploring when it comes to expressing the gospel and the life of the church online. On top of social networking and Twitter et al, we considered web forums and fringe interest sites, 'viral' publicity, video and picture sharing, iphone compatibility, blogs, vlogs, plogs (actually, there's no such thing as plogs - yet - before you look them up) - and linking them all up so that we 'scatter our seed' as far and wide as we can.

We agreed the future is in the tributaries that make up the river. Individuals and little groups sharing personal stories (with words, pictures, videos, music whatever) which capture the imagination of the iGeneration - this is where its at.

I started this blog to chronicle my experiences of leading a Christian community which I still believe to be a remarkable way of living and in the hope that it would capture the interest of seekers out there. But it's got bigger than that. Now the challenge is before us to express Christ to a world which is suddenly enabled to watch - and listen and answer back - more than ever before.

(As it happens, today the EA are running a a synchronised blogging day called 'DigiMission' today to explore 'creative ideas for how Christians can use the digital space to impact mission'. Check out the link here.)

Monday, November 09, 2009

'The white rose' - no fairy tale

A friend of mine recently wrote this account of a disturbed prisoner and a Salvation Army officer. A striking story. Thought it was worth posting here.

The woman in the prison cell was like an animal, snarling and attacking anyone who came near her. The Salvation Army officer hesitated. Had she heard God right? Should she enter the cell when everyone told her it was madness? She went in and spoke lovingly to the woman – who growled and flew at her. Shaken, the evangelist escaped, but the next day tried again, then the next day – always with the same violent response.

After much prayer, the officer went again. She said nothing but left in the cell a single white rose, then left. Before long, she was called by the prison staff: could she come and visit the woman? The officer went and found her transformed, soft and tearful. The sight of the white rose, she said, had broken her apart. It faced her up with how evil she had become. Yet with it came a longing that God’s love might be able to make her clean and white on the inside. The officer realised that God’s guidance had been right; that she could indeed believe the best for anyone, because Jesus died for all. Right there in the cell, the prisoner was born again.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Quiet night in

Last night was quiet by comparison to many of our Thursday night 'Friendship Meals' (every Thursday we have a community open night - new friends and old invited round for a meal and to share in the life of our community). I say quiet, but it was still by general standards a fair-sized dinner party - about a score of us, all told.

We gathered together in the lounge shortly after 7 o'clock. Laughter and chatter before we sang a hymn, and one of our elders shared a few thoughts and prayed. Then into the dining room (drawn by smells of roasting chicken in tomato-pepper sauce).

But one of us stayed behind. For her sake I won't mention who it was, but she hung back and I noticed her tired and drawn face. She'd been a bit ill, she felt tired and delicate - and like the lively dinner scene awaiting her in the dining room was more than she could face.

'I just don't feel like I can face going in there and trying to make conversation' she said. 'I just feel like I want to go to bed.'

Now, of course, she could have just gone to bed - it can be a sensible thing to do when you're ill, afterall. But this particular woman is a pretty central figure in our community family. She knew it was a quieter night with a few of our core community members away or not there for various reasons and she felt that sense of duty familiar to those of us who form the hub of community life, that sense of needing to 'be there'. But she'd got to that point where she felt 'peopled-out'.

It's an interesting part of the dynamic of living in Christian community. We do it because we love - and we love more than we could naturally, it's the fruit of the Holy Spirit in us. We want to be together, to share our lives, to share possessions, time - 'all things in common' as the New Testament has it. But that doesn't mean there aren't times when you run out and people - any people, even those you love and live for - are the last thing on God's green earth you want to face.

That's why it's important to work solitude and personal devotion into community life. Without solitude, no-one can live in community, or at least not healthily.

So what do you do when you've had enough of people - but it's Thursday night, you've a dining room full of people to host, and dinners on the table?

What this dear, given, loving sister did was come and eat with everyone. She was somewhat quiet and subdued and, mercifully, people seemed to pick up on this and let her eat in peace (it isn't always so! Some can be as sensitive as an unscheduled roof collapse at times...) And later on she found some solitude and space - which she used to wrap a couple of gifts for loved ones.

It can be a challenge living in community. Let no-one think it's all rosy Christian fellowship and soft-focus photography. Sometimes living in community makes you feel life you're going utterly, firework-spinningly, stars-before-the-eyes crazy. Sometimes the thought of sitting down to eat with your 'brethren whom you love and long for' is about as attractive as root canal treatment.

But in it all, in the ups and the downs - we learn love. We really do.

God, teach us silence, so that our words will not be empty, but carry power. Teach us stillness, so our activity will not be frantic, but fruitful. Teach us solitude, so that we can live in community. Amen.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

T S Eliot's words make me a little giddy

T S Eliot's poem Little Gidding, the last of his Four Quartets, makes me breathless by its beauty and the simplicity with which he writes profound things.

This little hymn to the Holy Spirit captures well the paradoxes of the coming of the Holy Spirit. Gentle (a dove) and fiery, redeeming us from hellfire only in the consuming holy fire of his own presence. Terrifying and redeeming. For Love himself has worn our hell (and still bears the scald). The way is open, and we can walk in - to a new fire.

At a time when our church is being freshly called to apostolic passion - to burn with the Spirit's fire - I find these words inspiring. T S Eliot was part of a very different church to mine, but his poetry - and prophecy - speak at the level of the shared heart of all who love our Christ and his burning Spirit.

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror

Of which the tongues declare

The one discharge from sin and error.

The only hope, or else despair

Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre -

To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.

Love is the unfamiliar Name

Behind the hands that wove

The intolerable shirt of flame

Which human power cannot remove.

We only live, only suspire

Consumed by either fire or fire.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Jesus Army gig

Every month or two the Jesus army has a big get together. Cue colurful occasions packed with friendship, worship, prayer, drama, dance, usually some baptisms of those who've decided to follow Jesus...

Here's some photos of our recent big bash in Sheffield: the Jesus Fellowship Praise Day last Saturday:

Crowd gathers
Warming up
Come as you are
Drama: Tree of knowledge
Anger dramatised
Death dramatised
Christ dramatised
Lights in the world
Remembering the martyrs
Prayer is care

Prickly innocence

My aunt sent me some pictures of a baby hedgehog, so I'm posting them here for my children. Very sweet...

Friday, October 23, 2009

'mJa untamed'

One of the last words our founder, Noel, spoke to us as a church before he died earlier this year was that we ought to be 'untamed'.

As a church, we've pioneered quite a few risky ventures in our time, and sometimes taken flack for it. Residential Christian community with all things in common, I passionately belive to be a wonderful vision - but I've seen it twisted to appear like control or deprivation of freedom. Being an upfront 'Jesus army' gets to the nitty-gritty of where the UK is hurting and seeks to make a difference to the poorest. But I've seen it pilloried as the 'barmy army' a hard-recruting, over-laddish (or even thuggish) approach to Christianity. Jesus Centres, providing 'friendship and help for all' have won widespread public support, but we face all the internal risks of a venture that stretches our resources, capacity - and our faith.

We've not sat still as a church; we're nothing if not activists. Even so, there's the danger, always, that we sit back on our laurels, pat ourselves on our collective back as a 'radical church', waking up one day to find ourselves washed up on the shores of irrelevancy, living in the fading light of our former glory days.

God forbid.

And so our founding leader gave the call - stay wild, keep taking risks. Once we know what we're called to, we must ride the criticism and see it through: humbly, patiently - yet resolutely. Untamed.

We want to take the challenge to heart. 'mJa untamed' has become something of a watchword among us. It feels significant, like the last word from our founding era. People talk it up, chew it over. We've even made some t-shirts displaying it.

Well - I've bought the t-shirt. Now to live the life...

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Forget fishing!

Photo by lute1 www.sxc.huWrote this bible study recently on the last chapter of John's Gospel.

This final chapter of John is an epilogue after the formal close of the Gospel [20:30-31]. It focuses upon two key apostles in the first Church.

Peter is disgraced. He denied Jesus three times [18:15-18,25-27] and has returned to his old life: fishing. But even that no longer works for him [v.3]; he is a broken man. Jesus deliberately takes Peter back to the beginning: the miraculous catch of fish is very similar to Peter’s first encounter with Jesus [v.5-6, see Lk.5:1-11]. Then, Peter had cried out 'I am a sinful man!' Now, three years later, he is more aware of his sin than ever – but Jesus reaffirms his love for him and trust in him. Three times Jesus asks Peter the crucial question: 'Do you love Me?' Three times Peter answers, and three times Jesus recommissions him to leadership. Peter’s threefold denial is lovingly undone; he is given a new start and called again, as at the beginning: 'Follow Me' [v.19].

John is different; he followed Jesus to the Cross. He is even called 'the disciple whom Jesus loved' [v.7, 20]. Peter’s question ('Lord, what about this man?' [v. 21]) may well mean ‘Wouldn’t he be a better leader?’ But Jesus, while not denying that John will faithfully play his part, simply reaffirms His call to Peter. There are times when you must not compare yourself to others, but get on with God has called you to.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Between life and death

If variety is the spice of life, and myrrh the spice of death, good poetry seasons everything in between.

This achingly beautiful poem by R S Thomas, who I've been reading again recently, is about marriage - and more than that. It captures the sense of the rush of time, our mortality and the fragility of the present. It's very tender and makes me want to live more deliberately. (And it makes me thank God for my wife.)

A Marriage by R S Thomas

We met
under a shower
of bird-notes.
Fifty years passed,
love's moment
in a world in
servitude to time.
She was young;
I kissed with my eyes
closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.
'Come,' said death,
choosing her as his
partner for
the last dance, And she,
who in life
had done everything
with a bird's grace,
opened her bill now
for the shedding
of one sigh no
heavier than a feather.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The things we do for the cause...

modern Jesus army in Trafalgar Square 2007modern Jesus army in Trafalgar Square 2009Make a scene about Jesus in Trafalgar Square?

It seemed a good idea at the time... tie a balloon to each limb, dance about a bit. Should draw a crowd.

Who knows? Maybe next year I'll put on a clown outfit and pretend I'm stuck to a chair...

No, hang on...

Shucks. Did that in 07.

Dress as Elmer the Elephant and dance the can-can it is then.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Shack lack

My wife is re-reading a bestselling Christian book, The Shack. She loves it and wants to lend our copy to just about every person she can think of. ('Hi, how are you? I'm fine, would you like to borrow this book?')

I read it, too, a while back. It's moving (made the back of my eyes prickle); it's not badly written (not quite poetic, but better than formulaic). But...

...But (sorry) - I'm just not convinced. It's not just that God the Father was portrayed as motherly female for much of the novel (though I do sigh - enough people think church is just for women and children as it is - oh and by the way, the Holy Spirit was feminine, too, and Jesus was a very nice boy). No, it's not that - and I understood that they were all about removing stereotypes, even if I wish it'd been done some other way). It's not even that I was left disconcerted by a feeling that, despite the book's fairly obvious aim to the contrary, it ended up giving suspiciously pat answers to difficult questions about suffering and the nature of evil.

No, the main thing was that the book was - well, just too popular. Plaudit after plaudit adorn the back cover and fly. Everyone loves it. It makes everyone feel so wonderful, so reassured, so... like the American Dream has come true at last, and God's the main character.

I don't want to sound scornful or misanthropic. I realise I'm veering in that direction. I don't doubt that The Shack is an uplifting read and genuinely encouraged some hurting souls.

Yet, I suppose what I missed was anything of prophetic challenge. God's basic message to the protagonist who finds himself alone with the almighty for a long weekend, seemed to be - 'See! I am nice, after all!'

But wouldn't God have something to say about justice, about the plight of the poor, about his revolutionary kingdom - in fact, about some of the things he expresses again and again and again through the prophets and ultimately through Christ. Go through the Bible and highlight references to 'justice and righteousness' and your pen will have run out before you reach the end of the Old Testament.

To put it another way - God just wasn't angry enough. And, strange though it may seem, I worry about a God who isn't angry. Strikes me that a God who isn't angry isn't very good. (Nice, maybe, but that's quite a different thing.)

Okay, so maybe that wasn't what the book was about. And it's not like the main character isn't challenged by his meeting with God in the shack. He is - particularly over the issue of forgiveness (which is, I suppose, close to the heart of the book). But I was waiting for some of that heart-stopping controversy and demand that Jesus dished out continually. I was waiting for 'What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight' and 'Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple'?

The Shack may be the kind of book that would take someone a good few steps along the road to faith, or overcome some of the emotional objections some feel. It's has evangelistic potential and for that I would commend it. But as a real exploration of God's heart and what he may be saying to our world today... sorry. It left me too happy and reassured to be of much use.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

What we will be...

I loved this quote from the Professor himself:

"We are to be re-made. All the rabbit in us is to disappear---the worried, conscientious, ethical rabbit as well as the cowardly and sensual rabbit. We shall bleed and squeal as the handfuls of fur come out; and then, surprisingly, we shall find underneath it all a thing we have never yet imagined: a real Man, an ageless god, a son of God, strong, radiant, wise, beautiful, and drenched in joy."
- C. S. Lewis

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

RAW (Real and Wild) 09

Recently we held our annual youth bash, RAW. It's in its third year now. This year had quite a serious feel in comparison to previous years. We know we need to rise to the challenge put to us as a generation. Take the baton. Run with the vision.

We sang a song this year which captured something of it all. Here's the lyrics:

Our generation knows a call
To leave the world behind;
To live this vision, give our all,
To stand against the tide.
Or will we love this passing world
And slip away from God?
And cast aside the kingdom pearl
To wallow in the mud?

Oh will we –
Walk worthy of the call?
Walk worthy of the call we have received?

Will we just sink to live the same
As a world without our hope?
Dancing with demons, playing games
On Satan’s slippery slope?
Deceiving ourselves that all is well –
Our Sunday smiles in place –
Come Friday night we’re loving hell
And spit in Jesus’ face.

God help us –
Walk worthy of the call
Walk worthy of the call we have received

Don’t pass us by, oh Holy One,
Don’t let us fade away,
Don’t let our words be empty ones:
Let us live the things we say
With holiness that stings the eyes
And passion for Your cause,
We’ll run as those who see the prize
And hear the saints’ applause

We want to –
Walk worthy of the call
Walk worthy of the call we have received

One Lord, one faith, one baptism,
One God, our all in all
Dead with our Christ and with Him risen:
One all-consuming call

And we will –
Walk worthy of the call
Walk worthy of the call we have received
Says it all.

God help us...

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Vow do you do?

I went to an old friend's wedding a little while back. And I was struck again bu some of the scary things people say at weddings. I don't mean the best man's speech either.

Take “till death do us part,” for instance. (Phew – I mean, for good? What if I change my mind?)

Perhaps that’s why marriage, like any commitment, is increasingly off the contemporary agenda. Just move in together. And when the feeling fades, move on apart.

People even speak of “commitment-phobia”. One pained blogger wrote: “I suffer from commitment phobia. I have been with my girlfriend for nearly six months, yet this condition is doing its best to ruin everything. As a commitment-phobe, I feel that I must run away. But commitment-phobia means that I cannot commit to running away either.”

Somewhere in our marrow we know that this is ridiculous. “Commitment-phobia” is just selfishness in disguise. (“It’s my life – mine! Hands off!”)

But do we – as followers of the God who was committed enough to give us His Son – do we model something different enough for anyone to notice?

Put bluntly – are we commitment-addicts?

We should be. Marriage is sealed by vows, and some still do take the plunge even in a commitment-phobic society. How much more ought followers of Jesus to embody costly commitment in the church of Jesus? Commitment to Him – and commitment to each other?

The Holy Spirit makes us one, unites us. Not many Christians would deny that this is meant to be the theory. But what is often missed is this: we have to follow through from this Holy-Spirit-oneness; we have to back up its reality through real commitments and kept promises and – let’s use the “v word” – vows.

“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit” writes Paul. He’s made you one – keep it that way! How? “Through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). The bond: the promise, the pledge, the vow.

We live total loyalty to each other. Covenant to stay together always. Lay down our lives for each other.

Hang it - we need to stand before a watching world and say "We're staying with each other - for good". We don't have to dress as a meringue and put leaves in our hair. But let's make it real. Afterall, marriage only lasts "till death us do part". But brothers and sisters in Christ - it's a forever and ever thing.

It’ll stand out – as Jesus said it would: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Table mat

Every Tuesday night, we have a special meal for members of our church. We call it an 'Agape' meal (agape being the Greek work for divine love that is used by the writers of the New Testament); I've written about the Agape meal before on this blog.

Recently, we've been lighting a candle on our Agape dining table. Nothing very unusual about that, perhaps - candle on a meal table - adds a bit of atmosphere. But this candle was lit for a purpose beyond just creating the right ambience. We lit it for a person; a person we love and have been praying for.

He's been coming to one of our Wednesday night cell groups for the best part of a year. Fiercely atheistic, but always up for a good debate, he got on well and became part of the furniture in the group. It was from this that some of us began to long for him to find faith in Christ, and to experience the power of His love.

And so a few weeks ago we lit the candle, deciding that we would have it on our table every Agape meal as a silent prayer for him to belong, with us, to God. He was part of the family - we longed for him to be with us at the table of Christ.

And last Sunday night - it happened. Another friend and I had an opportunity to pray with him. It was awesomely beautiful to behold. His spirit opened up, slowly, like a flower in the morning sun. Sorry if you think that's a bit over-poetic, but it was truly moving. I had tears in my eyes. As we prayed that God would reveal Himself, our friend's face - eyes closed, waiting, open - became lighter, uplifted. A peace came over him. He began to slowly lift up his hands. Faith unfurled in him. God met him.

Afterwards, he was without words to describe what had happened. (The New Testament supplies some - like being 'called' or 'regenerated' or 'born again'.) But he knew that he was changed. Fathered by God; he had become a Christian.

The candle prayer had been answered.

It was a long journey from the desert of atheism to the flowing waters of faith. First his mind was opened, through our discussions at cell group, to the fact that Christian faith was not, in fact, just irrational nonsense. It brought him a cetain agnostic openness, but couldn't bring him all the way into faith. Then, as he spent more time among the family of God, the church, he found his heart drawn to the love that we have. ('You can feel the love' - it may be a cliché, but yes, he said it.) Faith had made the two foot journey of a lifetime from his head to his heart. There remained one final leg of the journey - to his spirit. And on Sunday night, God made his spirit alive.

Next Sunday, we intend to baptise him in water to complete his beginnings as a Christian.

Thank God. Now the real journey begins. he can head for the horizon. The view is awesome. The Son is shining.

Friday, July 17, 2009

40 reasons to believe in Christianity

Photo by eliselovesprada of Flickr.comEvery Wednesday night, my wife and I meet with some friends for a 'cell group'. (Nothing to do with prison, by the way, and everything to do with being a little unit of the body of Christ, in case you're wondering.)

Cell group is a highlight of the week and usually involves some energetic discussion (as well as coffee, chocolate and silly games).

Not everyone in the group is a Christian; this week I was responding to a challenge to come up with '40 reasons to believe in Christianity'. So I gave it a shot and we debated and explored some of them.

I ought to say here what I said to them: none of these 40 reasons to believe are trying to be knock down 'proof' of the truth of Christianity; they are pointers, hints. And a lot of them cry out for a bit of further explanation or defence. In the case of a few of them that's what we did in the cell group. What's more, they make no claim to be definitive - no doubt there are many more points could be made in defence of Christian belief. These just happen to be the ones I came up with.

So, for what it's worth, here they are. And of anyone out there wants to comment, go ahead, and I'll try and respond.

1. Because Jesus is risen from the dead and that’s the only explanation that makes sense of history.
2. Because the order and beauty of creation makes God's invisible qualities known.
3. Because human beings have a sense of morality, of right and wrong
4. Because human beings love.
5. Because Israel exists – unlike Philistines, Ishmaelites, Amonities, Kerites, Kerizzites, Hittites, Perizzites and many other nations that got going at the same sort of time.
6. Because people we know have been changed by God.
7. Because countless millions we don't know have been changed by God.
8. Because human beings instinctively worship.
9. Because the fruit of atheistic philosophies is death – witness Marxism, Nazism and consumerism to mention the three pillars of post enlightenment Europe.
10. Because when Christianity brings war and death it can be evidenced that this is a perversion of its beginning, whereas atheistic philosophies are based on dehumanising ideas.
11. Because St. Francis of Assissi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King and William Booth were not wrong.
12. Because an accidental universe is amoral, empty and meaningless.
13. Because God has become man and died to rescue us.
14. Because the apostles’ testimony is true.
15. Because the church has never been snuffed out.
16. Because the church, though subject to sin and drift, has revived and re-birthed countless times.
17. Because the church is a place of true love.
18. Because Christians care.
19. Because Christians can heal.
20. Because Christians forgive.
21. Because Christians speak in tongues and use spiritual gifts.
22. Because of music.
23. Because of colour.
24. Because of taste and flavours.
25. Because of the smell of flowers.
26. Because of the feel of silk, and ice, and tree bark, and stone, and fur, and water, and a lover’s skin.
27. Because God is love and those who live in love, live in God and he in them.
28. Because of the Bible – remarkable by any standards: written by writers over centuries, yet speaking the many sides of one coherent vision.
29. Because the Bible is honest and tragic, and speaks to human being as they really are.
30. Because the Bible has a happy ending – paid for by God himself.
31. Because grass seed is more remarkable than a microchip.
32. Because a brain makes a Mac look feeble.
33. Because of Abraham.
34. Because of Paul.
35. Because of the members of our cell group.
36. Because the martyrs didn't die for nothing.
37. Because Jesus didn't die for nothing.
38. Because we'd have never even of heard about Jesus dying if he wasn’t the Messiah
39. Because Jesus, as the Messiah has bourn the exile of his people, Israel – and the exile of the human race in death – through his sacrificial death. And his resurrection establishes him as Messiah, head of this people, saviour of humankind, and son of God.
40. Because Jesus is risen from the dead – and that's the only explanation that makes sense of... everything.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Musical battle in urban sunshine

Someone wrote an engaging little piece of philosophical musing in the Northampton Chronicle and Echo this week. Thought I'd paste in a link here, since it mentions the Jesus Army.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Noel Stanton

Noel Stanton, founder and former apostolic team leader of the Jesus Army, died yesterday afternoon.

Many people will want to mark his passing. For those of us who live out the vision of the Jesus Army – a vision largely initiated and propelled forward by Noel Stanton himself – it feels like the end of our founding era. Challenges lie ahead. But we’re in it together.

In this blog, as a rule, I don’t mention people by name. “Washing one’s clean linen in public” (as Oscar Wilde put it) is one thing. Even washing my own dirty linen in public seems fair enough, if odd. But to air someone else’s linen, soiled or spotless, seems wrong to me, and I’ve avoided it.

It is ironic to break my self-imposed anonymity rule today for Noel Stanton, particularly as Noel himself avoided the limelight. Indeed, it is one of the marks of his humility that today the Jesus Army is far, far better known than Noel is. That is how he wanted it. For Noel, it was all about Jesus Christ, not about Noel Stanton. We are not called “Noel Stanton ministries” but Jesus Army, or Jesus Fellowship.

But Noel’s forty years of faithful leadership deserve some celebration and here’s my small part.

Noel Stanton was an inspiring leader. He was wilful, single-minded – at times maddeningly so! – yet compassionate. He could roar at what he perceived as compromise or hypocrisy, and yet he won the hearts of many, many people through his self-evident commitment and care. Many will miss him as a father and a grandad, particularly those who lived with him in Christian Community at New Creation Farm.

Indeed, it is a mark of the integrity of Noel’s lifestyle that he lived simply in community with his brothers and sisters. His was no life of privilege. He exemplified simplicity. For all Noel’s fire and tenacity, he never sought to feather his own nest. Quite the opposite: the second-hand, iron bedstead that was his throughout his years in community says it all.

One of the things I particularly valued about Noel was his unwavering commitment to those that few others would believe in. He was determined to see some of “the worst” becoming the best that they could be. At times, my hair stood on end as I watched Noel invest trust in young people who (quite obviously in my sensible eyes) were not worthy of it. (And sometimes I was “right”: Noel was hurt more than once by those who let him down.) But, of course, in every way that mattered, it was Noel who was right all along. He was determined that a generation of youth who had been written off as “Generation X”, the “lost generation” should be believed in and championed. He took risks to see it happen.

And happen it did. Some of those young men and women are leading movers and shakers in the Jesus Army today.

This belief in those with few of the natural advantages of wealth or education was a trait he shared with another holy army’s founder. William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, declared, “Go for souls and go for the worst.”

Noel lived a similar dream. And he would have heartily concurred with some other famous words spoken by Booth:

“While women weep, as they do now, I'll fight; while children go hungry, as they do now I'll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I'll fight; while there is a drunkard left, while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, while there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I'll fight, I'll fight to the very end!”

Noel Stanton fought till the very end. Now we fight on.

And Noel – we salute you.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Root cause

Words can change their meanings. I wants to rescue this one: "radical".

“A radical preacher...” Guess the rest of the headline. “Gives all his money to the poor”? “Speaks out against hypocrisy?” No: “A radical preacher jailed for inciting terrorism” (BBC, today).

In many minds today, the word “radical” throws up images of fuming imams or plotters in Afghan caves. It’s an angry word, a violent word.

But being radical shouldn’t be about hatred and fear. A true radical is passionate for good; prepared to live for love, 100 per cent.

Radical means “from the root” (from radix, Latin for root). A true radical goes back to the roots – the most important things, the things that really matter – and lives for those things.

Jesus Christ is the best and truest radical that ever lived. He radically sided with the outcasts, welcoming them into His circle. He radically challenged the proud rich and the religious bigots. He radically called people into the new society that He was forming – people who would live to love and serve.

He still calls people today, to give up everything else and follow Him, to join His love revolution – to be true radicals.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Same old story? A preacherman's dilemma

Picture by kuypers of stock.xchngIt's my turn to speak at our monthly celebration, a lively knees-up which very often involves new Christians being baptised and lots of visitors coming along. My job: preach the gospel.

'Preach the gospel'. The phrase itself indicates something of my dilemma. It sounds, well – religious. Rather last century. Heck, it sounds rather last millennium. With the exception of the definite article, old faithful the (sorry, lapsing into churchy phraseology again there), the expression preach the gospel smells of musty religiosity...

In today’s parlance, this word is generally used to connote walloping someone over the bonce with a moralistic diatribe. ('Don’t preach at me, man!’) Then again, at least it has a use in today’s language. What about gospel? Just what does that mean, apart from being a religious word with something to do with Billy Graham?

Of course, some people know that the word gospel means ‘good news’. (For any word freaks out there, it’s from the Old English godspellgod, good, and spell, message). But knowing the etymology doesn’t really help. Because most people in the UK assume that there’s nothing very newsy about Christianity. ‘News? What news? What’s news about something that’s been public domain for two thousand years? Everyone knows what Christianity’s all about, don’t they?’

And here lies my real dilemma. Because people think they know what the Christian message is. After all, on Sunday night I probably won't stand up and say ‘Now I’m going to preach the gospel’ (cue reaching for your crash helmet and switching off because you know what’s coming). But, even stepping foot into ‘a church’, people will think they know what they’re going to get.

Not many people on the streets of the UK would say they have no idea what Christianity is all about. ‘It’s belief in God, innit?’ ‘It’s do unto others – something’. Or, more sophisticated, ‘Jesus died for us so we can be forgiven and go to heaven when we die. (Not sure quite how that works, but it’s a nice idea, so I’ll dust it off every Christmas and Easter and put it back in storage in between)’.

You might think I’m being simplistic; surely people have got more idea what Christianity is about than that. But the truth of the matter is that very often people haven’t even got that far. When I talk to people on the streets about ‘the gospel’, the standard view seems to be that Christians believe in a god that’s a bit like a cross between Zeus and Father Christmas and that he has a nice but slightly wet son called Jesus who said some nice things, but that it’s all a bit irrelevant because science has disproved it anyway. Or something like that.

Sadly, even the more sophisticated approach (‘Jesus died for me’ and so on) – usually indicating some church in the upbringing – is very often pretty limited. At its worst it will have more than a dash of something like ‘God was angry but Jesus changed his mind’. This is a development of the Zeus- Father Christmas thing: God was like Zeus, then Jesus calmed him down and now he’s like Father Christmas. (Then science disproved him.)

I have to say, I think we Christians have to shoulder some of the blame for this muddle. All too often, the Christian presentation of the gospel has been a rather two-dimensional afterlife insurance policy: ‘believe in Jesus and you’ll go to heaven when you die.’

There’s a very great problem here. If ‘the gospel’ is just about something ‘up there’ (whether Zeus mythology or ‘going to heaven’), then the gospel is automatically made irrelevant to just about everyone. Unless you’re on your deathbed or unusually introspective and morbid – forget it. (This is where atheist bus posters come in: ‘There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’. Quite frankly, applied to this emaciated version of the gospel, they have a point.)

So my dilemma is not just how to find upbeat, funky language in order to ‘preach the gospel’ (i.e. the same old thing). The challenge I face is to get beyond the stereotypes that so many people assume is the message of Christianity and to actually communicate some life-arresting, stop-dead-in-your-tracks, what-was-that-you-said news.

It’s simply not just about ‘pie in the sky when you die’. Tom Wright, the bishop of Durham put it like this recently:

I don't see the [life after death] as the primary thing to talk about in evangelism. The primary thing is Jesus himself, and the vision of the loving, rescuing creator God we get when we focus on him. However, the vision of new heavens and new earth, and of God's project, already begun in Jesus, to flood the whole creation with his restorative justice, does indeed generate a powerful evangelistic message: not just 'you're sinful, here's how to escape the consequences', but 'your sinful life means you're failing to be a genuine human being, contributing to God's project of justice and beauty – here's how the project got back on track, and here's how you can be part of it, both in your own life being set right and made 'something beautiful for God' and in what you do through your life, bringing justice, hope, joy and beauty to God's world as we look forward to the final day'.

Right on, right reverend! The gospel is a call. ‘Come and be transformed and get on board an awesome project – renewing and healing a tired, sick world. Come to Jesus – he’s got a job for you to do. God’s kingdom is coming – get on board!’

So, I won’t stand up on Sunday night and say ‘Now I will vouchsafe to preach the gospel unto you’. But I will preach the gospel. And it won’t be any tired message about going to heaven when you die. It’ll be the revolutionary call we find in the pages of the New Testament. Jesus shows us God. Jesus announces God’s kingdom. Jesus dies to take away our crimes so that we can be included. Jesus rises from the dead to initiate the project. Come and join in.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Lord of the things

What does the word “fellowship” bring to mind? If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, it probably has something to do with hobbits. And, if you’re a Christian, it may mean – er – having a cuppa after the service?

In fact, the Greek New Testament word which many bible versions translate, rather weakly, as “fellowship” has a lot more to it: koinonia. It’s about shared life, common unity or community; in fact, “everything in common.” (Imagine – “after tonight’s service, we’ll have an informal time of – everything in common”.)

Koinonia is displayed in all its glory in the early chapters of Acts: the first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to koinonia… all the believers were together and had everything in common.” (Acts 2:42, 44)

So what were those crazy, proto-communist, apostles teaching? Well, in fact, “all that Jesus had commanded them” (Matthew 28:20). The radical sharing in Acts is the direct result of Jesus’ teaching:
“Sell everything you have… and come follow me… Truly, no-one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and for the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields – and with them persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.” (Mark 10:21, 29-30)

When someone like Barnabas threw his money at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:36-37), personal ownership was over. But he gained “a hundred times as much”. He gained koinonia, the big spiritual family and all that it shared together (including persecutions; it’s not like the world doesn’t protest at its economy of death being so thoroughly challenged).

Jesus shared His money with His brothers (John 12:6); shouldn’t we? Jesus laid down His life for His friends (1 John 3:16-17); shouldn’t we?

Jesus taught, lived and died for koinonia. Shouldn’t we?

“This is my command: love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

In the teeth of a dilemma

Photo by nicootje of stock.xchngFrom time to time I edit our Jesus Army national news sheet, Together. People send news stories about what the Jesus Army is up to up and down the country. And just occasionally some the entries are - unintentionally - hilarious.

I thought this delightfully surreal entry deserved sharing:

One of our friends could not find her false teeth and thought they may have gone into the dustbin (which had just been emptied) by mistake. She agreed to pray about it and shortly afterwards they were found in a bag of underwear.

So there you are. Perhaps this wonderfully bizarre anecdote raises more questions than it answers, but it does at least encourage the faithful to prayer.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Clichés aside, love changes everything

Last night, some of our church leaders got together for a meal and a catch-up; a chance to talk about how we felt things were going.

As we shared, it became clear that a number of us were finding life ‘uphill’. The atmosphere steadily became rather gloomy.

Picking fish bones out of my mouth, listening to shared woes, heaviness settled upon me like dust. Oh dear; it was going to be one of those evenings.

But then one brother changed everything. Very simply, but very genuinely, he just told us all how much he loves being a part of our church and community. And he loves the way that people who come among us are touched and changed. And he loves what God does in our midst. And he loves us.

He was deliberately changing the tone, but it wasn’t forced, it wasn’t false. He simply chose to express his love.

I know this brother very well. I know, in fact, that there are some things in his life that are painful, that mean he carries a secret sadness within him. But last night he bravely and beautifully expressed his love. People melted. They remembered what it was all for. If you’ll permit me to poeticize, his words were like a sudden flute melody bursting in unexpectedly into a monotonous dirge of double basses. Or so it felt to me.

Soon after he had shared, we all prayed together. What had been a rather cheerless gathering had become a joining of hearts and a mutual strengthening. I blessed my brother from my heart.

It’s true – love changes everything. It really does.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Getting the word out

As a church, we do our best to promote the message of Jesus in a contemporary, up-to-date, relevant way. We're called the modern Jesus army for that reason. Even that sounds a bit late eighties. But what else? 'The post-modern Jesus army' sounds like an email inbox. The '21st century Jesus army' sounds like sci-fi or a latter-day crusade. And resorting to the passing phraseology of youth culture has its own dangers - I suspect 'the sick Jesus army' may give the wrong impression to anyone over 30.

So, the mJa it is.

It's always a challenge – how to take a timeless message and press home its extraordinarily timely relevance to every man, woman and child – now. To find a language and a lifestyle that will truly engage our ‘today’ world, a world so used to ‘spin’. (I noted that Barack Obama’s inauguration speech this Tuesday was criticised by the media as ‘failing to soar’ just because the new US president – commendably, in my view – refused to tub-thump, but spoke of hard things like responsibility and challenge.)

How do we steer a course between empty sloganeering and dour moralising? We want to bring both the life-changing wonder and the razor-edged challenge of Jesus and His message.

Sometimes aspects of our outreach (think fluro plastic crosses) can come in for some jibing. I recently had a brief – in the end, thankfully, friendly – exchange with another Christian blogger about this very thing in fact.

We urgently want to be able to communicate with UK youth in a culture that is adrift from its Christian heritage. It comes down to demonstrating reality. Living love. Speaking truth in ‘yoof’. But it has to be beyond cliché. It has to be obviously lived.

The residential community lifestyle that some of us practice is, I hope and pray, a demonstration of this. An alternative slap bang in the middle of UK towns and cities. Because if its not, it will just become a ‘weird religious set-up’. God deliver us.

We’re by no means the only church engaging with this challenge, to say and to be the gospel in today’s UK. Along with other Christian churches and movements, the Jesus Army recently featured in a Times Online article (see p.2 for the JA) about using graffiti to communicate the gospel. Check out the pictures (image 4,5, & 6 are the JA).

There’s red crosses, Christian graffiti, colourful buses and all that jazz. There’s Christian community – people living together and flinging the doors open to all to ‘come and see’. There’s our three Jesus Centres with their work particularly focused on the disadvantaged.

But behind it all, if we’re going to reach this generation, there has to be God. The ultimate communicator. The One whose Word became flesh, lived, breathed, stopped breathing on a Roman cross, started breathing again in a borrowed tomb, and is breathing His Spirit into His church today.

Jesus, Word of God, give us the words to make you known.