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Straight talking Christanity Vs Polite Church.

Sometimes as Church we are all to neat and tidy, polite and ve don’t mention anything controversial, messy, offensive and are perfectly well mannered and inoffensive.

Church if it were a colour would be baige, and if it were a biscuit would be rich tea!

I worry that Church as institution makes “not rocking the boat” a vitue (although my spell check suggest virtue should be replaced by virus!) as is this idea of “keeping the show on the road”, again seen as a virtue -rather than asking “Is this ‘show’ roadworthy?”

Recently I read of a brave follower of Christ and church leader challenging his congregations sinful and unchristlike behaviour and is now on a forced sabbatical.

Yet do think that on occasions Churches need a rebuke and a challenge, one of the roles of a Church leader is a custodian of the culture and to call the Church to act as they should. This is clearly modelled by Jesus who rebuked his “right hand man” with “Get behind me Satan”, who called the monarch (Herod) a fox, and the powerful religious elite a “nest of vipers” and “white washed tombs” and drove the traders from the temple with force.

Paul’s “Pastoral Epistles’ are straight talking, uncomfortable reading and deeply challenging, and if sent out now would probably get some traditional church goers and odd bishop rather hot under the (dog) collar.

Yet, it might not be popular but the call and the footsteps of Christ has not been a call to ‘people please’, but to be a radically different community, a Church that should be a foretaste and outpost of heaven, but sometimes tragically resembles the other place!

I see nothing Christ-like in condoning and colluding with the bad behaviour that sadly exists within some Churches.

What our Churches, and as Christians, do/behave really matters.

We as Christians and the Church gathered locally are the shop window to the community around us. We are Christs ambassadors, he makes his appeal through us.

How we live can bring glory or shame to the name of Christ.

This brave man of God showed a more “light and salty” path, he could have turned a blind eye, not rocked the boat and gone through ministry motions, but no, he called behaviour that was “off side” off side (which sadly happens too often across too many Churches, and probably is responsible for repelling many seekers from Christ).

He should be commended not punished.

I have tragically seen and know many people who know and love Christ but because of their Church experience are no long in active fellowship.

I’m not advcating bullying or abusive behaviour, but I don’t thing there is anything Christlike about biting our tongue when we should be speaking up.

A wise friend who had been battered by some toxic church politics and stood up to them also said that he didn’t want sink to their level.

Sadly in the complex nature of human interaction hurt people end up hurting people, sin can and does become cyclical, cycles which need to be broken and new ways of living, loving and serving together needs to be found.

I had difficult parish in Kingswood, and some challenging relationships to manage. I am not naturally a lover of conflict, in fact I actively dislike conflict. Nor am I saying I always handled it as well as I could have. Yet in the words of Catherine Booth “to change the future you have to disturb the present”.

As Desmond Tutu said that “if you remain silent in the face of sin and justice, then you have sided with the oppressor”.

Jesus never sided with the oppressor, nor turned a blind eye to wrong doing and sinful behaviour.

Light drives back darkness and salt -killing bacteria- can sting, but we are called to be salt and light in our communities, a call to live different, being that “City without walls blazing with the glory of God” a “City on a hill that cannot be hidden”, being the hands a feet of Christ.

On one occasion dealing with one of our more difficult congregational members I was told “leave him he’s not worth it!” and that “people like him wont chsnge”.

Yet Jesus never said anyone wasnt worth it, even washing Judas feet.

The gospel says that even the most unlikely people seeped in sin can change, whether that is the sinfulness of spiteful and toxic church politics or rampant debuchary!

Sadly in one of our Churches in Kingswood my wife and little girl stopped going to one of the 5 Churches because it became the kind of environment we didn’t want our little girl exposed too.

Our Church leaders talk a lot about growth, but surely we need instead to talk about health, being a Christ like community.

Healthy things grow, unhealthy things die, we need to nurture communities that reflect and are full of the Holy Spirit embodying and replicatimg the DNA of Jesus.

A call to follow Jesus and turn from our sin is at the heart of gospel. If the people of our congregations, refuse to listen and respond to the call of Christ to be changed and transformed, then perhaps we need to knock the dust from our feet? Something painful, but actually biblical.

To deal openly, honestly and courageously to see us all become transformed into the likeness of Christ is at the heart of being a Christian. Iron sharpening iron as one person sharpens another. Carrying one anothers burdens. Spuring one another on towards love and good deeds.

The call is to love, even to love those who persecute us, and sometimes it can really feel like persecution, and although love forgives and turns the other cheek, it calls us to the tougher and braver path, not of looking the other way or shrugging our shoulders and saying “that’s just how some people are” but bravely try and build a different community that acts different and is a beacon of hope both to those in the Church -another way is possible- and to those who don’t yet belong, to show them what a Christian community should be.

A Christian community reflecting Christ will need to be defended, Satan will attack it, but let’s not give up trying like Nehemiah in the face of the onslaught from Sabbalats and Tobiahs continuing to build (and rebuild) or the glory of God.

Yes, we will rebuke out of love, as we seek to see God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

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Audacious, call, Deep, relationship with God

Deep and Audacious

Just got back from an awesome evening on Hanham Mount, which is where John Wesley preached his first open air sermon to the Kingswood Miners, 16’000 of them, and they cried white tears of repentance as they heard the message of the cross.

My fab friend Andy Biddlecombe spoke and his message was really simple, but also really profound.

Firstly it was about encountering God in the hidden place, on our own, just us and God, to learn to hear his voice and drink deep from him. Most of us function on near exhaustion and sometimes we are scraping the barrel of our spiritual lives to share anything of value or worth. Yet I believe that God wants us to find our rest, refreshment, renewing in him and in his presence as we learn to seek his face and hear his voice.

Too often we don’t let our roots go deep down into God, too busy rushing around to really take time to seek God and to sacrifice that most precious commodity -our time-.

Yet, actually its not sacrificing our time on God, but rather it is investing it wisely.

A great verse I love “they knew they were ordinary and unskilled men who had been with Jesus”, when we spent time in Jesus’ presence we not just reflect him, but radiate him.

A challenge for us all to take time to go deeper with God, to be ‘fully charged up’ -rather than almost out of juice.

Yet that wasn’t the end of the message, Bidds shared about “being bold and audacious for the Kingdom of God”.

I was reminded, standing where we are on Hanham Mount, that Wesley nearly didn’t do field preaching thinking it was “vile” and “unseemly” to not preach in a Church, but yet he was obedient and stepped out of his insecurities and pre-conceptions and preached Christ unashamedly to those who had come to hear him.

That brave moment in a conversation could be the turning point for someone’s life.

That offer to pray for someone could be that moment of healing and transformation, Bidds spoke about his hero “Smith Wigglesworth” -an illiterate plumber- who bravely challenged us to be expectant and step out in faith, take the Holy Spirit inspired risk.

Too often in our conversations we talk about nothing, when maybe we should speak about something!

Let’s be bold!

Let’s seize the moment.

Let’s be a Church that seeks God deeply in prayer, and a Church that is audacious in proclaiming Jesus.

Remembering we are the people who hold out the word that gives life.

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word on the street 3.

Over Easter we had a mission across the city “The Turning” where we went out and talked with people on the street about Jesus(using a simple script).

Yet we now have the new challenge, rather than just putting a load of effort into a short term event, we are trying to be missional people doing this as a normal part of our usual, normal life together.

we are being ‘intentional’ about keeping on going out together regularly onto the streets to tell people about Jesus, this months there have been three Friday worship sessions followed by three Saturday mornings in different parts of the city.

At the beginning of the month a load of us met up and worshipped, soaked in God’s presence, as someone that is an activist normally with multiple diary clashes prioritising God’s presence was a wonderful thing to do, although I must admit that just turning up for the Saturday outreach did creep into my mind. So glad I didn’t.

Today however I just came to the outreach on the street, we were in South Bristol and I felt convicted if I wanted people to come and share their faith in Kingswood area, then I ought to be prepared to bless other parts of the city too.

Both times on the Street were very different, lots of busy people in a hurry that wouldn’t stop. Yet on both days some people did stop and listen and have conversations with us, on both days we got opportunities to pray for people, and this morning we saw three people pray a prayer of commitment.

All things that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t gone out.

Today we prayed for a woman who said he life had been “ruined by God” as she suffered a stroke, but prayed for her and she prayed a prayer of commitment. Last time a lady we spoke to couldn’t pray that prayer of commitment as she was so angry with God for the way her mum had suffered before she had died.

Realise that in sharing our faith people are giving us privileged access to their hearts.

I wonder how many opportunities I miss by doing something “important” that actually from an eternal perspective might not have been that important at all!

Yet, I believe the Turning Mission is bigger than just the events with the label “The Turning” on it, just as “healing on the streets” and other initiatives should be bigger than just the teams going out, mission and evangelism should filter through to our Churches, our homes and work places.

The Turning has increased our expectancy for God to be at work, helped us see those potential Kingdom encounters. Recently an older gentleman shared about he was at Lidl and the lady at the front of the queue didn’t have enough money and was getting worried, he gently asked how much she was short by (32p) and paid the cashier. The lady asked him why he did this and he said “God loves you” and se began to well-up with tears.

Little things can make a big difference.

This last month, I have been reminded afresh of the pain of so many peoples’ lives.

This month of June I have had a student Dan with me, learning about being a Vicar. The first week he was here we wandered around the local shops giving out mini chocolates just as a gentle blessing from the local Church. The first shop we went into -a sweet shop- the woman declined the sweet but ended up talking about shutting her shop as it was loosing money. we were able to pray with and for her, and as we prayed she began to cry, just felt as though God had somehow touched her in that moment. Ironic as I toyed with the idea of not going into the sweet shop to give out some sweets as it seemed a bit cheeky. I am glad now we did.

Last Friday with the street pastors ended up spending a big chunk of the evening with a homeless couple, the girl of the couple just seemed really vulnerable.

On Thursday I had to help out for a couple of hours in the young peoples secure unit, seeing these young people who look both incredibly vulnerable and incredibly hard at the same time, one can only imagine what they have been through even though they are so young.

Recently as we do our weekly Pints of View (Church in a pub) I have seen us as a team becoming gradually more emboldened, one guy asking if he could pray for Annie (a regular) with her knees, next week she came in and said they were healed, and then began to complain about ankles. we prayed for her ankles, when I saw her a couple of days ago she said “you wont believe it but since you prayed they are ever so much better!”

One guy Jason, the week before heard one guy share most of his life story, but every now and then chipped in something really wise and Godly. People want to share their stories and want to hear what Christians have to say, we have fallen for the lie that people aren’t interested.

Also in our prayer time, we have been joined by a couple of guests, neither sure about what they believe, but both wanted to be there and came back next week, and we made the choice to carry on praying and worshipping in exactly the same way as we did when it was just Christians

Last week too tough lads smirking almost squared up to me and asked me if I could do “one of them gay weddings right there in the pub”… One of those things they didn’t teach me at theological college! It had the potential to be interesting (and by “interesting” I mean I could get punched in the face!). Yet with a bit of chatting and warmth the ice-melted and they admitted they both had girlfriends but thought it’d be funny to see how I reacted! From that my friend Harry began asking one of them if he had a faith, and ended up praying for him that he’d come to know Jesus -I thought Harry was pushing his luck and again expected him to be told to “**** off!” but instead the guy seemed genuinely moved shaking Harry’s and my hands warmly and thumping his chest in a “love you guys kinda way”.

It would be easy to read these stories and feel like we are sorted, but we are not, far from it, I still find even after the umpteenth time going out on the street that I feel nervous, and often wandering away I think of “what I should have said” -not what I did say!, but I believe we are gradually learning what it means to be a missional people living their lives everyday.

I know I and my friends still are far from sorted, but I know too that God is helping us be bolder and riskier in sharing him and seeing people respond.

I remember the line the overseer of The Turning Pastor Yinka says “the fields are white to the harvest and the workers are YOU” -what can we do?

Then we realise that God has gone before us and prepared the way ahead, opened doors and been tapping on lives already.

what an awesome privilege to partner this fantastic God.

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Ashamed of the Gospel?

I like Anthony, he’s a mate of mine from theological college who took Allana and my wedding. He’s a straight-talking guy who thinks deeply, so I asked Anthony the question I have been struggling with: “Why do you think so many Christians struggle to talk about their faith?” -And the follow up question: “and what can we do to help?”

His response deeply challenged me, “I think we have become ashamed of the Gospel. We don’t speak or act like we believe it works or matters anymore! We get embarrassed to talk about sin or our need of repentance, instead we just tell people that God loves them, and the cross is a demonstration of love, and people shrug their shoulders and walk away and say: ‘So what?’”.

As Anthony said this, I was reminded by a quote from William Booth: “The chief danger that confronts the coming century will be religion without the Holy Ghost, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, politics without God, heaven without hell.”

Scripture we believe comforts the afflicted but also afflicts the comfortable, and yet too often we pull our punches and try and make our message seem more palatable for an enquiring world; Christianity has always been controversial, the Cross Paul writes is: “we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1.Cor.1.23).

It is a gritty message, but nature teaches us that without the grit in the oyster there would be no pearl. We are called to be salt -which when it gets into an infected wound really stings- or light which when we have become used to the darkness hurts our eyes.

Anthony has a gift of teaching and I began to wonder so often we think of growth just as “new people coming to Church” but growth more accurately is measured by the fruit of people’s changed and transformed lives. Anthony has grown people with a deeper understanding of what they believe and why they believe it.

I wonder whether to have properly and deeply fed some ‘sheep’ is more fruitful for the Kingdom of God than to have entertained a load of goats? Yet, playing to a big crowd of people who are enjoying what you are saying does feel successful -and the Diocese will love it!- but ultimately the main recognition we are seeking has nothing to do with numbers in a service book but rather the “well done good and faithful servant” from the master himself.

Jesus never spoke of making converts but rather disciples, and a disciple is someone who makes disciples -someone who reproduces the DNA of Jesus in our lives and the lives of those around us.

Sadly, I fear that sometimes Church has become a bit consumerist, indeed our language reflects this “I have come to be fed” -rather than share/serve/love/give/bless- it is the language of getting, rather than giving. A verse that Anthony used to sometimes say at college has stuck with me “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2Tim.4.3).

When I preach am I faithful to God or just playing to the gallery? As I have said earlier in this piece I am passionate about Church unity, but although we need to be loving and wise we also need to remember truth really matters, and to have within our grace-filled relationships space to stretch/challenge and help us all grow together in Christ.

Peter writes in his Epistle challenging the Church to move from spiritual milk to meat, a call to grow up and become wise and discerning, to understand what we believe and why we are to believe it. Growing up is uncomfortable, full of growing pains and a soft diet is popular (who wouldn’t want to live on ice-cream forever?) but comfort makes us sleepy and lethargic and is, I believe, literally killing the Church in this country.

When my dad was a Vicar by the entrance of both vicarages was written the words “I am not ashamed of gospel for it is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe”, for me over the last few weeks this has become my prayer: “Lord, I don’t want to be ashamed of your gospel, give me great boldness and confidence in you and your good news, and remind me again, that it is your power to bring salvation to all who believe -help me to share it faithfully and well whenever you give me the opportunity”.

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Praying with Kev.

I met Kev in Lidl’s car park, my first contact with him had been on Facebook when I posted online what I was exploring doing and even though I had not met him before he’d opted in. He was pleased I was visiting Okehampton, and greeted me warmly.

He took me to a random hill outside the town (did worry I was getting kidnapped) and we walked to a vantage point where the whole town was spread out before us. “Our Church has been coming up here to pray for years” he said.

The view was impressive and he explained and pointed out many of the key buildings interspersed with passionate and heartfelt prayers: “this guy can pray” I thought, I love praying with people who are passionate about prayer as their fire and passion is contagious, I needed a bit of that contagion as had been out on the streets the previous evening with the Pirans’ Street Angels and was feeling tired and achy.

Kev it transpired was a local councillor and was really informed about the local area knowing its road names and streets with encyclopaedic knowledge and also knew the opportunities and challenges facing the local area too.

As I heard Kev talk I was reminded of an evening we had held in Bournemouth with the School of Mission and my friend Hilary Bond a local minister had spoken about how prayer and intersession is not an escapist activity but rather draws us deeper and more emotionally into what and who we are praying for. When we truly intercede God also often asks us to become the answer to our prayers and causes us to walk more deeply within our communities, such was clearly the case with Kev.

Kev then pointed out to us a Roman Crossroads where slaves were set free which had obvious gospel parallels and felt like there was a prophetic element too. I have often wondered whether there are Gospel images and Kingdom gems scattered all over the place pointing back to Christ at work in his world.

We then went and wandered around a new housing estate to pray for the people who would be living here. When I was in Bristol I chaired a new housing group with people exploring what to do with their parishes when they would suddenly expand, grow and develop a new demographic, it was one of the most fun groups I did, I loved seeing fellow Church leaders eyes light up with talking about making connections with real people and impacting real communities, one guy Howard used to give every new arrival a welcome hamper and was doing regular community events such as pancake parties etc, another friend Rachel used coffee mornings (such as Macmillan or other charities) to bring people together and on one occasion went around dressed as a giant banana to promote “fair-trade fortnight” and over that fortnight she spoke to many people! It was great too to see the Church ahead of the game, ready and anxious to serve, thinking about welcome and well-being.

Another area Kev was passionate about was the area of outreach to blokes, as so often our Churches have a real gender imbalance and many guys have little or no connection with Church. I remember my friend Mark who did Street Pastors with me giving a doorman called Alan an invite to Alpha, Alan thanked him and said: “cheers mate, I’ll give that to my Mrs!” -which to me sums up the problem! Kev is doing a meal in a golf course with a Christian guy from the TV show Gladiators coming to speak, we prayed for this event.

As I left Kev I realised that over the couple of hours we were together I had gone from feeling tired and grumpy, to energised and fired up about who God was at what I believe he was doing on this tour.

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Stuck in traffic.

As I began my tour, setting off with trepidation I was delayed on the drive for an hour due to a fatality, on the other side of the road, on the outskirts of Plymouth.

Little did I know that sadly the theme around death and how we live our life, how we use this time we have on this earth, would be something that kept on repeating itself over the journey.

As we saw them erecting screens to hide the sight from us as we drove past, I thought for a moment about death and how we shield ourselves from it, the last taboo in our society we talk about sex, politics and religion all the time but some how death remains a subject off limits.

Recently I have been attending a group called “Death Café” -which I think sounds like a goth band- which meets every month -with fantastic cake- and people share their experiences and talk freely about death.

This group is not Church run, or a Christian group, I would urge Christians to join groups like this as helps us all to learn from one another, too often in Churches we want to ‘run’ everything; this is a group a friend runs and I attend just as me, a random bloke who has lots of questions and things to explore but loves and seeks to follow Jesus.

Interestingly thinking about death rather than being morbid is both life-affirming and challenges my desire at times to procrastinate as the realisation is that sometimes tomorrow might not come, and opportunities to say and do things might not arise.

For me, when I was nineteen and living in Eastbourne, the sudden death of a friend, Samantha Wood, jolted me out of my complacency where for too long I was sat on the fence about whether I was going to run with my Christian faith or whether I was going to go off and join the crowd at some party or other.

I vividly remember the last conversation I had with Sam, she was sat outside a corner shop that was opposite the Church where my dad was Vicar. She asked me “if I still went to Church” I answered her in a moment of real honesty “that I did still go to Church fairly often, but I’d rather find out about God when I was 40 or 50 and settled down to be boring!” -I cringe at the ageism of that statement. A couple of weeks later her dad went to wake up for a driving lesson and found her dead.

At that time I worked in a nursing home so was pretty used to people dying, but Sam was my age, my friend, she did many of the things I did, and her death made me ask about the point of life and death, and heaven and hell, and what really mattered?

What had real and eternal value and what was just a passing phase? It was a painful process, Sam died in the September and it was the Easter day that year that I finally surrendered, gave in, and rededicated my life to God. I remember using the phrase “I don’t want to ‘play’ at being a Christian, I want to follow Jesus for real” (also at that time a friend Deb was very influential in challenging me and inviting me to Church, and again to my shame at times I was not very gracious).

The death of Sam, along with the reminder of the crash ahead of us reminded me again of both the finality of death struck me afresh along with the preciousness of life.

Recently at the death café someone shared how their life had been transformed when as a child they received a life-saving and life changing transplant operation, and talked about how feeling feels the need to “make her life count” feeling they owe it to the donor, realising life’s fragility and seeking to do things they wouldn’t normally have done, grasping the opportunities whenever they present themselves.

For me this resonated with my Christian faith, that we have received salvation and eternal life that we now live for Christ, but too often we live lives that are comfortable and safe, vanilla and without adventure, opportunities whizzing past us like an incompetent goalie during a penalty shoot-out.

As I remembered Jesus promise to give us “life in all its fullness” which is translated elsewhere “as life in abundance” (Jn.10.10) -a white knuckle rollacosta ride of a faith journey. I wondered if part of my frustration with my own journey, and why so many people dismiss Christianity as “boring” is because we fail to see our lives in the way that woman who had received a transplant did. John Wimber described faith as being described “R-I-S-K” but most of my Christian life I what I have experienced was sadly often pretty dull and uninspiring -so very different from the Christ we profess to follow! Over the last couple of years I have looked at a number of parish profiles, vision documents and faith statements as I sought where God might be calling us after Kingswood, and I realised I didn’t just want to read some statement of faith, but rather seeing “faith that made statements!”. I remember on a course I was on a leader spoke of saying to his Church “we want to have a faith that makes you gulp rather than yawn!”

I wondered if more people would follow Christ if more of us threw off our complacency, caution and comfort and sought to live our lives more like Jesus.

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As I was passing…

Meeting up with Joe was not part of my official schedule but he was a friend I knew who was living in St. Erth, near Penzance and I thought as I was passing be great to look in and say “Hi!”

I first met Joe on a warm summers’ night with the street pastors in my previous parish in Kingswood around seven years ago. He came up to us with his (then) girlfriend looking a bit wide-eyed and scared.

“You al’right mate?” my friend and fellow Street Pastors Mark asked.

“No, not really, it’s our flat, everything’s weird and we think it’s haunted!”

I gulped… Why do they never teach you this stuff at theological college!!

Anyway, we prayed with them and in their flat, and left them with a Bible. Later over the next few weeks and months Joe and his girlfriend became friends, made easier by Joe’s shared love of Manchester United! They began to attend a local church and responded to a gospel message when preached one Sunday.

Yet, too often we make conversion the end of the story rather than the beginning of the journey of discipleship, often a tough journey and one we rarely talk about often or seriously enough!

“I was a bit of a nightmare” Joe admitted with a grin as I sat in his front room six years later, he has made a good life in Cornwall, he’s got married, has two kids, and is self-employed and has a lovely home, he’s done well for himself. When we chatted he’s not found a Church in Cornwall to be a part of: “they’re all really traditional and no one my age!” (I imagine that finding a lively fellowship when you are 27 might not be easy in rural Cornwall).

I began to think how many people make a commitment to Christ but for various reasons they struggle, and we struggle to keep in touch with them too.

As I drove away I ft bad about how poorly I’d kept in touch with Joe, and then I thought how many other Joe’s I knew who had accepted Christ and began the discipleship journey but had slipped away from my radar and contact had been lost.

I began to think about Joe (and many others), who probably doesn’t need to hear another gospel presentation but does need real friends alongside him who are also wanting to follow Jesus.

How many Joe’s are out there who are open to Christ but not found a place of belonging in a local church?
I smirked thinking that could describe me as I love Jesus but have found Church to be a real struggle here in Poole.

When I saw people who had moved away and they had not got joined to a local body of believers, I was sometimes a bit sharp, but now looking at it from the other side, I realise how impenetrable many Churches are, and how hard it is to feel like the outsider always trying to make the effort. As I continued to drive, I repented for the times I had been a nothing more sharply worded Pharisee unsympathetic to people struggling to find a Church family to belong to, as tears rolled down my unshaven cheeks.

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Meeting Brendan in Birmingham.

Sometimes there is a logical place to start, but this probably isn’t it.

I’m seven days into a fourteen-day tour of England, from Cornwall to Carlisle, in what a friend called ‘an activist pilgrimage’ -seeing and joining in where I can where God is at work . Often this has been in doing the unglamorous jobs such as sweeping up broken bottles with Street Angels/Pastors or chopping up vegetables in a Bristol soup kitchen.

I’m having coffee with a guy called Mark Berry, who leads Safe Space in Telford, and also works for Birmingham Diocese. He has also been involved in various missional activities such as offering a safe (and pretty funky!) place for people from the night-time economy called ‘Sanctuary’ and being a chaplain to Telford Football club.

Yet this isn’t what set my heart racing (cool though it is) it was the story of how their community, ‘safe space’ had chosen their Patron saint, Brendan.

I did not know Brendan’s story, he was a guy who knew, loved, followed and served Jesus. He and his friends wanted to tell others about Jesus, the pearl of great price worth sacrificing everything for. So they decided to just set off to the unknown in a Kayak with the desire and commitment to preach the gospel where-ever he landed, he went where the wind-blew and God directed.

Yet, sat in his Kayak -pushing out into the deeper waters- Brandon is a picture of both mission as defined by “going” but also mission embodied by “being” -you put everything you want to take -including yourself- into the boat.

Mark talked about his missional community, which rather than a gathering where we invite our not yet believing mates too, this is a small group -rather like a cell like- is where people eat and share life together radically, authentically and honestly (with communion as part of the meal). As he talked about his community, where (like Brendon’s Kayak) everything was on the table, the call to “go” was not negotiable and quite how it looked or what it would cost was unknown. This little community together exciting (or perhaps terrifying) missional dreams are dreamed together and each is held accountable for their Kingdom dreaming before God.

This I thought is the kind of faith I have been restlessly searching for most of my Christian life but rarely seen.

A group that said they “struggled in Church” which resonated with me, I had been a vicar in Bristol for eight years but eighteen months ago I left, disillusioned not with God but with the institution of the Church. I still love Jesus but as a family we as a family had bumped and bruised by Church and people who call themselves Christians.

A few days earlier I was stood on Hanham Mount where John Wesley had stepped out of his comfort zone and preached to the Miners of Kingswood, and saw many repent and come to faith, we were worshipping there and one line of a song spoke to where my heart had been at for a long time asking the question that “there must be more than this”. I knew there was more, much, much more.

When I was first ordained I was full of fire and passion, hungry to serve and go where-ever God called, over the years I have been called “naïve” for believing that God is still wanting to transform lives and communities and have had people talk of “reigning in” or “clipping wings”, but I refuse to believe that there is anything spiritually mature about a defeatist and pessimistic outlook. I have become so sick and tired of Church that almost apologise for being Christians with bland and inoffensive vision and practices that feel so tame and repetitive, often with straplines that seem to be created to pull together three words that mildly ambiguous and no-one could possibly disagree with.

As I left the Church of England people have said “what about your pension?” urging me to stay in the comfort and security of the institution, but deep down I know that following Jesus was never meant to be safe, so despite my bumps and bruises -and many questions, doubts and fears- I want to, like Brendan, get up and get back in the Kayak again, and go where-ever the Holy Spirit leads.

Mark reminded me that the early Celtic Christians talked about the Holy Spirit being like a “Wild Goose” that was unpredictable, precarious and scary to chase -hence the phrase “Wild Goose Chase” but something about this was exciting -even if it was dangerous and costly.

Too often in the current Church climate we speak a lot of vision, strategy and leadership a great deal, but leadership in and of itself is utterly futile unless the leader is primarily a follower of Christ Jesus themselves, and strategy and vision are both good things provided our strategy and vision line up with and surrender to the will of God. At an interview I was once asked about my strategy -which I said to love people and to pray and (to quote Jesus’ mother Mary at the wedding of Cana) “do whatever he tells you?” (Jn.2.5)

The boat goes where-ever the wind takes it, the person in the boat has little or no control, Brendon is a picture not only of surrender but if trusting the wind of the spirit. One of my prayers over the years has been “Lord, don’t let me run ahead of you, or lag behind you, don’t let me wander to the liberal left or the legalistic right, but instead keeping in-step with you”.

This small community, with their excitingly eccentric patron saint, felt like a pint of ice-cold water on a hot day, quenching something within my soul; perhaps like me you want to “push out into the deep water” and leave the comfort and security behind throwing off the lie that jaded cynicism is the same as wisdom and maturity and set sail for what is unknown but being guided by the one who calls us, and we know him to be faithful.

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Frank Gets Everywhere!

As part of my tour St. Francis kept on cropping up, I was reading a booklet by my friend Chris and he is constantly quoted! I visit the young francisceans in London and they talk about “how the life of Francis and his care for creation inspired them”, I see the brothers in Plaistow talk of how Francis helps them follow Jesus and I tried (unsuccessfully) to visit the Franciscan brothers of the renewal when I was in Bradford!

He get’s everywhere does Frank!

St. Francis of Assisi has become something of a surprising companion in my Christian life! As a child I had seen some rather naff pictures of St. Francis looking all ethereal in his brown habit and long beard, surrounded by the animal cast of “Ace Venture: Pet Detective” hanging around him and to be honest was someone I didn’t know much about -or care much about.

Later as a young Christian I’d been to what a “liturgical cake club” where people talked about St. Francis more than Jesus, read liturgy and ate cake -which left me a little cold!

Yet when I was at theological college we had a remarkable lecturer called Howard Worsley, who caused me to re-visit Francis in a way that was life-changing for
me, he was a truly inspirational man of God, whose life challenged me in how I
follow Jesus.

Francis was born in Assisi in 1182, grew up the son of a wealthy silk merchant and was extravagant and wild, drinking heavily and womanising.

As a Street Pastor seeing people falling over in the street, brawling over girls and dropping their kebabs all over the floor, I used to sometimes remember Francis and think that anyone of these guys waiting for a taxi, could be someone who could be mightily used by God to change this nation.

Yet despite Francis’ licentious life-style inside he felt crushing emptiness and longed for purpose and meaning. Seeking adventure he signed up for a military campaign in Perugia, and ended up as a Prisoner of War in Collestrada.
It was during his time here that he had a dramatic and life transforming conversion to following Jesus Christ. When he was freed he returned home a changed man.

His friends tried to tempt him back to his old life and he talked of marrying “A fairer bride than any of you have ever seen… Lady Poverty”.
On one occasion a beggar asked Francis for Alms from his Fathers market stall and Francis gave him all the money he had.

His Father was furious, and beat Francis and locked him away. His Father threatened to cut his son out of his will if he didn’t give up his crazy new life and ideas.

Too often we allow the ‘golden handcuffs’ of other peoples’ opinions, financial security, career stability or whatever to stop us doing all that God would have us do. Yet Francis, however, wouldn’t be dissuaded In a fantastic act in the middle of the city-centre of Assisi -the Bishop used his Mitre to try and protect Francis modesty.

Francis spent time seeking God’s call on his life, and heard Christ say to him “to go and restore my Church which is falling into ruins” -he initially took Christ literally and tried to rebuild the falling down Church he was praying in.
Too often we think about the Church as in the building and the institution, yet God does not see his Church as just bricks and mortar but rather his people, his body, his bride those who have heard and heeded the call to following/loving/serving Christ.

From there Francis literally had nothing, he began to wear a habit -the clothes of a beggar- which has now been known by being worn by monks, but at that time was a symbol of poverty but also a deliberate standing in solidarity with the marginalized. He was attending a Mass when he heard the story of the Disciples going out to call people to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom, going without a bag, belt, money or even a spare tunic. This idea of ‘stepping out in faith’ reliant on Christ for everything appealed to Francis and him and eleven other friends began to do just that, sharing Christ where-ever they went taking nothing with them. His rule of life was simple it was “To follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps” -too often in the Church politics of much of Christendom -now and then- people get so caught up in things that ‘follow Jesus…and walking in his footsteps’ gets side-lined. Francis’ discipleship was costly and sacrificial, not a going through the motions religiosity.

Francis began to work with lepers, and on one occasion when he was being castigated for touching a leper spun around and kissed the leper on the mouth. Francis wasn’t afraid to shock and challenge.

At this time the crusades were raging and many people were going off to spread Christianity not with converting hearts but with swords and violence, something Francis opposed. During the war the Sultan (the leader of the Arabic army) offered gold for the head of any Christians discovered in his lands. Francis bravely sought to make peace speaking both to the crusaders and the Muslims. He walked into the Sultan’s lands, risking his life, and met with the Sulton and although neither converted the other, both walked away respecting the other and becoming friends.

Struck by Francis bravery to seek another way the way of peace, too often we as Christians seem to collude with the idea that problems are best solved with violence. Francis risked his life to build relationships -friendships- with people who would have been viewed as his enemies. His love, grace and the reality of Christ in his life saved his life.

After the Crusades, the Franciscan movement continued to grow, and a friend, Claire of Assisi, felt called to start an order for women who wanted to live out their faith and discipleship in such a radical way as Francis and his followers, following the three rules of “Poverty, Chastity and Obedience”.

In a world that is so deeply materialistic, and capitalism runs wild to deliberately choose to live in poverty is liberating and an act of resistance and protest.

In a highly sexualised, promiscuous and hedonistic culture choosing celibacy is radically counter-cultural.

In an independent world, a world whose mantra is often “you can’t tell me what to do” in choosing to say ‘no’ to ourselves and ‘yes’ to Christ, is something that our culture cannot understand, and yet it is at the heart of discipleship echoing that war within ourselves that Paul speaks of in Romans 7.

For me as I read Francis words’ he was someone who wanted to be utterly committed to living his life for Christ.

His story reminds me of the Simon-Peter, Andrew, James and John who left everything and went and followed Jesus.

Jesus talks of the parable of the Pearl of Great Price so beautiful and pure that the merchant seeking fine pearls was prepared to give up everything to possess that pearl.

We as Christians know this pearl to be Christ.

So, as we take this glimpse of Francis someone who wasn’t just prepared to go through the motions of faith, but lived a life of radical obedience to his Lord.
I’ll end with Francis famous prayer:

“Lord make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy
O divine master grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it’s in dying that we are born to eternal life”.

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My Birthday Picnic…

Before I left for my ‘grand tour’ I gathered some mates for a bit of a birthday picnic in a local park, some of my friends are Christians, some wouldn’t call themselves Christians and others would say that they were/had been Christians.

It was interesting as a motley collection of people gathered together to chat, eat and drink together a group whose only common-denominator was me, but as I thought about it this was actually saying something very profound about mission and outreach.

Too many of us as Christians get somewhat ‘sucked into Churchianity’ where over the years of our Christian commitment our social network reduces to becoming more and more Churchy and less and less meaningful engagements with those who have different faith/worldviews and values than us.

The Comedian Milton Jones once remarked that Church and helicopters had one thing in common: “They both suck you into the rotas!”

Whilst I was a Vicar in Kingswood I realised that almost every night there was a meeting that someone expected me to go to, normally with people who already attended Church, and normally did not move the Kingdom cause further either, and yet as I look back I wish I had spent much more time growing and maintaining my friendships -many of which withered and died during my time as a Vicar as I was so busy attempting to keep the Church happy that I neglected the people -friends and family- that God had put around me, which I deeply regret.

I had a foolish notion that as these were all Churchy meetings’ I was somehow being faithful to my calling, but in reality I wonder if my presence made little if any difference?

Indeed, looking back there was a perverse irony that Church takes up all our time, so we end up putting on social events for our members, and we end up putting on outreach events so that we can meet our neighbours -when perhaps if we were better at valuing and maintaining the relationships we already had everything might look very different.

I wondered of the idea that some Churches call formation, is taking people who are functioning well as Christians living/working alongside normal people, place them in a weird churchy bubble for three years (also give them a new job title and uniform) and place them in a new area and context and wonder why they struggle to relate to people whose lives don’t revolve around this odd bubble we call Church.

When I was a college one of our Modules was known as B.S. (which where I come from B.S. is slag for Bullsh*t!) here it stood for Biblical studies, but my friend Simon and I suggested it should stand for “Beer Studies” and the module would entitle spending an evening in a pub and having conversations with local people about the normal stuff people talk about.

Although initially suggested as a ‘joke’ the idea actually exposes a problem Christians have of not being able to speak to the people they live amongst.

Which is a strange problem for us to have as Christians as our faith revolves around the incarnate God, God who become human, lived as one of us, came amongst us, dwelled with us. Jesus knew the people he was talking too, he mixed and ate with those he should have done and those who people thought he shouldn’t!

Jesus was part of the culture he spoke into, his life, faith and teaching spoke the language of those he was amongst, he was holy and without sin, but he was able to integrate and build relationship with the people around him.

Jesus spoke their language and yet we often speak a different language of theology and/or church (and indeed often becoming more middle-class too!), yet Pentecost enabled “everyone to hear in their own tongue”, what has gone wrong?

The challenge for us as Christians is to get out of our Churches is to make friends with those around us and listen to what they say and learn to understand the culture and language of those around us rather than expecting people to come to us, speak our language and understand what we are going on about and why it matters.

Anyway, I digress, here I was drinking beer and eating birthday cake (which is a strange mix) with people I have got to know over the last eighteen months of being here, and I noticed a few things.

Firstly, to become friends with people takes time, it has taken a while from small talk at the school gate to grabbing a beer!

Interestingly, I became friends with one guy when I needed a hand putting up my daughters trampoline, and asked him for help. I pondered on this, often friendships are forged by either us serving someone, or us humbling ourselves and being served – asking for help. If I said (as I was tempted to do with my ‘proud-male-head’) “I can manage this trampoline all by myself” -I might never have become friends with my neighbour across the road.

As we chatted over the trampoline he talked about one of his friends who he grew up with becoming a Pastor and the conversation flowed normally and naturally about faith, it wasn’t forced or weirdly premeditated, but talking about life and stuff and somewhere in the mix there was a moment of sharing bits of our story/faith journey.

Too often we are so paranoid about talking about our faith that we either end up tactlessly crow barring it into every conversation, or we never mention it, both of which is a bit weird, we often presume that people are not interested in faith, and indeed many of them have their own stories to tell and are keen to chat to someone.

The question we as Christians need to ask is are we approachable and if people want to ask something more deep and personal are we respectful enough for people to feel okay in speaking to us about spiritual things?

Recently with a project “Poole New Monastics” I am involved with we have a number of people who would not call themselves Christians as friends and part of us; one day in the pub one of them asked “Andy, would ‘success be for you if we all became Christians?” -a great question! To which I had to answer that I think Jesus is amazing and would love everyone to follow him, but friends are friends no matter whether they believe the same thing as me, and everyone has something valuable to bring” -I love my friends far too much to just treat them as ‘projects’.

My friend Dave is a Christian Schools worker and he takes lessons with the chair of the local humanists society (also called Dave, just to be confusing!) and despite both having very different world-views, and both disagreeing with the other person, they have become friends.

We have a myth our society needs to debunk that unless you agree with someone on everything you cannot be friends, when I believe the reverse is true, the wider we have our networks of friends the more we all learn from each other, hear each-other’s stories, and understand the world a bit better.

When I was a Church-based youth worker there was a saying “we do not love our young people in order to convert them, we love them no matter what, but we would love them to know/love/follow Jesus!” -Just as with my little girl, I would love her to know/love/follow Jesus, but whatever she decides to do I will always love her.

My friend John, a Baptist Minister, who has recently moved into the area to plant a Church, has said that first thing he wants to do is just make some local friends.

My challenge to people who talk about “doing mission” is hang out and make friends with people around you, often our missional desire is (partly) a realisation that we have got ourselves into a Christian bubble that is suffocating our souls.

So, lets be people that make friends -real friends- at work, at the gym, in the pub, at the school gate where-ever it is you hang out. Yet, it needs to be said (especially as we get older) that making new friends sometimes takes time and a bit of a risk in making ourselves vulnerable -perhaps it means going to one less Churchy meeting a week and joining a group or evening class about something you’re passionate about or would like to learn more about? Another Baptist Minister in my last parish spoke about how he had a radical idea of radically cutting back the Churchy meetings to free people up to develop meaningful relationships in the community, but what happened was people just ended up watching more telly.

I have heard lots of people talk recently about community and fellowship both of which are important but too often these are cliques that keep us from the real world and in a Christian bubble, it is important to have supportive friendships with other Christians but too often these become too exclusive.

So, make friends, drink beer, eat birthday cake and then go to the gym, get out there and widen your circle of friends and if your Church has become a bubble then gently and with love burst it!

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