Tuesday, December 21, 2010

More on silence

I once spent a summer's day walking on my own in some quiet woods and towards the end of it, I tried to spend some time in absolute silence - stilling even my thoughts.

Photo by kovik of sxc.hu
After slowly calming my busy head for a while, I think I may have managed total silence for about ten seconds - though of course I wasn't counting.

It was surprisingly powerful. I remember, afterwards, feeling more alive than I had for ages, as though my senses were all highly tuned - and that after just a few seconds. Some friends laugh at me or say I'm 'going Buddhist', but it was quite something, and I'll never forget it.

I know that Christian or biblical meditation is about fixing your mind on good things (rather than emptying it) but I think there's a place for a 'noise purge' every now and then.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

New ears resolution

I like New Year. A time to turn a fresh page and, yes, even make resolutions. The way I see it, even if a resolution does fizzle out after a few weeks, at least it probably brought something positive into your life that few weeks.

In our community, we're seeking to listen to God about next year.

We listen to God by pondering and listening in our own times of private prayer; also through the spiritual gifts we experience in our gatherings. There are simple prophetic words or glimpses of wisdom which can take the forms of symbolic pictures in someone's mind, the meaning of which they or someoen else will interpret. Most years, we have a special time near the turn of the year when we meet together to 'listen' like this, discerning our way forward.

I'm sensing God say 'Make space', so we've started thinking of practical ways we can up our levels of contemplation and 'being' amidst our busyness and 'doing'. Not just physical decluttering (though that's part of it) but introducing a bit more 'stop' amidst all the 'go' in life. I think this will be important next year - not just for me, but for the whole community I live with as well.

Another member has been speaking of the phrase 'steps onward, steps inward' and we've found inspiration through this to pray for members and friends who've lost ground in 2010 to regain it.

Our hope is that as we listen together, we will discern what God is saying to us, amid all that he is always saying to his whole church and the world. It's heartening how very often we do find a real thread running through. 'We have the mind of Christ' - together.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Eff and blind - a postscript

Following my sustained meditation on four letter words, I saw a book in a bookshop. I felt I just had to mention it here:

According to the author, saying the blunt little mantra that adorns the cover (minus the polite asterisks) 'is like massage for the mind – relaxing you, releasing tension, giving up on things that aren't working... it is the perfect western expression of the eastern ideas of letting go, giving up and finding real freedom by realising that things don't matter so much (if at all).'

I'm not recommending it; a quick flick gave me the impression it's mostly quasi-spiritual, self-help guff.

But it made me smile - especially after what I'd written.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Eff and blind but now I see

I swear it’s come up a lot recently. Swearing that is.

I’m not talking about “by my troth” style swearing, just to be clear. The other night, as I was reading to my two eldest children, my seven-year-old daughter was troubled when one of the heroes in the Chronicles of Narnia “swore by the Lion”. After all, isn’t swearing what only naughty children do?

Or Naughtie radio presenters. For the next day saw the ill-fated morn of James Naughtie’s BBC radio gaffe in which a spoonerised “Jeremy Hunt the Culture Secretary” meant Naughtie introduced said politician in less auspicious terms.

A brief explanation to my daughter cleared up the Narnian misunderstanding over the difference between rude words and strong promises. But her question started me thinking about words, and the difference between “good” and “bad” words generally.

Then the BBC incident. Then, later that day, a frustrated outburst of some colourful language from a good friend (who, because I want him to remain a good friend, shall remain nameless). It did him good really. And later still that selfsame day, an odd episode in which I quoted, with schoolboy glee, the King James’ rendition of Isaiah 36:12 to my boss (and immediately felt rather foolish).

Put them all together: they all got me thinking about swearing.

The BBC was inundated with emails following the Naughtie word; some saw the funny side, but as many were seriously upset, not least over those (including Naughtie himself) who had clearly found it funny. Words have power; especially, it would seem, swearwords.

The word which Naughtie inadvertently uttered live on radio is widely considered one of the very worst words in the English language. But it was not always so. Enter Chaucer, pillar of English literature. “Prively he caughte her by the queynte” he writes jollily of the secret amorous act of one young character in The Canterbury Tales. (Does it take an expert in Middle English to see the last word in the quotation is the direct forebear of the one so untowardly mentioned on the radio?)

Certainly words change their meanings and their impact over time, including in some cases “going bad”. One YouTube commentator felt the shock over Naughtie’s slip was nothing more than silly Victorian prudishness about “words related to bodily functions like sex and going to the toilet”.

If that’s all there is to it, I thought, then why not throw off these Victorian vestiges and reclaim the wonderful power of all those four letter words? After all, we all know there are certain times – of rage or of outrage – when only those words quite seem to cut the mustard. What’s more, as someone who spends much of my working life searching for the right words, indeed the most powerful and arresting words, should I not joyfully reclaim them? Lace my next Sunday sermon with a few effs? Pepper a tweet with some blinds?

Perhaps not. I recall the Apostle’s stern words. Christians are to rid themselves of “filthy language from their lips” (and presumably their pens, not to mention tweets).

But what exactly did Paul mean? After all, what was “filthy” for BBC listeners this week didn’t seem to worry Chaucer overmuch. What was the “filthy language” outlawed by Paul?

Surely it’s not simply about putting words in two lists, “clean” and “dirty”, “good” and “bad”? This seems arbitrary at best. One man’s swearword is another man’s poetry. No, surely the important thing is that our language speaks – beyond the words we choose – of something worth saying. As Paul wrote elsewhere, “Let your speech always be seasoned with salt”. It’s the flavour of the message our words bring that is important.

Could it be that sometimes even those verbal villains, swearwords, have their place?

I once heard that Tony Campolo, that consummate Christian communicator, when facing a large crowd at some evangelical conference or other, had opened with the question, “What the f--- is going on?”

Shocked silence. Campolo went on to describe the plight of South American street children before rounding on his audience and saying, “And look at you lot! You’re more concerned that I, a preacher, used a four-letter word then you are about this awful injustice.”

Point made, and I think made very well. Three cheers for the eff-word. Camplo’s message was, in fact, well-seasoned. But I wonder how many lesser mortals, hearing that story, have copied his shock tactics only to end up conveying little more than a smutty or upsetting cheap stunt?

The key, it seems to me, is the heart and spirit behind the words. It may, just very occasionally be absolutely right, like Campolo did, to use a “bad word” to drive home a good point or express something with sufficient strength. I’ve even heard it suggested that the Apostle Paul did something similar in the Bible, though his strong language there is usually made more polite in translation.

But such calculated strong language remains the exception that proves the rule. The fruit of the Spirit is self-control in this area as in any other. Christians should reflect the Life within them. This seems to be Paul’s main concern. Loose, crude, or derogatory speech can’t achieve this.

I find it easy to forgive poor Jim Naughtie his spoonerism and even his desperate attempts to stifle the giggles that followed all through the 8 o’clock news headlines. But as for those of us who hope to speak for Christ – we should remember the trenchant words of another Apostle: “If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God.”

That’s quite a responsibility. No short cuts. No cheap stunts. And no eff-words – unless I’m absolutely sure.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Little blog about silence

Photo by bewinca of sxc.huThings come round again. Like silence. Along with stillness and solitude, silence is a vital ingredient of life in Christian community. (I’d say it’s a vital ingredient to healthy human living of any kind, but that’s quite a claim, so I’ll leave it in parenthesis.)

And silence has been coming up again recently. I keep bumping into it. Is it the influence of The Big Silence, recently screened by the beeb? One of our senior leaders shared about silence at a recent staff meeting; another leader blogged about silence; a young leader told me the other day how his church household spent almost an entire Agape meal in deliberate silence (and some found it transformational).

“When we enter into periods of silence, we start to see things with greater clarity.”

The words of Christopher Jamison, Abbot of Worth Abbey, the monastery featured in The Great Silence. “We come to know ourselves, and come in touch with that deepest part of ourselves. That is our soul.”

Not that it’s all about a mystical version of an hour on the therapist’s couch. “The reality [of silence] is very different,” says Jamison. “We bump into our deepest selves.”

Our community, New Creation Christian Community, is one more marked for its activism than its contemplation, closely tied as it is to the work of the Jesus Army and the Jesus Centres. Our challenge, frankly as much as for the frantic secular society that surrounds us, is to find, make and protect silence and stillness within all that we do and say.

That said, people still say, when they come to our community houses, “Isn’t it peaceful?” (Sometimes the harassed members look at them gone out when they say it – but say it they do.)

I wrote a prayer a couple of years ago and still pray it now:

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.

I believe there are things to explore and dig into here. I believe this could be part of our journey into the future as a community.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Coventry Jesus Centre - a week in the life (part 2)

Check out this homespun and for real account of the place that means so much to me (part 2) -

Coventry Jesus Centre - a week in the life (part 1)

Check out this homespun and 'for real' account of the place that means so much to me (part 1) -

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

EDP in pictures

As promised, some photos from last week's London adventure.

Jesus Army laughterOn the bus: chatting to Andrew (who God told us we'd meet)

Jesus Army street talkSam talks to Joe and Viktoria. He was into Norse religion (probably because she was Scandanavian!)

Jesus Army in tent cityThese guys camped out to see the Harry Potter premier. I asked this bloke if he was a wizard (he sported a fine wizardly beard). He said he wasn't which was mildly disappointing.

Jesus Army busChurch on wheels: the Jesus Army bus

Jesus Army singersWell, I hear them singing in the streets...

Jesus Army gospellingEarnest conversation. It's a matter of (eternal) life and death.

Jesus Army StreetpapersBethan, giving out Jesus Army Streetpapers (and looking rather pentecostal as she does).

Jesus Army funNot that it was all wet, windy streets. The team unwound by, er, pretending to be goats.

Jesus Army friend
This young Latvian man committed his life to Jesus on Friday night. Which is what it's all about really...

(For more of my pictures of this Jesus Army campaign, click here.)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Eat, drink and pray

I forgot my thermal long johns.

Wouldn’t normally be a problem, but last week I was on the streets of London until the wee small hours, for three nights. November nights are cold and I’d intended to wear that extra layer of insulation. As it was I had to resort to stamping and jogging on the spot from time to time.

Each month, for a three-night stint, a team of about a dozen Jesus Army soldiers take one of the church’s double-decker coaches and stay out late in London’s West End, serving food and drink, talking to people about the gospel, and praying with those who would like us to. We call it EDP - 'eat, drink and pray'.

Jesus Army in action

Arriving on the Wednesday night at about 9 o’clock, a couple of young brothers and I decided to grab the atmosphere with a few songs. One played the guitar, one the bongos; I just gave it full throatle. After we’d sang for a bit (old gospel medleys mainly – ‘I’ve got joy’, ‘I’ve found a new life’) I turned round and saw a grinning face.

One chat later, I knew the person behind the face was that of Peteris from Latvia. He’d come to England a couple of year’s earlier and worked in Milton Keynes for a time. But Peteris’s luck had ran out when he had a forklift accident and lost his job. He’d drifted, ending up on London’s streets only a couple of weeks before I met him. He was grateful for the hot drink and appreciated the friendly company. He also told me how, back in Latvia, he’d been to a Christian meeting and been struck by the warmth and genuineness he’d found there.

The night rolled on. Many chats, many hot drinks. But Peteris stayed on my mind – and sure enough, the next night he was back. We talked again and he introduced me to his friend Georgs, also Latvian; they’d met on the streets.

The last night was an exciting night for the team, as several ‘words of knowledge’ (things people had sensed beforehand would come true that night) had come to fruition. ‘Someone’s gonna meet someone with the same name as team members’ – check, that was Andrew (we had two Andrews on the team). ‘Someone’s gonna be drawn to a draw-er’ – check, Bethan found herself very moved by the story of an old homeless man, only finding out later that he drew pencil drawings (he drew one of her). ‘Portcullis House’ – check, we went there and had a significant encounter with an ex-gangster who knew his need of Jesus (the person who gave us this word didn’t know there was a Portcullis House in London, and certainly didn’t know it was the main office block for the Houses of Parliament!) And so on. It does add a sense of working with God.

Peteris came back that night and we talked more deeply about what it meant to follow Jesus and be a Christian. He drank it all in. ‘Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith?’ (James 2:5)

I was able to pray with him and help him pray his own prayer of commitment.

Frankly, there’s nothing better than that. I would go so far as to say that not even the birth of my own children quite compares with the joy of leading someone to new birth as they believe in Christ.

I put Peteris and his friend Georgs in touch with my friend from the Jesus Army in London. They stayed with them the next night and by all accounts are getting on well.

Being on the front line; serving many; sharing the gospel; I loved it.

Even without my long johns.

(Some names are changed. I'll put up some photos of the EDP tomorrow.)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A parable from real life

Photo by liensal of sxc.huLast week, a young community-brother and I repaved the patio at the back of our house. (Those who know me may exclaim ‘What! James shovelling sand and mixing mortar? James lifting heavy slabs? James soiling his manicured writer’s hands?’ But it’s true. We even have photos to prove it.)

I was the labourer, my young brother the skilled tradesman. In the course of our work, I had to shovel several barrow loads of hardcore gravel into the wheelbarrow and round the side of the house to the worksite. At one point, my five-year-old son, desperate to be a ‘builder’, arrived at my side to help. He brought his plastic toy spade. And he started to shovel.

For each large shovel-load of hardcore I piled into that wheelbarrow, he contributed a few grains. He was proud of his achievement; and I was really happy to have him working at my side – because he’s my son and I love him.

Later, thinking about this, it dawned on me how very much this is like God and us. We may talk grandiloquently about ‘building the church’ or our ‘ministry’, but do we really think we’re helping God? In one sense, we’re not ‘helping’ him in the slightest. He is building his church. Our contribution is like a few gravel grains in a plastic spade next to his almighty shovel.

And yet... I believe God is happy to have us working at his side. We’re his children, you see, and he loves us. We really can help him. The work certainly doesn’t depend on our contribution (thank God), however much we may feel it does. Stressed-out strivers (like me) do well to remember it.

Yet God loves to call us his fellow-labourers. He loves to have us by his side, in the heat of the day, doing our bit. He loves us to feel satisfied with our achievements. In fact – he just loves us.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Let's talk about sex

Photo by youngpit of sxc.hu
Last Sunday morning’s talk was on sex. Andy, the speaker that morning, certainly had everyone’s attention. (How can my next Sunday’s sermon – on the epistle to the Romans – possibly compete?)

Of course, speak about sex and attention is pretty much guaranteed. The advertisers are onto that one: Andy himself mentioned the fact that on the road between his house and the church we were sitting in listening to him, there were at least two billboards using sex to market their products.

Another reason Andy held our attention that morning was, quite frankly, that he’s a marvellous speaker: clear, engaging, an apt analogy or memorable story to illustrate every point.

He didn’t pull his punches, either, as he took us on a trenchant tour of the New Testament’s teaching on sex and sexual purity. “Log fires are nice,” he said. “But light one in the middle of the lounge and you’re in trouble. Sex has its proper place too; it’s called marriage.”

“Keeping 'two chevrons apart' avoids crashes on the motorway,” he pointed out, “which is a good rule for male-female friendships in the church too.”

But there was another, much more unusual reason why Andy’s talk carried such impact, I believe, and it was this: Andy is celibate.

I don’t mean just ‘not-yet-married’; Andy, along with a couple of hundred others in the Jesus Army has made a lifelong commitment to remain unmarried in order to be freer to serve Jesus and love people. Do the adding-up. Yep: that means no sex at all for Andy – ever. For life.

This, curiously, gave him much more moral authority with which to say, to a hall full of people, that they ought to be sexually self-controlled. Think about it. If he’d been sitting there with his “lovely wife” on the platform (the kind that many American evangelical pastors seem to have beside them in the photograph on the back cover of their umpteen books), one might have been tempted to say, “Easy for you to stand there talking about self-control; what about those of us who aren’t cosily married like you?”

It occurred to me that very pillars of the New Testament that Andy was quoting were celibate, too. Jesus. Paul.

Not, of course, that married people can’t or shouldn’t address the topic. The New Testament gives us married Peter’s teaching about sexual conduct, too. Nor is celibacy a guarantee of purity, as the recent tragic revelations regarding Catholic priests have shown all-too-graphically.

Yet Andy, like many others I know (and like many, many thousands of Catholic priests and religious, by the way) is a sign of hope. He is a celibate for the right reasons: he loves people; he loves Jesus.

And his celibacy means he brings a moral and prophetic clarity to the sexual conversation.

We need it. Because all of us – married, single, celibate, engaged, attached, attracted, alone – are called to the same high vocation: to honour God with our bodies.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Spring in Autumn

Photo by lusi of sxc.huThere are seasons in community. I'm learning to roll with them and not worry too much if they don't fit my preferences.

I'd really like us to grow in numbers (apart from anything doesn't it look good when the stats are passed round at leaders meetings?); cue a season of quiet. I'd like us to experience peace; cue a season of clashes and 'relationship reality'. I'd like us to go deeper together; cue a season of intensive outreach and activity.

I'm not always wrong. Just most of the time. It's His fault really. The wind blows where it will. I suppose 'going with God's seasons' is another way of expressing what Paul called 'keeping in step with the Spirit' - letting His rhythms become our rhythms.

Anyway, where was I? Yes - the seasons.

So, on Thursday nights we throw open our community house doors and invite people for dinner. We call it a friendship meal. If you're anywhere near Coventry on any Thursday night, consider yourself invited.

It had been quite quiet for a while; on some nights only those of us who actually live in the house. But recently, we've been experiencing a bit of a Thursday night renaissance: lots of different people coming, lively friendships being formed, new people. It came just as my longing for new people had almost settled into acceptance that it was a season of 'consolidation' (the word we use when nothing seems to be happening). I was a little out of step with the season, that's all.

And right now it's great to have new people around. Too long without that and a community becomes stagnant and turns its energy in on itself.

So for the past few weeks we've had a houseful on Thursday nights. Last week it included a trainee vicar and a missionary family (and some skaters). Last night a young family that we're coming to love more and more were round (oh, and the skaters again - for about five minutes. Where did they go?)

Last night was particularly special because it was the birthday of one of our much-loved brothers - so we revelled in making sure he was well celebrated, sung to, bigged up, clapped. And we enjoyed sharing his cake - as well as plenty of life, faith, love & laughter.

I love friendship. It is, in essence, the heart of our faith. The cross speaks of friendship restored - vertically (God reaches down in atonement) and horizontally (we're reconciled to each other). Whatever the season, friendship will be somewhere in the mix.

But I'm glad that right now its bubbling to the surface. God is moving; new people are coming.

It's like Spring in Autumn.

Thank God.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Our people

Coventry Jesus Centre is our local church centre, which includes a drop-in lounge used mainly by homeless and disadvantaged people. Piers, the manager of the centre (also my dear friend, mentor, spiritual dad, and sometime rescuer), blogged this account of his fellow manager at the Jesus Centre, who described her recent journey from the Jesus Centre to the bus station.

"Down Lamb Street to post a letter. Outside the Sorting Office was NW - just been beaten up - asked for some money - gave him a little. Saw AS walking down. Walked down Bishop Street and along Corporation Street towards bus station. Saw DM and AM on bench by Transport Museum - waved. Saw NM on bench by bus stop - head bowed so didn't see me. Went into the bus station. Saw LE and AF being talked to by two policemen - nodded as went by. Went to bus stop. Saw SK sitting at table - a bit more sober than when previously seen after going on a bender from the dry house he had been in. Looking very battered. Encouraged him to make another appointment to go on the Bond Scheme. Asked for some money - gave him a little. Bus arrived and two guys we know (can't remember who it was) got off bus as I was waiting to get on - waved."

I found it a moving snapshot, illustrating life as a church of the poor. "We meet a lot of street folk," says Piers. "I can't walk through town without meeting some. They're our people in this big village; it's great."

(To read more of Piers' Jesus Centre blog, check out http://pierscjc.blogspot.com/)

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Don't touch

Drama at the Jesus Army's London Day
The point of the drama, performed at our recent big bash on Trafalgar Square, was very simple. If there's a "Don't Touch" sign what's the one thing you want to do? Yep: touch.

In the drama (which used to be performed by my mate Loz and I, till we got so old we were retired off), clown A gets stuck to the chair when he touches it. Efforts to free himself just get him more stuck. Clown B comes to help him, but gets thoroughly stuck too. Clown C suggests they pray, which they do and are miraculously freed.

Simple enough, but it tells an all-too-familiar tale. How often have I got mired in stuff that is against my own rules let alone anyone else's - or God's?

Sin is sticky, whatever the brand. Gossip (usually disguised as concern) - yep, sticks to me too easily. Lustful 'skating on thin eyes' (on the internet or in real life) - yeah, impurity superglue. Manipulation or manouvering for popularity. Stick. Harbouring grudges. Stick. Anger and hurtful words. Stick.

I'm not trying to be gloomy. But sin gums me up if I touch it. And sometimes even trying to help others gets me in trouble. Self-pity. Stick. Superiority. Stick. Callous indifference. Stick.

Thank God for the truth the drama ends with. There's a way out of the glue-trap.

As one famous and very ancient cry for help puts it:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Friday, September 03, 2010

A bang in a teacup

Picture by dimitri_c of sxc.huSo physicist Stephen Hawking has blown up a media storm by claiming God cannot possibly be the Big Banger.

The Guardian ran a poll on whether or not you agree with his conclusions. But I was struck by the annoying secularist bias in the way the questions are phrased. Here was the choice:

'Yes. I believe in gravity, not divinity' (i.e. the two are incompatible and to believe in God I have to be a self-confessed ignoramus).

'No. God: Hawking 'not necessary' (i.e. believing in God means I'm not only an ignoramus but also quite prepared to dish out rudeness for my religion).

So, if I may, let me phrase my own answer:

'No, Hawking is wrong despite his enormous scientific intellect. The more wonders he explains the more I'm filled with wonder - and faith.'

Or as I tweeted it somewhat more facetiously late last night:

Science is hawking another explanation for everything today. The laws wrote themselves. Good night.

Monday, August 23, 2010

'Big Society'

Is the 'Big Society' David Cameron's biggest and best idea?

In a recent report, the manager of our Coventry Jesus Centre says, "Big Society means more involvement of charities, community groups and social enterprise in tackling social needs. We are doing that, so watch this space."

He then goes on to detail how Coventry City Council have donated a garage to us to store furniture for homeless people we are helping to house, and given us money for a van.

Is a new day of cooperation on behalf of the poor dawning? If it is, and if the Big Society is more than just a soundbite, then I will do what I never thought I'd do: declare a loud hallelujah for Cameron and his coalition.

We shall indeed watch this space.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Dishes and paradoxes

Photo by konr4d of sxc.huI heard a rumour the other day. Dangerous things rumours, particularly when - like this one - they're about yourself. But hey - I heard it and had to respond.

This time I heard someone had expressed the view that I don't set a good example when it comes to practical serving - like washing the dishes. After the initial fleshly reactions (why does my flesh always move faster than my spirit?) of hurt feeling and wounded pride, I realized two things.

First, it was a fair cop. I'm not to be found at the sink nearly as much as many others I live with in community. Secondly, there are reasons why that is the case and they're not all bad. (I promise this is not simply going to be an extended self-justification - I've got my pouting over now and I stand by point one, it was a fair cop and I resolved to be humble and get to that sink more.)

Yet, fairly often, I'm not at the sink because other responsibilities prevent me from getting there - anything from putting children to bed to preparing a meeting.

As I thought about this I found my mind ping-ponging between the fencing foils of a paradox. Thrust: you need to do the washing up more! Parry: no-one else can put my children to bed! Thrust: a leader must set an example! Parry: a leader cannot live for what others think! Thrust: imagine if everyone came up with their excuses and left the dishes to rot! Parry: the Body of Christ means we all have our different contributions... And so on and on.

Paradox is defined by Dictionary.com as something "that seems self-contradictory but in reality expresses a possible truth".

The Christian life is full of paradox. Perhaps this isn't surprising when you consider some of the Church's essential beliefs. (Is Jesus God or man? Er... yup. Is salvation predestined or freely chosen? Er... yup again. And so on.)

But - as the washing up rumour has already given away - right now I'm thinking not so much of those lofty theological paradoxes which have kept the sharpest minds of the Church whirring for centuries. I'm thinking of some of the more down-to-earth, daily seeming contradictions we have to negotiate as we live as Christians - and, in particular as Christian leaders.

For example - I've been learning over the past few months, sometimes painfully, that it doesn't do to be too concerned about what people think of you. People-pleasing is a particular danger to those involved in pastoral work whose daily work does, in one sense, revolve around being sensitive to how others are doing and feeling, and working hard to care for them. But it can all become tyrannical if I start to live with what people of think as my only guiding star. So I've been learning not to care too much about what others think.

But immediately danger looms. It's only a few short steps from thin-skinned over-sensitivity ('Oh help, I think I've upset you') to bloody-minded insensitivity ('Don't give a monkeys how I make you feel'). Somehow, I have to live the paradox: care about the effect I have on others - but not too much.

Live for the 'audience of One', as someone once put it - while acknowledging that that One is watching carefully how much I love and serve others.

It can feel like like walking a tightrope. As a good friend of mine often puts it, much of life comes down to a fine balance.

Here's another paradox, somewhat related to the first. For a leader it is particularly important to follow the apostle Paul's instruction "not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think". Too much of the "I'm the leader" mentality is a highway straight to pride.

But what about the opposite? "I'm just the same as everyone else and what I do doesn't matter; no need to set any example, no need to embody anything which anyone may find it useful to imitate." Well, clearly, that would be pretty rubbish leadership.

So: I'm just the same as anybody else - but people see me as a leader and rightly so: my example matters. Paradox.

Christian leaders: tender-hearted and thick-skinned; humble and confident; easily entreated and not easily swayed. Like Jesus, full of grace - and truth.

So this is what I've resolved: I'm not going to let everyone tell me to wash the dishes! And I will humbly let anyone tell me to wash the dishes.

I've got to live in the paradox.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"The center of the world"

Photo by talajbeg of sxc.huOne of the celibates I live with in our community has long found Henri Nouwen's writings illuminating. She lent me 'The Genesee Diary' recently, Nouwen's account of seven months he lived 'as a monk' in the Abbey of Genesee in upstate New York. Along with 'The Wounded Healer' (see my last post), I've been finding this book pretty nourishing.

Here's a taste. Nouwen's starting point for thought is a statement by John Eudes, the abbot - 'The monastery is the center of the world':

The monastery is not just a place to keep the world out but a place where God can dwell. The [worship], the silence, the rhythm of the day, the week, and the year, and the whole monastic life-style with the harmony of prayer, spiritual reading, and manual labor, are meant to create space for God. The ideal of the monk is to live in the presence of God, to pray, read, work, eat, and sleep in the company of his divine Lord...
...In so far as the monastery is the place where the presence of God in the world is most explicitly manifiest and brought to consciousness, it is indeed the center of the world. This can be said in humility and purity of heart because the monk, more than anyone else, realizes that God only dwells where man steps back to give him room.

I found these words arresting. The place of God's presence is the center, not the periphery; prayer is engagement, not disassociation; Christian community is at the heart of the human community, even while it is different, even set apart, from it.

You may have heard the quip, "Christians are called to be 'in the world but not of the world', but are far better at being 'of the world and not in the world'!" Yet when a Christian community is truly a place of prayer, of faith, of brotherhood, and of worship - when God is really present there - then, precisely because it is different, it is acutely and vitally relevant and central to the surrounding world.

There is a danger in talk of monasteries and so on (particularly for an Anglo-Saxon-Protestantish type like me): 'monastery' can be a romantic notion, attractive in its 'otherness', rather than a lived-out reality. But when Nouwen writes of 'the monastery' he is not referring to the Tolkeinesque (elegant arches, grey habits, or haunting plainsong); he is referring to God, the reality of God living among people as they share all things and worship with their whole life.

And this is - and must be - precisely what any Christian community pursues, not least one like mine where we brothers and sisters live together and share all things in common, and eat, work and live together day by day.

Photo by toki of sxc.huFor the meeting place with God is the Body of Christ, not some building (however beautiful) or some place of nature's majesty (however evocative). As Jesus put it, we worship neither in a temple or on a mountain, but in spirit and truth.

It's made real in the rhythm of Christian community: meals, prayers, conversations, silences, meetings, songs, boisterous times, quiet times... messy tables, rumpled furniture, upturned mugs on draining boards (and dried up mugs on the rack!)

Oh God - let us be a community in which You can dwell in all that we are: Your gathered people, Your dwelling place!

The center of the world.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Wounded healer

Over the past few weeks I've been engaged in a humbling and painful dance with what some would call burn-out, others may call break-down. (Or maybe God just sent a worm to eat the plant I was sheltering under.)

I say a dance, but it's not very elegant; more like a drunken stagger. But - very, very strangely - there's a beauty in it, too. How to explain...

Maybe this would help. Recently a friend sent me a description of a vision he'd had while he was praying. He saw, he said

A man holding up a spear asked God, standing next to him where he should aim. He wanted to make the maximum impact on the world around him. God took the spear out of his hands and pierced the man's own hands with it. Wounded hands aren't able to slap faces, or even hold much. Wounded hands are tender. With pierced hands the man was much more able to show compassion.

This followed something quiet, but moving, that had happened to me a couple of days earlier. Arriving at my brother- and sister-in law's house (another Jesus Army community house) for dinner, I unexpectedly 'heard God' as I climbed the steps to their front door. (One of those 'thoughts I didn't think' you come to recognize as a Christian).

I'm making you a wounded healer.

'Strange' I thought, 'Isn't there a book called that..?' - and that was all I thought, at the time. But later that night I glanced at my brother-in-law's bookshelf (in a room I rarely visit) and there was the book - The Wounded Healer (by Henri Nouwen). So I'm now reading it - and finding it's the kind of book that reads me as much as I read it.

God moves in mysterious ways, as the old hymn puts it. Somewhere, even in painful and seemingly meaningless times, He is working out something of beauty in our lives.

I once heard this described as a wondrous tapestry: just a tangled mess of threads from one side - but when turned round, when finally revealed in its full glory - perfectly beautiful.

The Cross is the ultimate example of this. 'Why have you forsaken me?' cried the bloodied wretched mess of a man nailed to it. And I think he cried it in genuine, agonized despair. But there was a wonderful 'why'. For the joy set before Christ. A Father obeyed. A bride won. A world saved.

I'm not always quite so serene about it. I've had my own very small brushes with the despair of the word 'why' thrown at a brass heaven. Yet, behind it all there is hope. He is hope.

He's making me a wounded healer - and a little more like the Wounded Healer himself.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Viruses, viral, and va va voom

On August 5, 6 & 7, the Jesus Army are hosting their annual youth event, RAW (Real & Wild), at Cofton Park, Birmingham.

As part of promoting the event and motivating all Jesus Army youth types to invite all their mates, we've started releasing a series of home-spun promo videos. Have a look at some of them here.

We've been calling them RAW virals, 'viral' being one of those neologisms that the web has spawned in recent years. Wikipedia defines viral marketing like this:

marketing techniques that use pre-existing social networks to produce increases in brand awareness or to achieve other marketing objectives (such as product sales) through self-replicating viral processes, analogous to the spread of pathological and computer viruses. It can be word-of-mouth delivered or enhanced by the network effects of the Internet. Viral promotions may take the form of video clips, interactive Flash games, advergames, ebooks, brandable software, images, or even text messages.

Well, thanks Wiki. And there was me thinking viruses were nasty semi-living thingums that give you colds - or worse. (Having had a spate of people in our Christian community going down with a nasty chest virus, I find it hard to feel positive about anything viral.)

But, putting it simply, something is viral if it spreads. So we want these little vids to spread about from friend to friend - because we want as many people to get together at RAW as possible.

Because RAW's going to be a powerful event. It's about Jesus. It is, as the name suggests, a raw call to radical Jesus following.

So spread it. Get all your mates and get there.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Everything I do... makes me laugh out loud

Saw this on a friend's Facebook wall and it made me chuckle.

A couple asked for their wedding cake to be inscribed with 1 John 4:18 which reads: 'There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.' Unfortunately the bakery misread the instruction, and presented a cake with the words from John 4:18: 'For you have had five husbands, and the man you have now is not your husband.'

Wonder if it's true? It reminds me of a couple in the 90s, at the time of the Kevin Costner Robin Hood film (with its famous Bryan Adams theme song, 'Everything I do I do it for you'). They asked for 'the Robin Hood theme' to be played as the bride walked down the aisle.

The bride approached, the church hushed - and suddenly the gaudy sounds of 'Robin Hood, Robin Hood riding through the glen' blared out.

Does it say something very damning about my personality that I find that so very, very funny?

Friday, April 30, 2010

Guilt? Leave it out!

Someone said to me recently, 'Isn't religion just driven by guilt?'

It got me thinking (not for the first time) about the whole topic of guilt - and in particular how, as Christians, we communicate our faith.

I think evangelicals generally are far too inclined to use guilt as the starting point for their message. (I call this the 'bad news first, good news good' approach.) It's driven by the central place evangelical theology gives to penal substitution ('Jesus died to take the punishment for our sins'). For many evangelicals this simply is the gospel.

It's not that there isn't truth here; but it's not the whole picture. A lot more happened at the cross. Jesus overcame violence with love. God demonstrated His enormous will to forgive. Satanic and systemic evil was unmasked, exhausted and undone. The great story of God and His people came to its climax and turning point. (And don't forget the resurrection!)

But there's another thing about guilt - the distinction between guilt as an article of theology (i.e. 'we all stand guilty before a holy God') and guilt as a feeling.

Which brings us to what is perhaps the biggest problem with the old school evangelical 'guilt first' approach: our society just simply doesn't feel guilty anymore. (Possibly because of the retreat of religion in public consciousness - how's that for chicken and egg?) Some evangelicals just shout louder about guilt - witness the hysteria-tinged outcries from the Christian right recently.

But I think there's a better way. Start with a call to belong. Emphasise church as friends, as brotherhood and shared lives. Make it open to all. Proclaim God's crazy grace. And live it out, joyfully, unpredictably: no prejudice, church for all. Guilt? - Leave it out!

As people come and belong, they will discover, bit by bit, the wildly loving God who is behind it all (and through and within and over and under it all). In time - and I say it with care - the right kind of guilt will come: the desire to be deeply reconciled with God, to know Him, to live clean.

That's when baptism comes into its own. A bath and a door into the family - all in one.

'Twill be grace that teaches our hearts to fear, and grace our fears relieves.

But let's not start with a browbeating. People find it hard enough to believe in a man raised from death who also happens to be God without us having to place in their way something even more difficult to believe: their own guilt.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

No racism please, we're British

Some old friends who live in Leeds put up a notice by their front door letterbox. This is what it said:

Please put racist leaflets straight in the green bin. We welcome refugees. Put God’s world before the ‘rights’ of the British. If you’d like to discuss it, please knock on the side door. Thanks. The Marlows.

I thought this was so excellent I wanted to pass it on.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Body builders

When Paul wrote to the Corinthians he called them something awesome: “You are the body of Christ”. This group of not-very-perfect people in big, bad Corinth expressed Christ all on their own – fully.

But maybe you want to correct Paul: “Hang on there, Mr Apostle: they are part of the body of Christ – don’t forget those Christians up in Thessalonica or over the bay in Ephesus? Not to mention further afield?”

Most Christians know “the body of Christ” means the church – but they get twitchy about any one church being “the body of Christ”. “Part of the body” of the body seems more correct, not so OTT – safer.

Yet the body of Christ is most powerfully real where people are joined together in day-to-day life. “I’m a part of the whole body of Christ across the world” may be true enough (and wonderful in its way), but if you don’t actually belong to specific people it’s dangerously airy-fairy.

The more you belong to the brothers and sisters you’re actually with, the more you belong to the body of Christ. The whole body was at Corinth. The whole body was at Thessalonica. And Ephesus. The whole body is a reality in any church where there is lasting commitment to God and to each other. God has not scattered limbs and organs across the world. Whenever even two or three gather – commit to each other, lay down their lives – Christ is there [Matt.18:20].
Then – and only then – a big bogeyman is given the death sentence: independence .

Independence – so prized by the world’s spirit! – is the big enemy of “body of Christ” reality.
And independence often wears a devout mask: “I’ll go where the Lord calls me!” (Translated: “I’ll go where I like and never limit my options.”) In the New Testament, people weren’t “called” – if by “called” you mean getting a personal “phone call from God”. Even Paul, who certainly was “called to be an apostle”, only set off apostling when God spoke to his church, in Antioch [Acts 13:1-3].

Relationships in this kind of body go very deep. “We are members of one another”; “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice” [Rom.12:5, 1Cor.12:26]

But we won’t get it on the cheap. How about total loyalty to the body you belong to? Never leave unless you’re commissioned and sent.

Be the body of Christ: deal the death-blow to your independence.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Inspiration and perspiration

From time to time I get sent reports about Jesus Army evangelism efforts from round the nation. (I edit our magazine – helps to keep my ear to the ground.) Recently I was sent one that was a little different to the norm:

Six people went to evangelise in the city centre. It was cold and clashed with a youth event elsewhere, hence the small team. Generally a pants evening. Bless you.

I loved this report enough to reproduce it here. Not only does the grim “bless you” at the end make me smile, but this is a disarmingly honest report. Because the fact is that for all our characteristically Jesus Army gung-ho positivity, sometimes the work of building the church can be cold, hard slog.

Photo by nazreth of sxu.huTake another, different, example: we’ve just held our annual Easter weekend “Alive Festival”. After it was over someone asked me how I got on. I thought for a moment and then replied, “80% perspiration, 20% inspiration.”

It wasn’t that it wasn’t an excellent time; it was – inspiring talks from some of the Jesus Army’s main leaders; powerful encounters in times of prayer; energetic singing and worship. But I found it hard work, too (as did my good lady wife). Small children to manage; food to be transported, dished out, cleared up; muddy buggy wheels, shoes, toddlers; driving, driving, more driving... There were times when aching limbs and numbed brains congealed into cold questions like “Is it really worth the effort?”

And of course, the answer is yes. It is well worth the effort. But it is also – effort.

At the end of what is possibly the greatest theological work ever penned, Paul wrote these apparently rather mundane words:

Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you... Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ... Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord... Timothy, my fellow worker, greets you... (from Romans 16)

Can you spot the theme?

It’s hard work being and building the church.

But it’s worth every drop of sweat.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Tough love, but love all the same

Just wrote a bible study on 'Paul's tough love' - chapter five in Paul's letter of love to the Corinthians...

For those who like a bit of Bible, here it is...

1Corinthians is Paul’s letter of love and the epistle reaches its climactic point in Paul’s poetic depiction of love [ch.13]. However, though love is 'patient and kind' [13:4], it is not soft and wishy-washy. In fact, love 'does not delight in evil' [13:6] – as Paul demonstrates in his firm opposition to immorality in this chapter. He is appalled by the Corinthians’ easy acceptance of a man taking his stepmother as a sexual partner [v.1, see Deut.27:20]. He commands the Corinthians to exclude this man from church fellowship before sin spreads to corrupt the church further [v.2-8,11].

Yet we ought to note certain things about this ‘tough love’. First, it has as its aim the restoration of the sinning brother; it is not just punishment for its own sake [v.5, see 2Cor.2:7]. Second, such judgements are within the church to preserve her purity; Christians shouldn’t be judgemental or standoffish to those outside the church [v.9-10]. Thirdly, it is not just sexual immorality that corrupts; Paul list other impurities like money-love [v.11]. Today, Christians can be very shrill about sexual ethics – but when was the last time anyone was expelled from the church for being too rich?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

JA pride

This got me thinking...

I found seven occasions where the word 'pride' was used in the New Testament - and they were mostly positive.

Eight references to 'proud' were all bad.

Interesting. It would appear, from the New Testament, that to 'take pride' in something or someone is generally good - certainly it was good enough for the apostle Paul - whereas to be 'proud' is not good.

So I'll 'take pride' in my wonderful church, and the men and women I love, and my wife and children, and even my gifts without fear, safe from the humility police.

But I'll avoid getting proud!

The calm and the crazed?

Mad as hatters? But who's the madder?Philip Pullman’s got Christians’ goat again. Or rather, they see him as a goat – destined for an eternal roasting, unlike good sheep like them. Pullman’s about to publish a book called The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ – and Christians have been writing him letters of denunciation and damnation.

But what bothers me about this little news vignette, is not Pullman’s book. (From what I can gather, it will be a pretty unoriginal regurgitation of the old ‘Jesus-was-nice-but-Paul-made-him-into-a-beastie’ myth). No, what bothers me is the way, yet again, it presents a watching world with a dispute between the calm, rational atheist and those hysterical, crazed and judgemental Christians.

Which bothers me on two counts. Firstly because – and you’d expect me to say this – it is simply not true that most Christians are shrill, paranoid hellfire merchants, looking to hurl anathemas around. More on this in a bit. But the second reason I get twitchy about this is that, in fact, I don’t think Pullman is calm and rational. I think he’s got just as much of a bee in his bonnet as the wild-eyed religious zealots he pillories.

I read Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy some years ago. I enjoyed volume one. Sure, it was dark, a bit creepy, but a little daemon-possession makes for a good yarn. Volume two was, if anything, better still. (I love the idea of a ‘subtle knife’ that can cut its way between worlds.) But by volume three something else was happening. The anti-god, anti-church theme, which had been bubbling along under the surface, came to the boil. (‘God’ is a senile old bully, ‘church’ an institution of repression and abuse.) In fact, Pullman’s agenda boiled over, messily – and spoilt the story. Novel became diatribe. God is awful, wicked, nasty, an ogre, the church his twisted mechanism of control. Now go out and tell others: religion is evil. Evil, I tell you!

Again, I know I’m open to the jibe ‘of course you wouldn’t like that – you’re a Christian!’ But that really isn’t the point. (Apart from anything else, my God is nothing even remotely like Pullman’s creation; my God sacrifices himself, in love, for the world.) It’s just that Pullman spoiled his own story because it became silly – hysterical, crazed and judgemental, in fact, like the religious individuals who are now giving Pullman advance notice of his damnation.

Pullman is an a-religious zealot (along with his church’s high-priests Messrs Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris). But zealotry is zealotry.

Philip Pullman is ‘unperturbed’, report the media; the disapproving letters are ‘water off a duck's back’; he’s not bothered by these silly Christians. Well, quite. So he shouldn’t be – because the letters are, evidently, silly. ‘The letter writers essentially say that I am a wicked man, who deserves to be punished in hell’ smiles reasonable, persecuted Pullman. ‘Luckily it's not in their power to do anything like sending me there.’ (Chuckle, chuckle, stupid religious loonies.)

But look a little closer at what Pullman is saying. Pullman essentially says that Christians are wicked men who deserve to be punished. And he’ll bang on about it. He’ll even spoil his own novels for it.

Meanwhile, back to my first reason for discomfort – most Christians aren’t judgemental loonies. In fact, far, far, far from it.

Last night I sat down for the evening with our local church leadership team. We spent a couple of hours talking about how we could best serve those we pastor in the church. How we could best meet their needs. We prayed about it. There was love and concern in the air. There was gritty resolve to live given; to make church a place of security and strength for many – including many who are hurting and in need. That’s church – and that’s the true Christ.

And he’s no scoundrel, Philip.

Monday, March 15, 2010

To God or not to God

Latest poem from my friend, Stuart, written after a conversation we had the other night about whether 'God' is a noun or a verb (as you do...)

God the noun
thing unwrought
the unthinkable thought
the unbelievable something
the what
the is
the art
the can’t be
how on earth
pure being
just being
was to be
is that was
and will be
wholly noun

God the verb
is to do
was that does
will done
naked action
unclothed power
making causing essence
moving being breathing
wholly verb

God the undefined
this print
this page
your hands and eyes
your mind
thou and thee entwined
noun indeed
verb instead
you read

Tuesday, March 09, 2010


My friend wrote a poem this morning. I'm in it. So I thought I'd share it here. He describes it as being 'meant to say something about grace renewing our youth, or something like that, with touches of redemption by the blood, the miraculous - and so on'.

All I know is that it gave me some strength at a time in my life when I've been feeling far from strong. Words have power, and these words, from a friend in need - helped.

Shaving before work, I thought of you,
how mourning stings eyes red and weary,
how years roll by, like tears, that cloud our sight.

A droplet of light cut from the sky
flashed behind me; fell from the sun
to quicken my razor to dazzling life.

A splash of heaven played on the sooty foam,
the scummy sink, the drizzle of scraped blood -
became jam on cream - and childhood remembered, home,
a stream of joy chuckling from the heart, me and you
transformed by glory reflected - youthful, renewed.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The next person

A great friend of mine wrote a piece on community living called 'The next person' and another great friend posted it on his blog - so I couldn't resist linking to it here.

Worth a read if you live in community, or if you care about love, or if you're a human being. If none of those apply, give it a miss.


Friday, January 08, 2010

Atheist posters promote Christian happiness (by mistake)

I liked this article so thought I'd reproduce it here:

It seems God has had the last laugh in regard to the latest advert by the British Humanist Association (BHA). The two children used in the poster to campaign against religious labelling of kids are from a Christian family.

The smiling boy and girl in the billboard campaign – Ollie and Charlotte – have evangelical parents. Their father, Brad Mason, sells his photos to stock libraries, one of which sold the images on to the BHA. Brad says: ‘It is quite funny, because obviously they were searching for images of children that looked happy and free… I reckon it shows we have brought up our children in a good way and that they are happy.’

Sources: The Christian Institute (23/11); The Telegraph (21/11); The Times (21/11)