Friday, December 16, 2011

Truly human

Writing a study on Philippians 2 today, and found it arresting. Here's what I wrote:

Mop manPaul the apostle was not afraid to be vulnerable or to humble himself before his converts and churches. In this passage, he exhorts his readers to be humble, but also shows them how.

Epaphroditus, Paul’s friend and co-worker, "was ill, near to death", writes Paul; "But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow" (v.27). Paul loved his fellow-workers in Christ; the thought of losing one through death was genuinely distressing to him and he wasn’t afraid to show it.

This perfectly matches what he writes earlier in the chapter about how, if you’re truly humble, you will "count others more significant" (v.3) and look "not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others" (v.4). Timothy is another example of such wonderfully human humility and love (v.20-21).

But the ultimate example of such humility is Jesus. In his hymn to Jesus (v.5-11), Paul shows that His humility makes Jesus the most human of all – indeed, Jesus embodies what a human should be.

Startlingly, Paul also says that Jesus’ humility is also the sign of His being truly God: Jesus did not humble Himself despite being God; it was because He is God that He humbled Himself.

The nature of God – and therefore of human beings who bear His image – is generous, self-giving, humble love.

Now to live the life...

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Lark or owl?

One of the many, many adjustments to other human beings that come with living in community is how you use time. I’m not, here, talking about scheduled time – meetings and the like (plenty of them in community, but that’s not what I mean). With them it’s pretty clear: be there or think of a really groovy excuse (‘Sorry! I was leading someone to the Lord...’).

No, I’m talking about the in-between times, the non-specified times.

For example, take mLark or owl?ornings and evenings, those un-allotted hours before (or after) the timetable whizzes in (or out) of play. Put simply, some people are morning larks; others are night owls.

Me, I’m no lark. When it comes to mornings, I’m right with the biblical proverb that says ‘Whoever blesses his neighbour with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, will be counted as cursing.’

Too right. Don’t talk to me in the mornings. Please – don’t be jolly. Leave me alone.

For me, the challenge of the morning is how to get up at the precise, timed-to-the-millisecond, moment which will allow me to roll into the bus that takes me to work on time. I’m far too intent on this delicately-timed operation (and on the fact that I can’t remember my name until 9 o’clock) to talk to anyone – let alone in a loud voice.

I’ve tried to change this. I know the holy people in our community rise early and work their way through the more important spiritual disciplines before breakfast. They are the larks, and their morning faces shine like the sun. But I can’t. I promise you, I’ve tried. I’m just simply not a morning person. Getting up at 7 o’clock for work is a minor miracle for me, I assure you.

Mind you, others are even more owlish than I am (I’m a tired middle-aged-parent-with-small-kids type who tends to burn the candle at neither end these days). But some are huge night hour adventurers. We have a young woman living in our community house at the moment who comes alive at 10 o’clock at night. That’s when she wants to go off to the park for madcap swinging fun. Or walk to the sea. Or make up a play. Or play an epic game of the Lord of the Rings board game (with extensions).

Unfortunately for her, at that point, all the larks are off to bed (as are the tired middle-aged-parent-with-small-kids types). So she’s on her own for a few hours, wondering what happened to living in community.

The secret, as with several squillion things in community, is give and take. Sometimes people have to get up a wee bit earlier – miss their Saturday lie in of epic proportions perhaps – to join more with community life. Others may stay up later than they prefer in order to join that late night heart-sharing in the kitchen.

In community, love comes down to the little things like this.

Then there’s the issue of time together versus time alone. But I think I’ll leave that post for now – till I’ve got time to write it...


Monday, December 12, 2011

Wesley's words

To say the Christians did this only till the destruction of Jerusalem, is not true; for many did it long after. Not that there was any positive command for so doing: it needed not; for love constrained them. It was a natural fruit of that love wherewith each member of the community loved every other as his own soul. And if the whole Christian Church had continued in this spirit, this usage must have continued through all ages. To affirm therefore that Christ did not design it should continue, is neither more nor less than to affirm, that Christ did not design this measure of love should continue. I see no proof of this.

- John Wesley, commenting on Acts 2:45 ("And parted them to all as any one had need")

Friday, December 02, 2011

Too busy to blog

Picture by bizior of sxc.huI confess, of late I've been a wee bit too busy to blog.

But, until I blog again, here's a few posts and things I've come across recently which I liked and thought I'd share:

Relevant magazine on why membership matters
.

My housemate Tschaka musing about community - and while you're on that theme, another housemate Stu wrote some amusing (and searching) questions about community to a young aspirant recently and blogged them at my request.

Some fascinating early church perspectives on friendship from doctor Trevor (more to follow I think).

Only Peter Rollins could deny the resurrection and be so inspiring at the same time.

And on a lighter note: this vid of children and marshmallows has done the rounds, but since we watched it at both our Sunday night café at Coventry Jesus Centre and our staff meeting at work, I thought I'd share here.

Hope to blog soon.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

True lies

I’m re-reading The Lord of the Rings after many years.

It’s prequel, The Silmarillion, is a great favourite of mine, one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read outside of Scripture and Shakespeare. And I’m reading The Hobbit to my 8- and 6-year-olds – so I thought it was time to revisit LOTR.

Tolkein expressed distaste for allegory, and the way that genre seeks to hound the reader into truth. He preferred the truths that come sideways through myth. Nevertheless, last night I read something which opened up a truth I’ll jot here, for those interested. (If mythic/fantasy literature doesn’t do it for you, feel free to stop here. See you next post if I haven’t put you off for good.)

So: The Lord of the Rings. I’ve arrived at that part in the story in which we meet Denathor, steward of Gondor. For those not familiar with Tolkein’s epic, Denathor has long ruled over that embattled country and its besieged capital, Minas Tirith. He rules in the absence of a king, just barely holding off the might and horror of neighbouring Mordor, the land of shadow.

Denathor is a man in despair – a despair that, a few chapters after we meet him, descends into madness. Convinced that all is lost and hope is gone, he tries to burn himself alive, together with his wounded son and heir.

The source of his despair, it transpires has come from having seen into a palantír (non-Tolkein readers, think crystal ball; Tolkein readers, forgive the comparison) in which he has wrestled with the will of the evil Lord of the Rings, Sauron. Through what he has permitted Denathor to see in the palantír, Sauron has deceived the steward into the crushing hopelessness which defeats him.

But it is what Sauron permits Denathor to see that struck me: he lets him see the truth.

Nothing that Denathor sees (or is permitted to see) in the palantír is untrue. He sees enemy armies amassing in great might and power, he sees the sparseness of his own and his allies’ strength. They cannot win. All hope is lost.

Yet Denethor is deceived by the truth. (In the end, it is two highly improbable heroes, two little half-size hobbits, that will bring triumph against Sauron’s might. But these Denathor did not see – nor did Sauron.)

When Satan, ‘the father of lies’, wishes to deceive, to wear out the saints, to sow discouragement and despair, he does not always lie outright. His most compelling lies can be those that are true. Lies that show truth – but not the whole truth.

“You’re not growing.” “That didn’t work.” “And you – you’re a sinner.” “Masses of people in the UK couldn’t care less about God.” “Sometimes, you couldn’t care less either.” “No-one’s listening.” “You make so little difference.”

And then, the whispered suggestion comes, so quiet, it seems to come from your own thought: “Why not just give up?”

But it’s a deceit. God delights to perform his greatest acts through the little people. He works in the small, the hidden, the ordinary, the overlooked. Watch out for mangers – they’ve been know to hold Messiahs. Watch out for executed criminals – they’ve been known to save the world. Watch out for that ragtag, disregarded, often odd, usually confused, rather-behind-the-times bunch called the Christian Church: they’re the firstfruits of God’s glorious new creation.

Let me learn the lesson of Denathor. I want to avoid listening to lies – especially when they’re true.

The kingdom is coming. Come, O Lord!

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Mark and Helen

We're grieving the deaths of two friends we hadn't seen for a while, Mark and Helen. We first met them through the Coventry Jesus Centre (see yesterday's post and others), but they became part of our family for a little while, often visiting us at White Stone House, our community home. They even spent a few days away in Kent with us all last February.

Mark was an active, intelligent man, always stimulating to talk to. His devotion to Helen was obvious. Helen was quiet and sweet, with a wonderful impish sense of humour that could take us by surprise at times.

We lost touch in the early summer. They had been beset with difficulties, and found it hard to come all the way to Coventry (they lived in the next town). Also, I got the impression that Mark found the way his heart was being opened up by the love of a big family rather scary: when hurts run deep, it's not easy to open up.

We remained on very warm terms, I exchanged friendly emails with Mark from time to time, and they popped into Coventry Jesus Centre sometimes, too.

So imagine our shock and grief when we heard, the other day, from Mark's mother, that Mark and Helen had been found dead in their house.

In all the pain, in the fond memories now tinted with sorrow, in the regret, the inevitable stabs of guilt ('could we have done something more?'), in the anger ('why were they failed by the system?') and the helplessness, I cling to this: they tasted love - for each other, certainly, and also, for a time, among us; they knew Jesus; they received his love; they're in heaven.

Another friend of mine wrote a poem just recently after the death of his mother. But as I read it, I was thinking of Mark and Helen.

It was a long time
But she could see now.
All those tears that had poured from her eyes
And those inside
Blurring her vision and drowning her heart
Were all wiped away
She could see.

She came from a long line of broken hearts
Just an ordinary woman longing for righteousness
But she shone brighter than any celestial body
When she landed here upon this New Earth.
She used to be my mother,
But she is taken up with bigger things now.

It’s been a long time,
Something like and not like a thousand years
All spent gazing at this daisy
But as she will tell you
Its fascination is endless
(Like everything else here)
And there’s no rush,
For if time is here at all
It is a river without end
If not, then time has poured into a shoreless ocean
Either way there is no rush.

Mark and Helen - you will be sorely missed. Until we meet again, rest well - and enjoy those daisies.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Naked ladies and raised eyebrows

So, there's this Christian chap touring 66 cities around the UK, speaking on all 66 books of the Bible as he goes (one in each). While he was in Coventry, he dropped by our Jesus Centre and interviewed the manager, Piers.

He was very enthusiastic and affirming about what we seek to do and to be. So encouraging, I thought I'd share his blog post (which includes the interview vid) here. Enjoy.

Eye eyeA funny postscript: the blog post is entitled '"Bombs and naked ladies" - a good way to pick up attention from Googlers, even if their not the kind of Googlers likely to be interested in a preaching tour. As I was looking at it earlier an old friend dropped by. As we were chatting, I noticed him raise his eyebrows as he glanced at my PC monitor. Only after I left did I realise he may not have realised the blog was about two icons of Coventry's past (the blitz and Lady Godiva) rather than anything unsavoury.

I think he may be praying for me right now. Hey ho. I can always use people praying for me.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Naturally speaking

I’ve been thinking about natural strengths recently, partly prompted by writing a study on two pretty impressively able characters, one from the Old Testament – Elisha – and one from the New – Paul. On the one hand, God clearly chooses, calls, and uses people of capacity and character to further his purposes. On the other, he chooses what is “foolish in the world to shame the wise and what is weak in the world to shame the strong”. And he calls us to “die to” much that may be naturally good, for the sake of something spiritually better. (Or so Hinds Feet on High Places says, so it must be true, eh?)

So I posed the question on Twitter: “What is the right biblical attitude to natural talent? Die to it? Use it? Both? Half & half? Or what? Answers on a posttweet please.”

Most of the answers were basically positive towards natural strengths and talents, with the caveat sometimes added that we should “give glory to God” for them (Not always quite sure what this means in practice beyond putting pious expressions like “Praise the Lord” on our lips, which I can never quite get into despite being a passionate Christian. Post for another day?)

Anyway – Elisha and Paul. Some thoughts taken from the studies I wrote:

Elisha has many qualities: his determination (ploughing parched ground with twelve yoke of oxen); his full-blooded commitment (burning the tools of his old occupation when called to follow Elijah); his loyalty and resolve to follow his mentor closely once he sensed the time for Elijah’s departure was near, his heart-devotion glimpsed in his quiet grief at the thought of this departure. His boldness and faith are evident in his request for a "double portion" of Elijah's spirit.

Israel had many kings, but they were rarely her real leaders. True leaders were anointed not just with oil, but with the Spirit. In the era of 2Kings, the monarchy was so unspiritual that true godly authority in Israel had reverted to prophets. The issue of Elijah’s successor was vital because he would represent God’s authority in Israel. The Bible narrative hints at Elijah’s likeness to Israel’s founding prophet: his parting the water by striking it with his cloak is reminiscent of Moses’ parting the Red Sea with his staff. When Elisha is able to do this, too, he is shown to be the true successor of Elijah, just as Joshua was successor to Moses. Elisha now carries God’s authority.

Reading and pondering all this, I find myself asking: which of Elisha’s qualities can I aim to grow in? But also – how can we, in our church, ensure those with anointing (rather than just natural ability or a “leadership” label) carry true authority among us?

In Paul’s world there were three key groups: Jews, Greeks and Romans. Paul was the ideal man to represent the gospel across his world: a pure-bred Jew who studied under a leading rabbi; a Greek-speaker with good knowledge of philosophy; a Roman citizen by birth. He is at pains to stress his Jewish pedigree to an audience of zealous Jews; he makes use of his Roman citizenship on more than one occasion; in Athens and Corinth, he quotes Greek poetry and philosophy.

Sometimes these advantages led to gospel opportunities: impressed with Paul’s excellent Greek, a tribune allows him to speak to the Jews, whom Paul addresses in Hebrew. Sometimes they led to Paul escaping imprisonment or punishment, as in Jerusalem and previously in Philippi. And sometimes they did him no good at all: the Jewish crowd still turn on him in Jerusalem; the Athenians dismiss him as a "babbler"; tradition says Paul was beheaded in Rome!

Paul saw his natural advantages as rubbish compared to the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ” and having God’s power working in him. But he certainly wasn’t against using natural strengths when the situation called for them!

We’ve landed slap bang in the middle of another paradox, I feel. I must ask myself: what are my natural strengths? Am I able to “consider them as rubbish”? Conversely, can I freely offer them to God to use them for his plans and purpses, for the gospel?

Monday, October 31, 2011

Kirk, Spock and Samosas

"The good of the one outweighs the good of the many" according to Captain James T. Kirk of the USS Enterprise.

Good American philoposphy, that. But is it true?

You might think that our life in community is an expression of the opposite view: "The good of the many outweighs the good of the few, or the one", a view, in fact, expressed by Kirk's famous pointy-eared comrade, Mr Spock.

Is this the case?

Last night our community house family all dressed in Indian clothes, ate samosas and bhaji's, improvised bhangra music - one even made a turban out of a scarf. Why? We were honouring the birthday of one of our newer members who is from India. We wanted to say "This is your home. You can be you here. We love what you bring to us."

In this case, "the good of the one" was uppermost - rightly and vitally so.

For any community, any family, the good of the many and the good of the few - or the one - cannot be separated.
Link
"If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together" (1 Corinthians 12:26)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Simple

Yesterday was a sad day for some of our community - perhaps especially the kids: our cat, Lucy (named after a queen in Narnia), had to be put down after having been hit by a car.

At our little burial in the garden, my 3-year-old son said 'We'll see Lucy again when she wakes up.' Well meaning adults, including myself, stepped in to put the little chap right: Lucy wasn't going to wake up.

'When Jesus comes back, we'll all wake up' he retorted. Saving a debate about animals and the afterlife for another day, it did rather seem that his child's faith had trumped us all.

The next morning, our worship time had a strong strand of hope in Jesus' return. I thought of my son's simple belief that  Jesus comes all will be well. Central to our faith, that. For Christians, hope has a name: Jesus.

A few days earlier I had gone to see a very old member of our church who lives in a nursing home. She talks quite a lot and is not always easy to follow. I listen hard because I love her, and because amidst the disconnected jottings from the war and her distant youth and memories, she throws in some gems.

'Do you have anything you'd like to say to the people back at church?' I asked her. She nodded.

'Sometimes you grow and then you stop' she said. 'Then sometimes you grow and then you stop again.'

Now this may not seem very profound to you. But let me tell you, dear reader, I felt I'd just heard the word of the Lord. I'd been agonizing over our lack of growth this year, despite plenty of effort. God was speaking to me about letting Him work different seasons into our shared life.

So there we have it. Out of the mouth of babes... and very old ladies.

Sometimes we complex types need to hear the simple word of hope in the midst of all our strivings. Sometimes you grow and then you stop and then sometimes you grow and then you stop again. But when Jesus comes, we'll all wake up.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why live in community?

My friends, Stevo and Olivia Scott, talk honestly and inspiringly about why they live in intentional Christian community.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Angry at the pigs

Angry at the pigsLast week, I read some words of the prophet Amos, possibly the angriest man in the Bible. Here are some of my thoughts on Amos, chapter 8.

The rich ruling classes of Amos’s day resented the worship festivals in Israel’s calendar; they meant a day’s less trade for them to get fat on. What was more, their crooked and deceitful trade was riddled with injustice and oppressed the poor.

“When will the new moon be over,
that we may sell grain?
And the Sabbath,
that we may offer wheat for sale,
that we may make the measure small and our profit great
and deal deceitfully with false balances,
that we may buy the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals?..” (Amos 8:5-6)

Amos’s response to these selfish and corrupt fat cats, is to announce a judgement on their nation so fearsome that it makes difficult reading.

“So many dead bodies! They are thrown everywhere!” (Amos 8:3)

This prophet’s voice relentlessly carries within it God’s naked fury at the oppression of the poor. Perhaps, if we find the force of the anger in such passages ‘difficult’, it points to something of our own complacency or insensitivity towards the things that stir the white heat of God’s passion. God simply cannot abide the kind of selfishness that fattens itself at another’s expense.

“The end has come upon my people Israel” God declares through Amos; “I will never again pass by them”.

It was with Amos’s fiery words still reverberating around me that I read, today, an article about Sir Philip Green (knight of the realm), the multi-billionaire businessman who runs some of the biggest names on British high streets (Topshop, Topman, Dorothy Perkins, Burton, Miss Selfridge, BHS...)

According to this article, Sir Phil dodged tax on his self-awarded £1.2 billion paycheque. (His business empire is conveniently “owned” by his wife who has not done a single day’s work for the company, lives in Monaco, and pays not a penny of income tax.)

Any time it takes his fancy, Sir Phil can pay himself huge sums of money without having to pay any tax. A distasteful fact, made utterly disgusting when compared to the life of the sweatshop labourers in Mauritius upon whose back he has built his £5bn fortune. In these sweatshops, Sri Lankans, Indians and Bangladeshis toil 12 hours a day, six days a week, for minimal pay.

What would Amos say?

And what am I saying? How am I living? Where do I shop? What do I wear? (I don’t think wearing a wristband with WWJD on it is quite enough here.)

Do I get angry at injustice and oppression of the poor? If so, what do I do about it?


Saturday, September 17, 2011

Honest to God

This afternoon, we're going evangelizing in Leamington Spa. For those less than conversant with evangelical lingo, this means a team from our church will be talking to people on the streets about faith, about Jesus, about life. Maybe praying with some.

I for one will also be seeking to do a lot of listening, if I can, because I'm hoping to do more than just spray 'answers' around - I want to connect with people's hearts.

Which brings me to a question: which is more important in evangelism - honesty or certainty? Put another way, telling or listening? You see, we really do have something - someone - to proclaim. But it's not as neat and tidy as having all the answers. Sometimes knowing and walking with God is more like a wrestling match than a picnic in the park; more like a desert than a cool drink on a hot day.

So how do we tread the line between confidently, excitedly, spreading the reality we've found, at the same time as being real and vulnerable with people about the struggle faith can be at times?
Jesus appointed his followers 'witnesses'. Perhaps this is the key: we share what we've known and found of his life, and don't need to be bashful about what we still struggle with. And perhaps this is another key: Jesus appointed his followers 'fishers of men' - so there's room in our honesty and humility for a strong call.

I'll let you know how it goes. Pray for us. Pray for them.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

How (Not) to Speak of God

How (Not) to Speak of God: Marks of the Emerging ChurchHow (Not) to Speak of God: Marks of the Emerging Church by Peter Rollins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rollins' community, Ikon, 'describes itself as iconic, apocalyptic, heretical, emerging and failing' which gives you something of the flavour.

Rollins explores paradox after paradox with the delight and unapolagetic fervour of a true postmodern. Indeed, what makes this book so arresting is that Rollins is not a theologian talking about postmodernism; he is a postmodern theologian talking about God.

This book threw all my beliefs around, causing them to land more deeply rooted - but sometimes upside-down. If you read it, prepare to think hard in some counter-instinctive directions.

View all my reviews

The fidelity of betrayal

The Fidelity of Betrayal: The Ir/Religious Heart of ChristianityThe Fidelity of Betrayal: The Ir/Religious Heart of Christianity by Peter Rollins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this straight after 'How (Not) To Speak of God'. As in that book, Rollins delves deliberately into paradoxes here - not as someone who wants to engage in apologetics and 'explain' the difficulties of faith (in either the slightly embarrased or slightly bombastic manner of some apologists). Unashamedly postmodern, Rollins delights in paradox - he shouts paradox from the rooftops - he sets paradox on fire and waves it from the treetops.

Central to this book is the (yes, paradoxical) assertion that in order to be faithful to God, we will sometimes need to betray God. In fact, if I understand him right, Rollins is actually saying we need to betray our idolotrous human certainties about God in order to continually stay alive to the possibility of encountering God more authentically (which is a subtly different point though I think I understand why Rollins puts his case more provocatively).

The worst parts of this book were those where the opaque prose forced me to read a paragraph several times in vain for understanding (usually before giving up and moving on); conversely, the best parts were some of the stories and parables Rollins used to illumine my way through his arguments.

Stimulating read and it will go on affecting me. I will certainly be reading Rollins' next book 'Insurrection' due out in October.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Love and madness

My old schoolfriend - another James as it happens - has recently become the vicar of a church in Luton. His inaugural address to his new flock was based on Acts 2; he explored something of what it means to live with 'everything in common'. It was good to listen to him, even if he has developed a mysterious southern accent in the years since we were schooled near Liverpool. (Apparently his church is called 'Saint Frarncis'...)

Before he delivered his talk - which I understand was greeted with enthusiasm by the good people of Saint Frarncis - he tweeted to let me know he was going to mention me in it. His actual words were: In my first sermon at StFrancis, Luton, I intend to quote Tertullian, Tom Wright and @n0rma1 (that's me, by the way, for those unfamilair with Tweet jargon) - in no particular order.

Good heavens. Two titans of theology, one ancient, one modern - and me. And in no particular order!

James referred to me and the community life I and my sisters and brothers pursue as a noteworthy way of living out the challenge of Acts 2.

It was a blessing to be considered a blessing, though I did wonder if James was rather too swift to pidgeonhole our lifestyle as 'a calling for some'. It's not that I disagree, it's just that in my experience that sort of talk tends to lead to many Christians breathing a sigh of relief and getting on with being the same as everyone else.

But I mustn't be glib. You can't sustain a common-purse-community life without being convinced that you can do no other. A mentor of mine describes our community - of which he too is a member - as 'strenuous'. Shane Claiborne said to me recently that he sees us as 'community on steroids' (I loved that). And, in fact, the words James quoted me as having said to him, many years ago, were that Acts 2 had 'ruined my life - in a good way.'

A life of full sharing, no personal money, house and hearth shared, is a pretty tough call and cuts across a lot of natural preferences. Just for the record, I do not live in community because I like having no money or because I like having other people in my living room (all the time) or because I really enjoy other people choosing the colour scheme of my kitchen or because I always wanted to have my weekly diary substantially written by others or... well, you get the idea.

I live in community because I have to. Because I can't read the New Testament without it shouting community at me. Because God is a community and I want to be like him (even if he does bewilder me much of the time). Because I really do believe that radical, root-level, self-renouncing love is the way Jesus lived and because no disciple is above his master, I have to do so too.

I still agree wholeheartedly with what I said to James all those years ago - except perhaps the bit about 'in a good way'.

Okay, okay, it is a good way. But it can feel like madness. There have been times when I've felt like if I see another person I may kill them - with my words, if not with the kitchen knife. Times when I've walked round and round the block I live on, with my head pounding, thinking 'I can't take this anymore'. Times when some relationship tension has swelled to fill my entire emotional world and I can't escape from it, I can't 'go home' because they're in my home. Times when vision is dim and I can't remember why or what for. Times when I'm fed up with my family, neighbours and friends thinking I'm odd (or, worse still, thinking I'm 'radical') and I just yearn to be bloody ordinary like everyone else.

But in all this, just as much or more than in the times when living in community is inspiring and wonderful , I learn what it means to live Christ.

James said I gave up a lot of opportunities to live in community. Maybe. But I would not be even a tenth of the person I am today if were not for the madness that ruined my life - in a good, way.

Perhaps it would appropriate to leave the last words of this post to St Francis. This is from his Canticle of Love (if you like it, read it all here):

I have entirely renounced both the world and myself in order to buy love. If I owned all creation I would gladly trade that for love. But I find that love has deceived me. I have given everything and yet I do not know where I am being drawn to. Love has destroyed me. I am looked at as if I am mad, and because I have been sold, I am no longer worth anything...

...In this anguish of Love, Love, Love, O my adorable Jesus, I would die while embracing you, O Jesus, my sweet spouse. Love, Love, I beg for death from you; O pitying Jesus receive me and transform me into thyself. Remember that I am passing away killing myself with love. I do not know where I am, Jesus, my hope, destroy me with love.

Friday, September 09, 2011

L(h)eaven

FriendsAdam was gripped with a passion to share God with others. He began to give himself to people in a local housing estate, serving his neighbours, speaking of God, listening to hurts and fears, laughing with people.

He started to be known as 'the Jesus man' - which was fine by him.

But as time went by, nobody was converted. No-one seemed to be having the same experience as young Adam had had. They were glad to be friends, genuinely appreciated him. Adam went on serving, praying, but he was frustrated.

Adam wasn't alone, of course; he was part of a church and drew huge strength of purpose from it. One day, Adam was talking to Guy, an old man and much-respected leader in his church, a revered figure, whom the younger man looked up to a great deal.

"You need to be braver" said the great man, "bolder, extend your faith. Call people with clarity and confidence. Make disciples."

Adam went away and thought a great deal about what Guy had said. And he went on serving, listening, laughing, praying, and no-one was converted. This went on for many years, in fact until the Adam was no longer young.

By now he had many, many friends. Indeed, some of the people in that estate would probably have died for Adam. He'd seen the Dodd children grow from birth. He'd spoken for Sarah's son in court. He'd been there for Pat's family while she was losing her battle with cancer.

It was many years later when the first healing occured. Tracey's baby was deaf the doctor's said. Adam held him and prayed quietly. After that, tests showed he could hear. Stan had been going downhill with Alzheimer's. But after one of Adam's customary visits, Stan got better. He just got better. Julie had a twisted leg before Adam did something - nobody had quite the same story but apparently it had something to do with olive oil - and her leg was straight after that.

Still nobody was converted, or at least not in quite the way Adam had hungered for when he was young. But by now a lot of people believed in God, followed Jesus, joined Adam and his friends in the church. Janice was speaking to Becky again. Margaret smiled these days. Jim was doing odd jobs for everyone in Chancery Street. A couple of younger lads, Tom and Steve, were so loyal to Adam, they ended up moving in with him and few other Christians from his church. In fact, Steve became a bit of a right hand man to Adam...

*

In heaven, Adam was surrounded with hundreds of those friends, many of whom had been healed and had healed others and loved and lived and shared over many years. One heavenly day, Adam met the old leader he'd spoken to back on earth, all those years ago.

"Well," said the leader, "You didn't do what I said."

Adam said nothing, but he slipped to his knees and grasped Guy's hand and kissed it. Then he said, "Thank you. For if I hadn't have decided not to do what you said, I would have never quite known what I was to do. It was all thanks to you."

And the older man smiled.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Stop praying to the Lord!

Lord, Love, Lord of LoveHere's a radical thought. How about if we stopped praying to the Lord?

In case you think I'm advocating defection to paganism, let me explain. We often address our praying to 'Lord' (or at any rate that's the word we use as commas in our prayers, along with the ubiquitous 'just' - 'and Lord we just ask that Lord You would just...)

But what resonance or meaning does 'Lord' have for us? Lords are the members of a possibly-soon-to-be-scrapped second chamber of Parliament. Or a cricket ground.

But it's not just that the word has no meaning for us. We no longer live in a fuedal system - when the word 'lord' had plenty of relevance. But even if we did, or even if our sense of history was enlivened enough to still engage with the word as a living one - does that make it a positive term of address for God. Many, perhaps most Medieval lords were harsh, even brutal. Do we want to name God after such oppressive power?

I'm fully aware that the Bible uses the term 'kyrios' - Lord (or even Caesar) - to denote God and Christ. In the New Testament and especially in Paul I believe there was some deliberate political subversion going on there, too. ('This is the true Caesar, and he's totally different to that guy in Rome.')

In the New Testament, whatever they were doing with the word we translate as Lord, it certainly had currency at the time.

I know some have suggested we use words with contemporary relevance like 'boss', but I can never take that entirely seriously. 'Master' has the advantage of freshness (and the advantage of being St Francis's favourite term of address towards God) but its reference to slavery takes us back into an unhelpful concept base.

Here's a suggestion. How about if we made it our common practice to address God as Love. Afterall, that's biblical - God is love, says John. Love is God's first best name as the hymn writer put it.

Now I'm aware that the word 'love' has come to mean all manner of petty or even selfish or lustful things in our day. I know that Greeks had the good sense to use different words for different loves.

But maybe if we were to deliberately address God as Love, it would rescue our concept of love a little. Maybe it would subvert those other petty loves, like Paul subverted the petty Caesars.

More still, rather than having a prayer life built round a distant, soon-to-be-abolished authority, we'd be continually reminding ourselves that the God we worship and pray to is love - self-giving, serving, generous love.

Imagine: 'And, Love, we just ask that you'd show us the way. Love, we pray you'd bring your healing power here. Dear Love, we give our lives to You again...'

Love could change everything.

Monday, September 05, 2011

RAW deeper

And for those who'd like a deeper look into what RAW was about, here's three little vids showing snapshots of what went on each day... (Spot the little ode in my honour!)





RAW 2011 Highlights

Here's the highlights video from RAW (Real & Wild) 2011, the youth event that I helped lead recently. My last one as it goes; they've put me out to seed now...

This video captures the essence of the event really well.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Brennan's blessing

This benediction, often used my Brennan Manning, has got me thinking:

  May all of your expectations be frustrated,
  May all of your plans be thwarted,
  May all of your desires be withered into nothingness,
  That you may experience the powerlessness and poverty of a child
  And can sing and dance in the love of God
  Who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It seems almost entirely a maladiction - but somehow speaks more genuinely of the blessing God gives than the syrupy verses and poems more likely to be found on fridge magnets.

Selah.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

'Boris, where's your broom?'

Broom powerThere have been two 'breakouts' on the streets this week. Two examples of people power.

Firstly, obviously, rioters; smashing, grabbing, looting.

But we've also seen people taking to the streets, brooms in hands, to clear up. One lad in Liverpool announced on Facebook that he was going out to sweep up - 60 people arrived to help him. The Mayor of London was asked 'Boris, where's your broom?' and joined in the sweeping.

I think both are revolutionary in their way. The first lot turned over more than just bins: bored kids (I've been told the average age of the rioters is 15) got drunk on a heady cocktail of adrenaline, selfishness - and group-power. An abuse of power certainly, but let's not overlook the fact that they had it - maybe fleetingly, certainly destructively - but they had it.

The sweepers were a grass roots movement of people banding together. It was people serving, not for reward but because they care. It was people joined in a cause they felt was simply right. I can't help feeling what they did was a more eloquent, powerful statement than any politician has delivered this week.

Power destructive; power constructive. Power that grabs; power that gives.

In a very deep sense, I think, the central question of every person who ever lives is: which power will I align myself with?

A grass-roots revolution of service, community, unity, positivity, peaceful resistance, which speaks eloquently of something better? Sounds like something I'd wanna live for.

Hang on - it sounds like something I am living for...


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Deliver us from evil

RiotWhat makes violence and lawlessness suddenly erupt across a nation?

In pondering this question, and thinking about the recent riots in cities across the UK, I drew a comment on Twitter from a church pastor in Liverpool. 'What we are seeing is EVIL,' he said.

And who can disagree, when people turn feral, and smash, loot and burn indiscriminately?

Yet, it prompted me to delve a little deeper into the nature of the evil we are seeing.

Firstly, there's a well of social evil here. As a London-based youth worker commented to Christian thinktank Ekklesia yesterday:
'Of course there is a huge amount of criminality and copycat looting involved in all this. But to pretend it has nothing whatsoever to do with the erosion of our social fabric, the closing of youth centres, and the sense among a mass of people - not least the young - that they have no real future in a country where the poorest are being made to sacrifice most while bankers get away with murder... that's pure fantasy.'
I believe a truly Christly response has to include the recognition that society's rottenness has, close to its source, injustice, the divide between power-brokers and the broken. And the Church of Jesus should speak for those without voices. We cannot just shout 'thuggery' and call for tougher measures. We must ask 'why?' We must work for justice and stand alongside and among the disadvantaged.

But to leave it there risks excusing the execrable. Because there is another level of evil at work here: moral evil. 'I'm not really bothered' said a Manchester rioter. 'I'll keep doing it every day until I get caught.' 'We can do what we want' crowed a female London rioter.

Even psychologists, analysing group behaviour, admit the presence of basic selfishness in the mix: 'For most people looting is opportunistic' says Jason Nier, associate professor of psychology at Connecticut College. And greed is certainly a factor.'

At the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart, as a cliché I once heard has it. Like so many clichés, it's true. At heart, people are selfish. (My friend Andy had some thoughts about this which you can read here.)

It's not just the gangs, of course. Bankers gambled with economic stability - for greed. Politicians helped themselves to public money - for greed. Media moguls turned a blind eye when journalists were immoral - for greed... Gangs smash and loot shops - for greed.

But we must go deeper still. Under social evil, under moral evil, there is spiritual evil. As Paul the apostle describes it:
'We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil.'
Spiritual powers, by their very nature, hide. They masquerade behind human evil - be it greed expressed in violent looting or greed expressed in high-level corruption.

How do we oppose them? How do we engage in a spiritual 'clean up' campaign?

We pray - 'at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication' as Paul writes later in the same passage quoted above. We share the gospel and see its transforming power at work in lives changing selfish hearts into new hearts. We speak out for justice and against what is unfair because apart from anything else, giving the voiceless a voice may prevent them from finding a voice through wielding a baseball bat.

'The weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh' writes Paul, 'but have divine power to destroy strongholds.'

Pray, love, evangelise, love the poor, speak for justice.

In fact - let's be the church.


Peacemaker

A poem by my friend Wilf.

Peacemaker

A peacemaker is not a piecemaker-
Patching together
The ragged unravellings of relationships.
He is in the place of warfare
In the place of the Prince of Peace
As his pores
His tear ducts
His lungs
Sweating weeping breathing,
"Peace be with you"
In all he does.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Monday morning radicals

Reflecting on the Jesus Army-ran youth event, RAW (Real and Wild) that we just got to the end of, last Saturday. It was the fifth RAW (and for me the last - I'm too old and they're putting me out to seed...)

But this quote from one of the rising generation summed up for me something close to the very heart of why we do RAW, and what it's, ultimately, all about:

I was asked this morning if, post-RAW, I felt a bit deflated after all the excitement and inspiration and fun. I thought for a moment and realised, No, I wasn't feeling deflated, but in fact this is what it is all about; reality, back to the normal life, Monday morning, Tuesday agape, Wednesday cell group.... that's the whole point right that after RAW it all carries on. Real changes aren't just for the weekend; real changes are still there on Monday morning!
Brilliant. Monday morning radicality. It's what changes the world.


Thursday, July 28, 2011

A time to rest

I got a lot done today. Unfortunately, almost none of it was what I set out to do at the beginning of the day. Phones ganged up on me. Emails ambushed me. My agenda was hijacked.

It's tempting, tonight, to hive off to the office at home and get some work done - some of that work I wanted to get done today. After all, I'm heavily involved in leading a national youth event next week. Et cetera. Okay, so tonight's supposed to be a night of deliberate friendship, yeah, but if you knew the pressure I'm under...

No. Wrong. I must not bow to the subtle workaholism that drives. Spending time with people tonight is life. I won't put life on hold.

Not many people get to the end of their life, look back, and say 'I wish I'd spent more time at the office.'

So. Tonight's time for rest. Time for friendship. Time for play. Time for worship, perhaps, or for sharing of hearts. But I'm staying away from the office.

I may even switch my phone off.

Now that would be radical.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Stop. Look. Listen.

RushWe're a community often at full tilt, so often doors open, welcome-all-comers, so it's important to have the odd occasion when, as the old road safety mantra put it, we 'stop, look and listen'.

Stop and appreciate the community God has made us. Look with fresh eyes. Listen to each other, and by doing that, perhaps, discern a fresh word from God.

Tonight we're doing just that. All our 'house family' (those who live and share life in the community house) are staying in; we've asked others, for tonight, not to come round. We're having a romantic evening in.

First a celebratory three-course meal (what are we celebrating? one another of course, with glorious unapologetic abandon). Then a couple of our sisters have something up their sleeves to get us opening up our hearts and minds to each other a bit. Then, we'll pile into the lounge for hot drinks and - later for those who want - we're going to project a nature programme onto the wall and be wowed by some elephants and their friends.

I hope we’ll all enjoy it (this can be a challenge as I’ve written before here and here). As an old Jesus Army song (so old, it was written before the Jesus Army was even called the Jesus Army) has it –

Slow down and appreciate your brother. Contemplate the grace of God in him...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Relating to Jane Austen

My 88-year-old grandmother is staying with us this week. It’s lovely to have her, but represents something of a challenge in that she has next to no short-term memory. (Long term’s okay, so she knows who we are and all that.) One of our strategies in entertaining her was to get hold of a clutch of Jane Austen DVDs to watch – she enjoys them and can follow them pretty well because she knows the storylines from of old.

Lizzie and DarcyThus it was that I found myself watching Pride and Prejudice this week.

Bit of background: I was put off Austen when I had to study Mansfield Park for A-Level (not her best novel). When I picked up Pride and Prejudice, only a few years ago, out of a sense of duty (I was an English teacher, after all, and it is supposed to be one of the greatest novels in the canon of English literature). But it was a wonderful surprise. Laugh-out-loud funny, bitingly ironic, penetrating in its insights into human nature. A great, great read. (I know, I know, I should have known. They were right.)

Quite apart from any literary/artistic pleasure in watching the film, however, I found myself freshly struck by the utterly different approach to courtship and marriage that society took, in those days.

In our post-sexual revolution era, Austen’s society may seem unutterably quaint. Here are some of the rules: Speak to the opposite sex only either in the watchful presence of others or in the formal and safe intimacy of a ballroom dance. Absolutely no physical contact, except the proffering of a hand to help a lady into a carriage or suchlike; to greet the opposite sex, a slight bow is quite enough. Approach not a young lady with any romantic proposals; approach rather her father or guardian to ask his permission. And so on.

Quaint? Charming? Or repressed? Perhaps all three. But it got me thinking.

One of the things we have had to work carefully on over the years, as we have worked out our Christian community lifestyle, is how to handle relationships between the sexes. A community like ours could all too easily be littered with “gone wrong” relationships or mired with sexual looseness and flirtation. Nevertheless, men and women will inevitably be (ahem) interested in each other and, as the Prayer Book has it, “marriage is an honourable estate”.

So how can we provide a safe, holy, yet human framework for such relationships to begin, flourish, maybe end (cleanly), maybe advance (matrimonially)?

In our community, we have developed a procedure we call “relating”, which helps with just these issues. We uphold a basic segregation between sexes; physical contact is kept within appropriate bounds; pastoral advice and involvement is encouraged before embarking upon initiating a “special” relationship with the opposite sex. Should a couple “relate”, there is guidance in how to proceed in a mature manner: a married couple will be involved to provide support and advice; time together is limited to an amount appropriate given the seriousness of the relationship at that stage. Physical contact and sexual desires are kept under control. And (unlike Austen’s society), we don’t rate the suitability of a match upon how many thousands of “pahnds” they stand to inherit, but by encouraging careful consideration of the couple’s compatibility and mutual vision.

Perhaps it all sounds rather quaint. Charming? Maybe repressed. But I dare to say it keeps us from a great deal of harm as a community, and has built some strong and superb marriages over the years, too. Indeed, we have a young man living with us who is advancing towards such a quality marriage right now. Statistics on divorce, broken families, teenage pregnancies, and the whole sorry state of the “broken society” incline me to thank God very much for the wisdom of such an approach.

I think Jane Austen might just have agreed.


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

I live with her!

This made me want to move in. Then I realised - I already live with her (and twelve others, including my wife and three kids!)

For a glimpse of our communal lifestyle check out this vid:

Monday, July 04, 2011

WWJ(N)D

I live with a remarkable young man. In fact, I live with 13 remarkable people, only four of whom are my natural relations. But right now I’m thinking about one young man of 22 who’s been living with us in intentional Christian community since he was 18.

What makes him remarkable is that rather than living for number one, this young man is pouring his life into something besides himself.

Not for him a life caught up in the petty pursuits of car and computer, beer and birds. Nor is he, as Anthony Delaney memorably put it, aiming for a life of “converting oxygen to carbon dioxide, then stopping.” He lives with generous and genuine desire for other people’s good. His youthful energy is thrown at the feet of Jesus with abandon.

Photo by Jonathan Ruchti of sxc.huHe lives, he really lives – because he lives for more than himself.

And that is where this little musing starts. You see, yesterday, this noble young lion hit the deck. He’d been in the fast lane for several weeks. He had a major role in the Jesus Army’s big march and festival in London; days later he threw himself into helping organise a youth outing (complete with night slept under the stars) for about 25 young men; he runs a cell group with several lively lads in it. Then there’s a holy romance with a certain young lady, his betrothed. Oh and did I mention he works hard as a builder in between all this?

By the time yesterday morning came, he was jiggered. All it took was a well-intentioned question (about something he hadn’t got round to doing) and exhaustion felled him. He was in a bit of a state, really. Okay, he’d bounced back, moreorless, by later that day – but it was a bit of a warning.

He’d been skating on the thin ice and was close to burning out (to use a mixed metaphor worthy of Paul the apostle).

I talked to him later that day and was impressed again by his greatness of heart (the main thing he wanted to talk about was how to ensure that his wedding later this year is an occasion to honour God). But we talked about how he could pace himself and whether there was any opportunity coming up for a bit of recharge.

It touches on a wider issue. As a church, we are by nature aspirational. We aim high, pretty consistently punch above our weight, and achieve a great deal. It’s impressive. A day like the Jesus Army’s London Day (check out some pictures here for the flavour) is a good example of what can be achieved with an “aim for heaven, get the earth thrown in” mentality. I love the Jesus Army’s “can-do” outlook. I hope we’ll never be tamed, never cowed into “thinking smaller”.

And yet. There’s something to be said for pacing ourselves with wisdom, guarding the heart, finding the place for rest in all our activity.

A leader in the Salvation Army spoke to our whole church, some years ago. He spoke of being “contemplative activists”, combining reflection and aspiration, “being” and “doing”. He called us to the challenge.

“Contemplative activists.” It’s a phrase that has stuck with me. (Yes, it’s another paradox, for those who know I’ve been finding them under every stone recently.)

I realise, as I think about that sterling young man, and about our church – and about me – that that term, “contemplative activists”, sums up much of what we must seek to be. Deep, yes, Energetic, yes. Leisured; not lazy. Energetic; not enervated.

I’ve noticed that in Mark’s Gospel, everything happens to Jesus “at once” or “straight away” or “immediately”. Yet he was never stressed out, never stretched beyond suppleness (well, until Gethsemane, perhaps, but that’s a different point). Why? Because at the right times, he sought solitude. He recharged. He listened.

What would Jesus do? Good question. And here’s another: what would Jesus not do? And - more to the point, perhaps - what would Jesus be?

As I once blogged here before:

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.



Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A parable about a paradox

The city grew up around the source of the river. Her walls were tall and stately, her gates shining, wide and glorious. Within were spacious squares, lush gardens, warm dwellings; there were statues, and fountains, and libraries filled with the writings of the wise.

The city had stood for many years, a wonder in the world, and a destination of pilgrims.

Some saw the walls as the city’s chief glory: reaching for the heavens, both impregnable and beautiful. Rumour had it these walls were fashioned from pure gold, and certainly none could deny they shone with an ethereal brilliance, visible from many miles around.

Others could speak of nothing but the wonder of the city’s gates. Gleaming and expansive, they were open night and day, such was the great hospitality of the city, such her great heart to welcome all, to take the multitudes to her breast.

There came a time when a dispute broke out which – if it were possible – threatened the tranquillity of this wondrous habitation. The argument was between gatekeepers, on the one hand, and the watchmen, on the other.

The gatekeepers, ardent to spread their city’s fame and eager to extend her welcome to ever more travellers, had conceived of plans to widen the gates. Some had even drawn up plans to breach certain sections of the wall in order to erect new gates. “Open to every point of the compass” was their cry, such was their great passion for their city. Their hearts swelled at the thought of the shining eyes and open mouths of the pilgrims who would enter in their new widened gates, to breathe in the city’s sweet air and drink from her refreshing springs.

The watchmen, those eagle-eyed keepers of the walls’ towers and ramparts, knowing in their hearts that the city’s fame and glory depended ultimately upon the strength and purity of her walls, were uneasy at the ambitions of the gatekeepers. Widened gates too easily lead to compromised walls. And when the plans of the more impatient gatekeepers came to their ears, their alarm swelled to something akin to fury – and to fear. For these noble watchmen loved the city from the depths of their hearts, yet well they knew that a city without walls was in terrible peril. “Breach the wall, soon to fall” was their awful watchword.

Long were the debates in the guildhall and tempers were not always kept in the conflict. After much dissension, the matter had to be taken before the highest authority, and it was with confidence and the expectation of vindication – yet not without trembling in both camps – that the question was brought before the throne of the king.

There was silence as the gatekeepers and the watchmen awaited the verdict of their sovereign.

Thus he spoke:

“There shall be no breaches in my walls,” said the king (and great was the trembling of the gatekeepers as he spoke, and relief and pride coursed through the veins of the watchmen). Yet, without seeming so much as to pause for breath, the king continued, “There shall be no walls.” (Hope flared within the hearts of the gatekeepers, and swift came dismay on the faces of the watchmen.)

“No breaches,” sighed the watchmen, seeing in their hearts the vision of the city’s strength unsullied. “No walls,” breathed the gatekeepers, imagining all the nations streaming in. Yet a shadow was over both companies also, for the king had uttered both these dooms and contradicted neither.

There was a silence before the king spoke again.

“Long has it been told,” spoke he, “that the walls of my city are of gold. Yet hearken unto me as I tell you, yes even you O wise watchmen, even you O ardent gatekeepers: my walls are not of gold, but of flame; flame unbroken and unimpaired.”

And, even as he spoke, it seemed to them a wonder took place. For the walls of that resplendent city were suddenly become all fire in the eyes of their beholders. (Whether they were transformed at that moment or whether they were seen, at last, in their true nature no-one could say.)

And as the flames towered around the city, shining with beauty and brilliance, behold: from every direction, from north and south, and east and west, and north north west, and south south east, and from every degree of the compass, flowed a multitude.

Drawn like moths to the flame they came. And when they reached that fiery barrier, they did not stop, but plunged straight in, straight through, running, flying, dancing into the heart of that great city.

For behold: the walls of fire were all gate; and the gates of flame were all wall.


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Absolutizing the present

Photo by Penny Mathews of sxc.huThe other night my friend, who’s also a Jesus Army leader, experienced the worst meeting of his life.

It was truly appalling. A fellowship meal without fellowship, a love feast without love, he’d left it with his heart in his boots, wondering what the point was. Why go on? Did anyone else care at all?

That spiritless meal with those who were supposed to be his deepest comrades in the cause of Christ, left him feeling bereft of hope. So much so, he went into a room, lay on his face and cried out to God. “Why, Lord?” he cried. “Why, oh why?”

As a believer in quick and prompt answers to prayer, he shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when just four days later, his little church group had one of the best meetings he’d ever experienced. Fellowship flowed, love was abundant, spirits soared.

Photo by Penny Mathews of sxc.huAll was well and all manner of thing wast well; my friend went to bed a happy man that night.

Telling me about both meetings the next day, we both chuckled at our ability to see no further than the immediate circumstances, good or ill – particularly as leaders who do, in fact, care a great deal about our churches. How easy it is to measure our entire reality by what has just happened, by how things are right now.

A mentor of mine calls this “absolutizing the present”; being unable in that moment – be it of agony or ecstasy – to conceive of reality being anything else ever again.

I’ve often called to mind his wisdom, and sometimes it’s saved me from spiralling down into cynical hopelessness, prompted by some discouraging incident (or, for that matter, soaring off into the stratosphere over something encouraging, which can be as unhelpful in the long run).

Of course, the account I gave earlier of my friend’s two meetings was exaggerated. But that’s the point. Our feelings do exaggerate things: they absolutize the present. We have to be disciplined with our feelings at times (as my wise mentor also says, “Emotions make good servants but poor masters”). We must learn to keep some poise.

Sure, that Friday wasn’t so good. But Sunday’s coming. Oh – and that Sunday’s followed by a Monday.

In the final analysis, it’s probably not nearly as bad – or as good – as it seems.