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


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.