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Mourning who I wasn’t.

This has been a thought that has been going through my mind over the last couple of days, as I have been thinking (or perhaps over thinking) about everything.

There are some things I know I will never be, or do, or achieve that I am fine with -I will never be an olympic gymnast does not cause me huge great disappointment.

We all have our dreams, some which might happen and others that might not, and those that did not, -or tougher still nearly happened- can be tough. Sometimes these have to be grieved, and grief can take time -and sometimes bereavement counsellors tell us we get ‘stuck’ in a bit of a grief ‘cul de sac’.

I also know that I have expectations of myself that sometimes are realistic and others that are not, I think I drove myself in my work life partly due to a drive of unrealistic expectations I placed on myself.

Yet, some expectations are realistic and yet not achievable all the time, most of us who are parents want to be good ones -and yet the truth is we will all have bad days, none of us can get it right all the time. We might never manage ‘perfect’ and that’s okay, no one (other than perhaps us and our inner critic) demands perfection of us (and if they do, that is an unfair and unrealistic expectation).

Sometimes, we hear other peoples voices in our inner monologues, sometimes people who are no longer in our lives, but their words have gone really deep into our perception of ourselves. I realised I was trying to prove a teacher from primary school wrong when I had not seen him in years, but his voice telling me I was “a waste of space” went deep.

Sometimes these false expectations of ourselves need to be laid to rest.

I had this idealised picture of “Super-vicar” with the revival kicking off and life looking like something out of Enid Blyton with everything perpetually happy “with lashings of ginger beer” -to quite EB! Realising that life is not a fairytale with everything covered in glitter is a tough realisation that some of us still secretly believe, the world is fallen as our we and delusion is sadly within all of us, as we chase illusive things that wont actually make us happy, as once again we buy into the fantasy that a certain aftershave (or whatever) will make everything good. Advertisers rarely sell a product, they sell a dream of a different life featuring their product at its centre, we buy the product partly because we get hooked into the illusion they catch us with.

Someone once said “comparison is the thief of joy” as too often we spend our days looking at everyone else and feeling like we’re not as good; or more dangerous is we also sometimes look out for someone else whose worse than us to help us feel better about ourselves “at least I am not as bad as…”

Comparisons either beat us up, or let us off dealing with something, both of which are probably unhelpful.

Yet, if we think of life as running a race focusing on the other competitors actually inhibits us from running as well as we could. I remember we had a mission in Kingswood, and a very gifted guy, Greg Sharples, came and helped, and he was so good at talking to people normally about Jesus in a way that was not freaky or weird, I remember walking home feeling a bit jealous and I remember praying “God I want people in Kingswood to hear about Jesus, Greg has been AMAZING, why am I feeling these silly thoughts!” I remember God saying: “If I wanted 2 Gregs his mum would have had twins!” -I wondered Greg was amazing on a mission, but I was called to be there for eight years -the long haul- and maybe it was okay -it was not a like for like comparison- he was him and I was me, and that was okay.

Yet too often we don’t “own” or notice our comparisons and do not deal with them in a right and a healthy way.

I know I sometimes live in an unrealistic fantasy of what I expect from myself, learning to accept that I cannot be liked by everyone all the time as a leader trying to move a set of Churches forward, was -for me- a painful lesson.

The Bible makes it clear that we are not perfect, but flawed human beings, ‘remember you are but dust’ it says on one occasion. If you are like me, then sometimes we are our own fiercest critic, rarely ‘patting ourselves on the back’ but often hard on our mistakes, holding ourself often to an impossible and unachievable standard. We cannot be perfect, but be better than we are.

Yet to we can sometimes cherish a wrong view of ourselves, sometimes we (although we notice it more in others) cling onto a vision of ourselves that is not us, or perhaps never was, sometimes we lack a self awareness -and even if we are pretty good with our self awareness I think we probably all have blindspots. Please don’t tell me I’m like this, when I really believe (or want to believe) I am like that, and sometimes hearing the truth that confronts and conflicts our image of ourselves is really painful. I think that is why I struggled to accept I might have ADHD because it did not fit my picture of myself in my head, or rather it did and I did not want to admit it did. I think too we sometimes use sweeping statements like being “a good listener” and the truth is that even the best lister in the world might get distracted when they are watching football, a more truthful comment is: “in those one on one conversations you have the ability to listen really well”.

I think too, it is important to realise afresh we are works in progress, the biggest danger I think we all face is a belief we have arrived, when none of us have, we are never fully sorted, yet we can be more sorted than we are at the moment.

St. Anthony talked of “your cell being your best teacher” by which he meant that time on your own being confronted by yourself as you are, rather than as you would like to be, will teach you lots about discipleship and yourself, many of us have had to stop what we are doing, and are at this moment due to this crazy virus and the lockdown, confronted with ourselves and maybe doing that ‘Soul Work’ with realising who we are, who we are not, whether our picture of ourselves in our own hearts and minds is accurate or whether actually bit need adjusting, difficult comments need processing, expectations need challenging and re-visiting.

This is a rare opportunity we have been granted, and for some of us it feels pretty scary, just as I am rubbish at tidying my bedroom I can procrastinate about sorting out what the Buddhists call my internal life.

Yet in doing this, it is not letting our inner critic take the gloves off and really go for us -which was sometimes how I would feel after some retreat times- but it is meeting the God who loves us passionately, who wants to spend time with us, who cannot possibly love us anymore than he does already (and wont love us any less by the end of it) walk through who we are with him, the person he made us to be.

Now I have plenty of “why have you made me like this God” -not just because I haven’t got a 6 pack and have a chin like buzz lightyear- but the internal stuff too, and maybe this will get somewhat resolved at this time, and maybe it won’t, but gently learning what he wants to teach us, to be the us he created us to be, to help us thrive at being us, the best us, which I find exciting. I love seeing my daughter on the trampoline (except of late it is freezing when stood outside watching her!) because she is so happy, she’s good at it and getting better all the time, she seems at her best there. God’s the same, he wants to see us excelling in the things he has called us to do, to thrive in being us.

I think my other problem with coping with those times of ‘encountering myself’ was that I had a wrong image of God, stern and disapproving -sometimes his voice in my head got blended with my own inner critic- and discovering a God rooting for me, who loves me, “who rejoices over me with singing” (Zeph.3.17). For me, the most transformative thing in my concept of my understanding of God was becoming a dad, I remember watching my beautiful little girl take a few steps unaided and cheering her with tears in my eyes, and thinking that is how God is with us.

My inner critic that tells me I am rubbish is not God’s voice, God does challenge and convict us, but a feeling of condemnation is not from him.

So, when we emerge from this time, my prayer is for me -and all those reading this blog- that we may have entered like caterpillars but exit like butterflies, beautiful and confident in who God has made us, thriving in who God has called us to be, and liberated from what we are not meant, called or expected to be.

As we emerge, thinking of God as a parent on school sports day cheering us on with love and pride in his wet eyes.

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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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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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A blog about Shane Claiborne…

We were about to launch our “Lent Challenge” at our Church plant, All Souls Southey Park (in Bristol) where I was preaching, asking us all to read the teaching of Jesus in the gospels afresh. Each Sunday we were looking at one of the gospel (and we looked at Jesus in Isaiah as we had an extra Sunday!) and daring to believe “What if Jesus really meant what he said?”

“What if Jesus meant the what he said” was actually the tagline for one of Claiborne’s books, Red Letter Christian, which he wrote with his mentor the activist, author and scholar Tony Campolo, who is one of the leading voices in America’s Christians on the left. In some Bibles the words Jesus speak are printed in red, but a “Red Letter Day” is also what we call a day that is particularly noteworthy or memorable.

A phrase within Claiborne’s previous book, Irresistible Revolution, had really stuck with me, I was inspired –or perhaps challenged is a better word- by a quote that was a bit tongue in cheek from Shane Claiborne who said this: “We do need to be born again, since Jesus said that to a guy named Nicodemus. But if you tell me I have to be born again to enter the Kingdom of God, I can tell you that you have to sell everything you have and give it to the poor, because Jesus said that to one guy, too. But I guess that’s why God invented highlighers, so we can highlight the parts we like and ignore the rest.”

I had just ‘preached my heart out’ and having finished I slumped into a chair, exhausted. Sam –who was leading the service- took the microphone and said laughing: “It sounds like Andy has a bit of a man-crush on Shane Claiborne… I think he quoted him more than Jesus in his sermon!”

So, many people will be surprised that this particular travelling companion nearly did not end up being included, yet I felt that much of what he says has been said elsewhere, and other people like St. Francis or Dorothy Day are saying the same things that he would say to us.

Indeed, I wonder if Claiborne himself might have agreed as he famously once wrote: “Most good things have been said far to many times they just need to be lived!”

GK Chesterton said in his book ‘What’s Wrong With The World’: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried” –Claiborne as a younger man went looking to see where he could find the Christian life authentically lived out and embodied, as reflecting on his youth growing up in the American Bible belt of East Tennessee he found that “people taught me what Christians believe, but no one taught me how Christians live”. Sadly there are many Churches that might be doctrinally sound but in practical terms they are “sound asleep”! His search took him to the slums of Calcutta working with the destitute with Mother Teresa, or to hang out with the activists of the Catholic worker movement, or listening to crazy dreamers such as Tony Campolo.

Campolo has been something of an irritant to the American Church for many years, yet some of us feel he has been a prophetic voice, the grit in the pearl that produces beautiful pearls, as he seeks to live his life in as Jesus-like way as possible.
One of my favourite Campolo stories is when he is severly jetlagged and after speaking at a conference couldn’t sleep and ends up in an all night “greasy spoon” café, he gets chatting to those who are in there, several of whom are sex workers, and it turns out that one has a birthday the following day, more than that it turns out she has never had a birthday cake or party, so Campolo suggests throwing a party for her the following night, with cake and balloons etc, which they do, and the evening is a success. He ended up chatting to a guy who couldn’t believe Campolo was a Pastor, and said “A Church that throws parties for whores at 3:00 in the morning is the type of Church I would go to”. Claiborne talks of the world needing to see a “Church that looks more like Jesus” –interestingly most of the criticism we have of Church actually stem from the times we look least like Jesus; part of me believes that in that grotty café a tiny bit of heaven touched earth, and Jesus was glimpsed through the grace and love that Tony Campolo showed. It is easy in writings such as this to “bash” the Church, but we are the Church, at a moment of frustration he wrote this: “Shortly afterward, I sat puzzled, grieving over the state of our church. “I think I’ve lost hope in the church,” I confessed, broken-hearted, to a friend. I will never forget her response. “No, you haven’t lost hope in the church. You may have lost hope in Christianity or Christendom or all the institutions, but you have not lost hope in the church. This is the church.” At that moment, we decided to stop complaining about the church we saw, and we set our hearts on becoming the church we dreamed of”. Claiborne is a revolutionary, and wants a revolution in the Church one that begins with you and I daring to live differently, and those of us that see and feel deeply how that Church we have inherited is not how it should be have the responsibility to be modern day Nehemiah’s restoring, resurrection and reimaging what it means to be God’s people with his redemptive and transformative plan for his Bride and his world.

Claborne is the founder of the Simple Way, a group of Christians living as a community in the heart of Philadelphia in a challenging neighbourhood, trying to live a Christ-like life in all that they do. They seek to live a radically differently in their ordinary every day choices, both large and small, they grow their own food, they make their own clothes, they are activists protesting at injustices in society and prophetic in their actions turning guns and knives taken from the street into gardening tools reminiscent of the words of the Old Testament Prophets who spoke of “beating swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2:4; Joel 3:12 & Micah 4:3). Yet, this prophetic actions are matched by practical work on the streets to see kids not end up in gangs and cycles of ever escalating violence. The Simple Way is both prayerful and practical, on their knees as well as rolling up the sleeves. Clearly it is hard work, and they are faced daily with the brokenness of humanity and the world, and yet whenever I hear or read Shane Claiborne I am struck by the joy that seems to exude from him.

He is a crazy Christian hippy with dreadlocks and a bandanna who has an amazing air of joy about him, he laughs as he speaks and talks of being involved in holy mischief such as defying a city ban on the feeding the homeless by doing a Eucharist with take away pizza –I wonder whether he has more of a handle on what Jesus meant when he promised his followers “life in all its fullness” (Jn.10.10) or as other translations put it “life in its abundance” or “life in Technicolour”?
As I thought of my Christian life words like “duty”, “discipline” and “discipleship” seem to feature much more that “joy”, “fun” and “celebration” –I hear Shane Claiborne telling stories of buying a street kid from Calcutta a birthday ice cream -who instinctively shared it all with his friends- and I think although I have a whole study full of books I realise how little I know, experienced or “get” what the Christian life is all about and how to live it out in the way that God intended.

Something of Shane Claiborne reminds me of John the Baptist -who wore camel-skins and ate honey and locusts- that makes me ask has Christianity become too professional, respectable, clean cut, smooth and slick treading a well worn path of “how we have always done things around here” and imagine that most of our Churches wouldn’t let him –or Ezekiel (the dung eating prophet)- anywhere near there respectable pulpit or auditorium!

Yet we need revolutionaries and mavericks, holy weirdoes and crazies to dream with their eyes open and show us how another more glorious Kingdom can come and arise amongst us, and we can be a part of it.

I fear that too often I have been more worried about being “relevant” than being faithful, fruitful and a fool for Christ. As I look at my life, and my hunger for it to be more Christ-like, I realise that for most people who look at me I probably look much the same as everyone else around me, I fear that at times I have become too much of a Christian Chameleon. Rather than let my experiences make me jaded and cynical (which has been a very real and on-going temptation) I need to see “holy discontent” as a God-given gift to help birth something different and better. I will close with words from Claiborne himself: “If you have a deep sense of frustration and a deep sense that the world is in a mess, thank God for that; not everyone has that gift of vision. It also means you have a responsibility to lead in new ways”

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Take the Sword…

I was in my mentors vicarage in Bath, Simon who was mentoring me through the arrow course (a course for younger church leaders) and turned to me and said, “I have a (prophetic) picture for you Andy” and he went on to tell me this moment in the third of the Lord of the Rings films, where Aragon has to take the sword and be, or become the King, it is a choice, it is one of the key turning points in the movie. He then said this: “God is telling you to take the sword and to be willing to lead”.

As I had long hair and a beard at that time I looked a little like Aragon, or at least an ‘unkempt Jesus’(!) Yet, I tried to heed the advice I had been given and grasp hold of that which I felt called to do, to say “Yes, and Amen”, pledging myself to “being all in” as my response to Christ’s call (even if my stomach knots and my heart beats a little faster).

 

After our mentoring session I thought sometimes we need someone else to encourage us to fulfil our God given destiny, to spur us on and “take our sword” someone to stand with us in our acceptance of that which God is wanting to give us.

 

As you read this I wonder what “taking your sword” means for you, what is God calling you to be and to do, what do you need to grasp hold of, what do you need to say “Yes” to.

 

As I got home the first thing I did was to find that clip which I have re-watched several times, in my search for that moment I also discovered another scene that also spoke to me, where a King is being controlled by an evil lizard type man, and Gandolf breaks the control and sets the King free. As we follow Christ as we seek to lead others where he is calling we are called to take ground –or take ground back- from the enemy who does not relinquish his control willingly, and we are engaged in a spiritual battle to see Jesus take his rightful throne. I remember a verse that a group of us who were young and keen followers of Jesus were given at a training day at a local Bible college and it was this: “Anyone who wants to live a Godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted”. Saying “Yes” to Christ is a call to join the frontline in the heat of battle.

 

Taking the sword echoes with something of my Anglican identity and calling, when we are ordained (and licenced) we are given a Bible –which Paul calls the sword of the Spirit. I was reminded of all those youth talks I had sat through that reminded us that unlike the rest of the armour of God (Eph.6) the sword is an offensive weapon, we have a call to move forward and fight rather than retreat and defend.

 

Our sword –the Bible- reminds us of who we are and our identity in Christ, we are created in God’s image, called and commissioned to “go and bare fruit that will last” as we “remain in him”. We go with the authority of Christ, we are his ambassadors, he makes his appeal through us, we are his witness –salt and light for him. As we do what Christ says he “no longer calls us servants but friends” and he, ‘Christ in us the hope of glory”, our treasure within our jars of clay, he in us is greater than he within the world and the same holy spirit in us is the same that raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus says of us “That we will do even greater things than him” and Paul tells us that God can do “immeasurable more than we can ask or imagine” by God’s mighty power working through us.

 

I can be a bit too apologetic sometimes, I even apologise when someone steps on my toe in the supermarket; I think that as Christians we can be timid –despite scripture reminding us that “God has not given us a spirit of fear but … and a sound mind”- whilst often those with different ideas to us often can (appear) confident and vocal, and disagreeing with them and pointing to a different way can sometimes feel like a Goliath shaped challenge, but as David found that with God all things are possible!

 

As a Christian, a child of God, you have duty to speak and a right to be heard (even if they choose not to listen).

Yet, we cannot let a sense of false humility, our own awareness of our faults, flaws and failures and keeps us from stepping up and doing who God has called us to be, and what God has called us to do. Are we placing our faith in God’s mighty power, or are we putting our confidence in our own abilities to screw things up? The devil wants to undermine our confidence in calling us to take up the authority we have –both in him, and also at that time with the commission I had from the Bishop to seek to share the love of Jesus with those outside the Church community.

 

I thought about that picture a lot “taking up the sword” means being prepared to fight, -to contend for the vocation and vision God has entrusted you with. Sadly if we do not grasp what we have been called to do there there are plenty of voices, leaders and people of influence who will willingly point people in a different direction. When we lead where God has called us we are consciously choosing to place Christ back upon his throne, which means displacing anything that is there already that will not bow the knee to Christ.

 

Whatever you feel God might be calling you to be and do, grasp that which God has for you, step into the person and the vocation God has assigned for you to do, and take the sword.

 

And maybe there are those around you who need to take their swords too, as you pick your sword, you will in turn inspire others to grasp theirs.

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Thieves who didn’t steal anything, and a smiling Jesus!

I want to tell you a story. It is about a robber who didn’t steal anything!

Sounds crazy doesn’t it, but this robber broke into an auction room n London and simply swapped the price tags around so no one knew how much anything was worth! And you could buy a million pound painting for a tenner!!

Something people often talk to me about when I talk about Church is about worship; which they normally think means going to a Church service, or an assembly, and singing some songs… but that isn’t actually what worship is all about!

The word “worship” comes from an AngloSaxon word “Worth-ship” –showing how much you think something is worth.

The idea Christians have about worship is telling and showing God how much we think he’s worth, how important he is to us, saying thank you.

Imagine for a second it is your best friends birthday; you forgot to get them a card, or a present, and forgot to go to their birthday, or even mention it and say “happy birthday” they might not feel like they are worth very much to you, but if you had made them something really nice and made a real effort to give them a great day, they’d probably not only feel very special, they’d know that they are worth a lot to you.

I want to show you some of the most precious things I own, pictures and paintings from my daughter–if I sold them they might not make any money, but they are really valuable to me, she drew them for me, she took time and effort to do something for me, and because of that I love them!

And that is why it is so important to me!

Another thing is a battered old can of bass beer. I was having a bad day when I was working in Bristol and I was chatting to a homeless lady Jo, and she asked how I was, and I made a silly joke about “nothing a beer and a holiday in Barbados wouldn’t fix” –and ten minutes later she came having bought me a can of beer from the shop. She had absolutely no money, but she got me a present. For me, it was too precious to drink, and I keep it to help me remember to be generous and kind –even when I don’t feel like it!

There is a story a bit like this in the Bible, where King David was fighting and he longed for a drink of water from his hometown, and three of best soldiers went and risked their lives to get it for him, having to fight there way through lots of enemy soldiers. They thought their King was worth risking their life for. King David, who was so amazed and thankful for their generosity and kindness, that he said “this water is too precious to drink” –and poured it on the altar for God.

There is another story in the Bible, where Jesus stuck up for this lady Mary who was getting told off by her sister Martha, and then later when their brother Lazarus died Jesus came and brought him back to life. One day Jesus was eating at their house, and Mary came with a bottle of perfume worth about a years wages (and she probably wasn’t rich) and poured it all over Jesus’ feet to show him just how much she thought he was worth. In fact this same Mary was probably there when Jesus was crucified and everyone else had run off, and was the first person who saw Jesus when he had been raised from the dead.

And another great story about worship, that Jesus sold, is a guy who saw this pearl that was so amazing, that he sold absolutely everything he had to get that pearl… Christians say that pearl is Jesus!

I’m not saying that going to Church and singing songs is not worship, it can be, but worship is really what is in our hearts.

A guy called Paul who wrote lots of the Bible, talks about “offering our souls and bodies as living sacrifices to God” –which mean that in everything we do, we are living a life that shows God that we think he is important to us, and that means doing the things we know he likes, and not doing the things we know he doesn’t. Someone once said: “Living in a way that would make Jesus smile” –those things we know he likes us to do.

So, a challenge to think about worship not just as “things we do”, “places we have to go” or “things we have to sing” but rather living our lives that shows God how much we think he’s worth, how important he is for us!

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Mary and Martha, like it was never taught in Sunday School…

I don’t know if any of you have heard the phrase recently “black lives matter”, a reminder that sadly not everyone in our world gets treated the same, which is both sad and wrong. I wonder what you think about that?

I thought about what the Bible says about that too? And I thought about the creation story, where God creates human beings, Adam and Eve, and I realise that this story is reminding us that we are all brothers and sisters, part of one family, children of God…. As I thought about it some more, I thought too that everyone of us, no matter what colour our skin is, how old we are, whether we are a girl or a boy, whether we are rich or poor –we are all loved by God, and as a Christian I believe that Jesus died for each of us.

I want to tell you about a brilliant and really brave lady, they told her story recently on Dr. Who, her name was Rosa Parks, she was a Christian and she was black. In those days –the 1960’s- in America black people were not allowed to sit in the best seats on the bus, and if there were more white people than black people who wanted to sit down they would expect the black people to give up their seat, in fact that was the law! Well, on the 1st December 196 the bus filled up, and the driver ordered the black people to stand so the white people could sit down, and Rosa Parks said: “No!” –she get arrested and taken to court and she lost her job- but she started something huge, where black people stopped using the buses and walked until the bus company changed the rules. Rosa Parks staying sitting down on her seat on the bus led to many protests which changed the law and made it illegal for people to be treated differently because of the colour of their skin, if she had not stayed sat down on the bus we would not have had a black president of the united states. She was brave and she changed history; many, many years later in 1996 she received the medal of freedom from President Clinton –the highest award you can get!

I want to tell you a story that is in the Bible, and it is a story that many people have missed what I think is the most important bit of the story! Jesus was at the home of his friend Lazarus, Jesus is teaching people about God. At that time the only people who would be allowed to sit and listen to a Rabbi –a religious teacher would have been men (and normally only the brightest and most important ones). Yet Mary stayed sat at Jesus’ feet listening to what Jesus was saying. Everyone would have noticed and thought “she shouldn’t be here listening and learning, she should be helping in the kitchen”.

That was 2000 years ago, but some people still think like that today, and in some countries girls are still not allowed to go to school, there was a story that shocked the world when a really brave girl called Malala Yousafzai risked her life by going to school in Pakistan and someone tried to kill her, because they did not believe girls should go to school, girls should not learn or be educated.

Imagine this being how people thought at the time of Jesus.

Mary’s sister Martha was busy preparing food and sorting things out… Martha is getting very cross about it, having to do all this work on her own, and Mary was sat there listening to Jesus –eventually Martha looses her temper and says to Jesus:
“I’m busy doing all this work, and look at her she’s just sat around listening to you, tell her to come and help me” and Jesus said something revolutionary –something that must have shocked everyone who was there and said “No. Martha you are worried and upset about many things, but Mary has chosen the better thing”. Can you imagine how shocked everyone was?

Mary was brave and Jesus stuck up for her, I don’t believe Mary forgot this… Later we read in John’s Gospel that Jesus visited their home again and Mary anointed Jesus feet pouring expensive perfume on them –this act of love and generosity got her into trouble!

Yet, when everyone else had run away and left Jesus alone, Mary was there at the cross when Jesus died, and many Christians believe it was this Mary that was the first person to see Jesus alive. If you were going to pick someone to be a witness to the greatest event ever to occur in humanities history, then you’re going to chose someone who was there when it matters and you knew was brave.

Maybe, Jesus chose Mary to let her know that he was alive because she was the bravest and most courageous person he knew?

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Lets talk more about Politics and Religion…

Religion and politics is said to be a dangerous combination, especially at dinner parties! Perhaps that’s why I don’t get invited to many dinner parties!

Yet, for me most things are to some extent political and spiritual, even things such as the arts or literature are often drawing deeply from these wells.

The “religion” bit (although I think this is the wrong word, it is about spirituality seeking truth and meaning, what people normally mean if philosophy) is about those ‘existential’ questions:

“Who am I?” “What is the purpose of my life on this planet?”

“What is right and wrong, and why is that?” –those questions will take you to whether or not you believe in a God, and if you do what kind of God do you believe in?

Science is not at odds with the concept of a creator, science and philosophy are both ultimately about seeking after truth and answers, one philosophy asks “why” and science asks “how” and both questions are needed, as both shed light on that core question at the heart of “what does it mean to be human?”

Science, philosophy are asking A, if God exists; and B and trying to think God’s thoughts after him/her/them.

Perhaps the teachings of someone like Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed or Richard Dawkins has shaped your world-views on these issues?

Yet our thinking on these do not operate in a vacuum as they impact how we think about “doing life” and “how we manage to do life with others”; how we do life with others is the essence of politics, the ordering of society, and who gets to choose whether we just let the strongest and the wealthiest do what they want, or whether we believe that we all should get a say?

Perhaps, you are influenced by people like Plato, Soccrates, Karl Marx or other political thinkers, that might also include people like Wilberforce, Martin Luther King Jr, Desmond Tutu or Gandhi who were motivated by religious conviction too?

One of the things I am interested in (and its not very sexy) is theological method, what makes theologians think what they think –from reading many political biographies even if there is not a term for it, how many of our politicians got to where they are in their thinking is (I think) fascinating.

As a lover of history I am interested in why people do what they do, or why the don’t do something, interestingly for me history is like sociology and psychology worked out on a broad collective canvas. History is really only yesterday’s current affairs, and as John F. Kennedy warned us “those who forget the past are deemed to relive it”, that brings us back to humanity trying to make sense of the world collectively today.

In many ways that is why we need artists, and play-writes and poets, because we need languages to be able to articulate this primal need within human-being to know (to quote Freddie Mercury) “What we are living for?”

Even if we do not join in the discussion that still does not alter the great philosophical question about whether there is a universal truth, a judge of what is right and wrong other than just our own very subjective consciences. As a horrifying picture of the Gestapo at a Nazi Death camp shows “just because we might not be interested in politics does not mean that politics is not interested in us”, we can be victims of terror attacks or war, and certainly these things are done in the name of people we have elected and pay our taxes to fund, that makes us in some way complicit.

And what of God in all of this, again s/he’s existence is binary –either existing or not- and whether I believe in God’s existence or not will not change whether he does or does not exist, I am either right or wrong.

The question of “if God exists, what is God like?” is a more interesting one, as this leads us to the issue of suffering, and could God stop suffering, and to what extent has God given humanity free will and the ability to choose –and how my behaviour impacts other people; how our stewardship of our planet results in the distribution of its resources and what about sickness and disease –how and why do these occur, and is someone in some way to blame for them all? Which again brings us back to “Does a God exist, and if so what are they like?”

So, I think we need to talk more about religion and politics, because if you take these away, is there actually anything left to talk about?

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Gaps in photos, spaces at the party, and people missing.

There is a scene in Blackadder goes Forth, which is set in the trenches of the first World War, where Lieutenant George, talks about his friends from his private school whom were all together when they signed up, and slowly he realises that all his friends have been killed in the war. It is –I think- one of the most moving scenes in the series.

Sat in Anthony’s lounge, I asked him if he was still in touch with any of the cohort of ordinands we trained with from St. John’s? Sadly it felt strangely reminiscent of this scene as quite a number were no longer active in ordained ministry.

Some were casualties of (so called) “friendly fire”, a term used when an ally kills someone on their own-side –forced out and others through burn-out.

I thought for a moment about the privilege of leading God’s people, and wondered why sometimes it was such a painful fight? True, we are in a spiritual battle, and I think too often we forget that there is a real enemy that wants to take us out of the game; to destroy our marriages and halt our Kingdom fruitfulness. We are also sinful and flawed human beings trying to lead other sinful and flawed human beings and discovering that the path we are called upon is narrow and tough, costly and sacrificial, and fruitfulness and faithfulness are not prized highly in our ‘instant success’ world. Sadly, too, I believe that we often are too afraid to take on the prevailing culture, often feeling like Daniel in the midst of the lions dean, it is easier to look to other way, brush stuff under the carpet and collude with sin –be popular but something inside you will begin to die.

The abolitionist William Wilberforce said: “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know” and the Civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr said: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter”.
Yet, as we talked, I wondered if perhaps there was another category even more dangerous, the “fade out” or “sell out”, they might stay in the job, they may even look reasonably successful, but they loose their gospel edge amid rotas and spread-sheets, burial plots and funeral plans, building maintenance and diocesan subcommittees. The disciples said: “it is not good to neglect the ministry of the word to wait on tables” (Acts 6:2) to fade out or sell out and be busy doing nothing of eternal significance or Kingdom advance.

As I thought about this I was reminded of the comedy series “Yes Minister” and later “Yes Prime Minister”, and how the civil service would see the Government Ministers they received being “house-trained” to do what the civil service wanted them too, which was normally increase the bureaucracy but make no actual lasting change.

There was a classic episode where the (Prime) Minister –Jim Hacker- discovers a hospital that does not actually have any patients –but has won awards for their admin!- a classic case of forgetting why and what we are called to do what we do in the first place.

As I thought about this for a moment, I felt a creeping smugness that evaporated as I realised how easy it is to be judgemental, and then I thought that at times I may have been actively trying to do the right things practically perhaps at times I had let my personal prayer, intersession, devotional times slip and actually, the times on God’s presence or on our knees is as valuable –in fact more valuable- than all the running about we can do, indeed the Bible reminds us that “if the Lord does not build the house the workers labour in vain” (Ps,127).

The Apostle Paul writes: But each one should build with care.11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames” (1Cor.3.10-15).

I wondered what had been “silver and gold and costly stones” and what had been “hay, mud and straw that burns” with has no lasting and eternal value, and then thought too about life as a whole, not just the “spiritual” bits.

I thought of the times I have visited dying people, and I have often thought around the idea of finishing well, what would it look like in my life? I am reminded of the words of Paul when he says: “have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Tim 4:7-8).

As I though of these challenging thoughts another group came up in conversation, sadly one guy in the year above us and one in the year bellow were both “chucked out” getting caught up in evil sexual behaviour that resulted in them ending up being sent to prison.

I remember reading an article about guys and pornography that talks of it being a web –literally now that the internet is awash with porn- and it gradually entices people who get drawn into darker and more sinister things and infiltrates their everyday life.

One of these guys had been a friend when at college, although we lost touch, and I remember seeing a newspaper article on line, when I was waiting for a friend to turn up to a meeting, outlining his awful behaviour. I was shocked, I was heart broken, I knew this guy had at one time been on fire for Jesus and wanting to follow him faithfully, but clearly some horrible stuff had got a hold on him. People had been hurt by his crimes, nor I could not imagine the devastation for his family or congregation and he himself lost everything. The friend walked into meet with me, looked at my face, and asked: “has someone died?”

I know that there are many things I am vulnerable too –in fact we all are- and things that are often unseen fester and grow in the darkness; we need good friends who shine the light of Christ into those dark-places and can speak truth to us in love. I remembered that Anthony on a couple occasions had rebuked me –“kicked my butt!”- but he was right to do so, and I was reminded that the book of Proverbs has many quotes about a true friend speaking uncomfortable truths to us.

It was a sobering thought that sixteen or so years ago when we first started at theological college, huddled together for a college picture on the green, that a decade and a half later some of us would be missing. A more worrying thought is whether those we trained with might be missing for eternity, some having not just struggling with the institution of the Church but no longer following Jesus, beloved brethren not at the eternal party in heaven was a painful thought.

My eyes well up as I thought of my eight year old daughter, and prayed silently in my head and heart, that she would come to know/follow/serve and love Jesus, too often some great evangelists and Church leaders –ones who have seen must fruit and salvations- yet have family that want nothing to do with Christ nor the Church.

Then I smiled as I thought about some of us arriving in glory, promoted to glory as the Salvation Army call it. I no doubt looking pretty scruffy and unshaven, Anthony no doubt wearing a Man United top, but probably limping in, probably a having a “sheep-bite” scar or two, but longing to hear the words “well done good and faithful servant” (Matt.25.23) from the one who did not sell/fall/burn/fade out but through him we can confidently come.

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There is a scene in Blackadder goes Forth, which is set in the trenches of the first World War, in whicjwhere Lieutenant George, talks about his friends from his private school whom were all together when they signed up, and slowly he realises that all his friends have been killed in the war. It is –I think- one of the most moving scenes in the series.

Sat in Anthony’s lounge, I asked him if he was still in touch with any of the cohort of ordinands we trained with from St. John’s? Sadly it felt strangely reminiscent of this scene as quite a number were no longer active in ordained ministry.

Some were casualties of (so called) “friendly fire”, a term used when an ally kills someone on their own-side –forced out and others through burn-out.

I thought for a moment about the privilege of leading God’s people, and wondered why sometimes it was such a painful fight? True, we are in a spiritual battle, and I think too often we forget that there is a real enemy that wants to take us out of the game; to destroy our marriages and halt our Kingdom fruitfulness. We are also sinful and flawed human beings trying to lead other sinful and flawed human beings and discovering that the path we are called upon is narrow and tough, costly and sacrificial, and fruitfulness and faithfulness are not prized highly in our ‘instant success’ world. Sadly, too, I believe that we often are too afraid to take on the prevailing culture, often feeling like Daniel in the midst of the lions dean, it is easier to look to other way, brush stuff under the carpet and collude with sin –be popular but something inside you will begin to die.

The abolitionist William Wilberforce said: “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know” and the Civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr said: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter”.
Yet, as we talked, I wondered if perhaps there was another category even more dangerous, the “fade out” or “sell out”, they might stay in the job, they may even look reasonably successful, but they loose their gospel edge amid rotas and spread-sheets, burial plots and funeral plans, building maintenance and diocesan subcommittees. The disciples said: “it is not good to neglect the ministry of the word to wait on tables” (Acts 6:2) to fade out or sell out and be busy doing nothing of eternal significance or Kingdom advance.

As I thought about this I was reminded of the comedy series “Yes Minister” and later “Yes Prime Minister”, and how the civil service would see the Government Ministers they received being “house-trained” to do what the civil service wanted them too, which was normally increase the bureaucracy but make no actual lasting change.

There was a classic episode where the (Prime) Minister –Jim Hacker- discovers a hospital that does not actually have any patients –but has won awards for their admin!- a classic case of forgetting why and what we are called to do what we do in the first place.

As I thought about this for a moment, I felt a creeping smugness that evaporated as I realised how easy it is to be judgemental, and then I thought that at times I may have been actively trying to do the right things practically perhaps at times I had let my personal prayer, intersession, devotional times slip and actually, the times on God’s presence or on our knees is as valuable –in fact more valuable- than all the running about we can do, indeed the Bible reminds us that “if the Lord does not build the house the workers labour in vain” (Ps,127).

The Apostle Paul writes: But each one should build with care.11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames” (1Cor.3.10-15).

I wondered what had been “silver and gold and costly stones” and what had been “hay, mud and straw that burns” with has no lasting and eternal value, and then thought too about life as a whole, not just the “spiritual” bits.

I thought of the times I have visited dying people, and I have often thought around the idea of finishing well, what would it look like in my life? I am reminded of the words of Paul when he says: “have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Tim 4:7-8).

As I though of these challenging thoughts another group came up in conversation, sadly one guy in the year above us and one in the year bellow were both “chucked out” getting caught up in evil sexual behaviour that resulted in them ending up being sent to prison.

I remember reading an article about guys and pornography that talks of it being a web –literally now that the internet is awash with porn- and it gradually entices people who get drawn into darker and more sinister things and infiltrates their everyday life.

One of these guys had been a friend when at college, although we lost touch, and I remember seeing a newspaper article on line, when I was waiting for a friend to turn up to a meeting, outlining his awful behaviour. I was shocked, I was heart broken, I knew this guy had at one time been on fire for Jesus and wanting to follow him faithfully, but clearly some horrible stuff had got a hold on him. People had been hurt by his crimes, nor I could not imagine the devastation for his family or congregation and he himself lost everything. The friend walked into meet with me, looked at my face, and asked: “has someone died?”

I know that there are many things I am vulnerable too –in fact we all are- and things that are often unseen fester and grow in the darkness; we need good friends who shine the light of Christ into those dark-places and can speak truth to us in love. I remembered that Anthony on a couple occasions had rebuked me –“kicked my butt!”- but he was right to do so, and I was reminded that the book of Proverbs has many quotes about a true friend speaking uncomfortable truths to us.

It was a sobering thought that sixteen or so years ago when we first started at theological college, huddled together for a college picture on the green, that a decade and a half later some of us would be missing. A more worrying thought is whether those we trained with might be missing for eternity, some having not just struggling with the institution of the Church but no longer following Jesus, beloved brethren not at the eternal party in heaven was a painful thought.

My eyes well up as I thought of my eight year old daughter, and prayed silently in my head and heart, that she would come to know/follow/serve and love Jesus, too often some great evangelists and Church leaders –ones who have seen must fruit and salvations- yet have family that want nothing to do with Christ nor the Church.

Then I smiled as I thought about some of us arriving in glory, promoted to glory as the Salvation Army call it. I no doubt looking pretty scruffy and unshaven, Anthony no doubt wearing a Man United top, but probably limping in, probably a having a “sheep-bite” scar or two, but longing to hear the words “well done good and faithful servant” (Matt.25.23) from the one who did not sell/fall/burn/fade out but through him we can confidently come.

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Learning from a make-less selfie….

I’m not quite sure if this will even make any sense to anyone else, but I’ll have a go. I have come to realise that on occasions I see thing differently to other people, and they see things differently to me, and neither of us is lying but our perspective -and perhaps baggage and blindspots- alter our recall of situations and events.

I wonder what God thinks, him seeing everything and knowing everything, including the blind-spots and baggage we all have, including mine. He knows me, and “gets me” and he also knows and gets them too, he knows what I think and why I think it, just as he knows other people think and what and why they think that too.

Jesus knows where we see perceptively and where things are cloudy, his eyes see deeper than we will ever know or understand. He also knows our quirks, those bits at that seem at odds with the rest of our character.

This lead me to think about my own life, and I realise afresh that we are all a strange mix of contradictions, St. Paul captures something in his letter to the Romans when he says “the good I want to do, I don’t do and the wrong things I don’t want to do, that I do do” (Rom.7).

I realise that the person I aspire to be –and occasionally get there but more often than not fail to do so- and the person I am are not the same person; I get it right sometimes and wrong othertimes, I can be both wise and stupid, bold and cowardly, holy and sinful at more or less the same moment.

I guess to some extent we all wear masks and have a persona, but knowing that God knows the real us, even if we sometimes get confused between the two, and God is okay knowing things are not as black and white as we would like them to be.

I do not want to live my life as someone who is self deluded, but also we shy away from things that are painful, we do not like to admit that we are flawed and fallen, and fall short of our own expectations of ourselves.

Those moments of looking in the mirror in the cold light of day can be painful, if I wore make up, there are times –lockdown especially- that feel like “make-up-less-selfie-days” seeing myself as I actually am, rather than the person I would like to think I am. I remember reading a quote where some comedian said: “I have low standards that I fail to meet” which probably is where most us discover is true for ourselves at some-point in our lives.

Spiritual maturity and self awareness, do we truly know what we are like, and life I believe go hand in hand, and as I thought back over my life I am reminded of Donald Rumsfelds famous quote about “known unknowns” and how often at the start of many seasons I didn’t know what I didn’t know about myself, those “unknown unknowns” he talked about.

Certainly as a Vicar, a Christian and just as a Human being, I have (normally) wanted to do well and be good at something, but the intention and the reality are not the same thing, am I willing to listen and acknowledge the truth when I get things wrong? Sadly I know that at times I have been slow to listen, or perhaps slow to see the truth in what has been said.

Seeing truth amid things that are said is painful, no one likes to be critisied but being able to sift through and discern what it truth and lies is a real challenge.

We all like to be praised, and again sifting through that and discerning what is true and what is flattery can also be a challenge.

To really be able to look, and see ourselves, neither with condemnation nor ego is a challenge, a tightrope even, knowing our strengths and our weaknesses feels very unbritish, and knowing that even our strengths can have shadow-sides, and sometime our flaws have silver-linings, can confuse our head and our hearts.

The ancient monastics (St. Anthony) used to say “your cell is the best teacher” by that they meant that time alone with yourself you confront yourself ‘warts and all’ -certainly many of us have had this “cell like experience” with the Corona Virus lockdown, yet I am not sure that I entirely agree with them, I think it is in community through relationships that I have also realised my flaws and failings, my rough edges rubbing up against other peoples rough edges. We need both one another to teach us about ourselves, and ourselves with time to face ourselves, both, can hold that uncomfortable mirror up to us.

Even knowing what are like does not guarantee that we will be different, as we are fighting against our own nature, our human muscle memory; and yet I do believe that change is possible, but know that change sadly is not often easy or cheap, and there is a choice to stay as we are or learn from our mistakes and be different.

I wish that changing our nature was a bit like uploading an app on a phone, quick and painless, but instead there is a long journey ahead, and probably this journey will have more revelation and pain to face.

Someone once said that you cannot put your past behind you until you have faced it, and facing stuff is never easy, and even though we can do this with God alongside us, it still feels huge and I wonder “God can you really fix me?” –I wonder if “fix” is the right word as we never get to a place of sinless perfection, but I do genuinely believe we can get to a place of greater wholeness and Christ-likeness than where we are at the moment, if we are prepared to embrace it and work on our change and transformation with God.

As much as I don’t want a mirror held up to me, and seeing my cracks in the cold light of day is uncomfortable, but deep down (and probably a little reluctantly as we all want to avoid things that hurt us) I would rather grow in my awareness of self, to let the light in (even if it hurts my eyes), to know the truth –which hurts- but also sets you free, and begin the work of being changed.

I have come to realise that I am not as spiritually mature, wise or Godly as I have at times believed, indeed I think that my pride has blinded me, and that perhaps God’s work in me needs to go deeper than I thought, that I am not as sorted as I would like to be –or I would like others to think I am.

As I think about things I have done or got wrong -especially things where maybe I have hurt people or made bad choices- I wish I could have a time machine and alter history, but of course I cannot; I do however have a choice about what I do in the future and how we live better in light of revelation. How do I live differently from here on in? Which at times feels really scary as even broken ways have the comfort of being familiar, and a new normal feels like a step into the unknown?

This might be just a blog of non-specific waffle, I hope not, in one sense I don’t want to do all the washing of dirty laundry here, but instead I hope that this will speak into where there needs to be challenge and change to you, and help you with working with God through your refiners fire, purifying the Gold and burning up the dross.

Maybe my humble ramblings might be a black and white line drawing for you to add your colours and specifics your hearts and minds to bring this post to life for you.

Bless you, and hope that Jesus is gracious in changing you to be more like him.

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Poole New Monastics (as shared in Derby).

“Mase, you need to meet Mark Phillips!” said my friend Chris, draining his pint, “You’d really get on with Mark; he’s actually doing the stuff, not just talking about it!” Chris continued, flicking his eyes towards the bar, as if to say: “Catch up, Mase, my glass is empty!”

I ordered two more pints of beer and a plate of nachos, which had become a tradition, and continued: “I’m so tired of the odd token-gesture event or mission/justice event appearing randomly on the church programme, feeling like a conscience-salve whereby people can say ‘at least we are doing something’…”

Chris grinned with a smile that revealed, ‘I know exactly what you mean!’ “Cheers, Mase,” he said, as he took a swig of beer, before adding, “Mark’s the real deal!”

I had not yet met Mark, or become mates, but Chris went on to explain that Mark was the Community Worker and centre manager at Parkstone United Reformed Church. He was doing great stuff engaging in community action and activism, and building community with a diverse bunch of people all through the week, eating together each day, alongside a rhythm of prayer, exploring the tension between activism and contemplation.

“Sounds an interesting guy,” I said, taking a first sip of beer from a new pint, “I’ll have to look him up.” One of the advantages of being a newbie (or a returner) to a town is that you can just drop people emails and say, “Hey, I’m interested in exploring stuff. Can I shout you a coffee and pick your brains?” Which has opened many really exciting doors over the years!

“I think Mark is doing some work with addiction too,” said Chris, his mind evidently thinking about Simon Turner. Chris was also a friend of Simon’s and, like me, was in shock at his passing. Both of us had been speaking about how we would like to do something in his memory.

So, I managed to meet Mark; and he asked me to speak at one of their morning services. At the end, Mark pressed a key into my hand and said, “Use here anytime you want for whatever you need!” This deeply touched me as I was exploring what God was calling me to and where he was calling me.

Chatting to Mark, he gave voice to his heart once as ‘longing to open the first monastery in one hundred years’, envisioning a community in which all are welcome, where there is practical help – with the hungry fed, clothed and given shelter, where addictions are broken and people are healed by love – in a place which is both prayerful and practical.

Mark offers radical hospitality to all who visit. He always seems delighted to see you when you walk in the door, and always instructs you to: “put the kettle on and lets have a brew!” (I wonder how many cups of tea he drinks a day!) It is rarely (if ever) from bone china cups with matching saucers, but it feels like family: come as you are and hope you can accept us as we are.

As part of the community here in the building, there are a couple of people ‘hot-desking’, some admin staff and some volunteers from a project called Life Works.

Many of these have additional needs, such as poor mental health, either in recovery or suffering from conditions like Asperger’s. So, it is a pretty disparate but wonderful bunch of people, that truly feels like a foretaste of heaven.

Each day the community begins with prayer (although, sadly, only a few of us come regularly to this). The entire community stops and eats together both at lunchtime and also at 4:00, when we have “Tea and Toast” together.

If you are a visitor and happen to arrive near lunchtime or near time for tea and toast, people are made welcome!

With Mark, we have begun to explore New Monasticism a bit more intentionally within Poole.

As part of this, a group of us went to check out an intentional community in Boscombe (the other-side of Bournemouth). A group of young adults from the Vineyard Church were given use of this house rent free following an uncomplimentary undercover documentary on landlords, that featured that particular house. As we sat around their kitchen table drinking coffee, they said “it was amazing people have given their lives to Christ in the same kitchen that they once snorted cocaine in!” This community welcomed people for a Thursday evening meal and their testimony was similar to the child who gave Jesus his packed lunch of five loaves and two fish and from that Jesus fed over five thousand people, somehow the food just kept stretching and everyone who came wanting food was fed (Matt.14).

As we began to explore what God was calling us to in Poole we soon were joined by two amazing people Tracy, a Buddhist, and a guy –Mike- who had been exploring different faiths mainly more eastern ones, which was a bit unexpected and we have had some interesting conversations but has actually been an amazing blessing.

The two words we have focused on are: ‘Activism’ and ‘Contemplation’; Activism risks burn-out and contemplation can give birth to lethargy, but learning to harness the benefits of both elements forces us to become ‘reflective practioners’, acting wisely, living intentionally deeply, whereby our activism brings practical reality and physical embodiment to our contemplation.

Tracy with her Buddhist background has some interesting takes on this, using phrases such as “compassion and wisdom” and “our internal and external life”, sometimes it takes a fresh set of eyes to enable us to see things differently.

Activism with contemplation (or contemplation with activism) enables us to go deeper and to reach out further; and as we reach out further, so we can go deeper.

Both Mark and I are by nature off the scale activists, but we have come to realise and value the need of prayer, reflection and space to hear the voice of God afresh and to operate from a healthy place of wholeness. Both of us have previously struggled to make time for retreats and reflections; we now stop each month for a day and take some cars up to nearby Dorchester to a Friary there with whoever wants to come along (sometimes an interesting mix of people). We just allow God some space and time to encounter us, speak to us, and change us.

Some of the volunteers come regularly to Hilfields, and I remember an early session when one of the volunteers really opened up about meeting with God. I had thought that perhaps they were just enjoying a free-day out, but God really challenged my judgmental attitude in that moment. I was fighting back the tears, as I realised that God was doing something real, deep and beautiful in their lives; and I had been incredibly judgmental in selling that short.

One of the things many of us – including Mark and I – have been exploring is a rule, rhythm or way of life, with some shared values to live by and to hold one another accountable to. As we began to talk, we ended up wondering if we really searched ourselves about how we could practically make real and achievable changes in our daily lives to better reflect the values of the Kingdom of God.

We began to do regular monthly events exploring themes such as “Doing December Differently”, where we looked at issues around trade-ethics, localism, sustainability, and stewardship. We invited many local groups that were implementing positive different ways of celebrating Christmas, which was not only a lot of fun and helped to network Christians and community activists, but has continued to be an on-going question exploring about doing other seasons differently:
Lent – how about keeping Lent local?
Advent – how about a reverse calendar, putting something in for a foodbank each day? Or choosing not to wrap our presents in plastic that ends in landfill, or not buying crackers that just end up in the bin
Harvest – perhaps we can look at reclaimed food being used to feed the hungry; Easter and Pentecost could be experienced differently in practical ways.

As we have set out on this journey, we have inadvertently discovered that it has attracted people to us and to the journey we felt called to. On one occasion, after posting some photos of an event, a mum sent me a message on facebook saying: “My kids would love this, could we have an event more children focused?” That was never part of the original vision, but we did it, and having children with us has radically transformed the feel of us as a community.

Through prayer stations and acts of random kindness, I have discovered that children really encounter God through different ways of praying, and they end up sharing remarkable and thought-provoking things with the adults.

So, as I splurged all this out before the guys at St. Thomas’s, I realized just how much God had done, both in me, and within our fledgling community too. If I had not had to talk about it to these people here at St. Thomas’s in Derby, would I have realized how much God has already done here amongst us in Poole?

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Monasticism and Me.

One evening when I was about twenty one and working for a Church in York, my friend Luke appeared after the evening service with a huge bag of cooked sausages from a barbecue he had been having it must have been quite a party, or he had massively over-catered! He had brought rolls and ketchup and his idea was to give them out to the homeless of the city (York has a lot of homeless people). I joined him with a couple of others people. We chatted to the homeless people, and had opportunities to pray with some of them, they asked questions about Jesus and enjoyed eating hot (well warmish) dogs with them.

This was the first time I had done any work with the homeless and it felt like we were actually living out our faith, and for me I glimpsed a tiny bit of the “more” I was looking, believing that there was more of God than I had currently experienced (indeed, there is always more of God), but this was part of my own personal spiritual/theological revolution/reformation.

Just under two years before that my spiritual world had been transformed when I had not only rededicated my life to God, but also had an encounter with the Holy Spirit that had literally put me to the floor (ironic as a very ‘reformed evangelical’ I didn’t think God still did things like that!). As a Vicar’s kid I could speak Church fluently, but I had the heart of a new believer hungry for truth and transformation.

In that simple act of giving out hot-dogs something ‘clicked’ in my mind as I began to discover that proclaiming good news was a calling to be good news, I began to grasp something of a better understanding about the Kingdom of God which was the main theme of Jesus preaching on earth –up until then I always thought of the Kingdom of God as another way of saying heaven- and my understanding of salvation was a bit like getting a ticket to go there; as I began to re-think Salvation and the Kingdom of God I came to see them more as the Jewish word “Shalom,” which means “wholeness”: the good news is both holy and holistic, speaking into every area and element of life, good news for both now and for eternity. Discipleship was not just about avoiding sin but actively doing God’s will which meant discovering what is on God’s heart.

Whilst I was still journeying with these questions I had moved to Poole, Dorset, working as a schools worker, so lots of chances for proclamation of the good news of Jesus, but alongside this, I made a number of friends who were in a similar place to me, hungry for God, asking questions and wanting to go deeper, and feeling a bit dissatisfied with inherited Church. It was at that time that one of my friends,

Chris, who at that time wanted to be a worship leader, had a friend die tragically having had an incredibly tough and painful life, and his question was: “what did God think about all the abuse and exploitation she had been through?” in my friends wresting he ended up being mentored by a Prison Chaplain called Colin Harley, who helped Chris see how much is written in scripture about God’s heart for justice, anger at oppression and exploitation and his journey had a ripple effect through the entire group.

Another friend, Martin, grasped the importance of prayer being at the center of all we did, and a group of us used to meet every Saturday morning to eat croissants and pray for the young people of Poole; alongside this a few of us met to pray together every week. There was real accountability here –sometimes uncomfortably so- and brave vulnerability too.

Around this time many of us were reading books such as Red Moon Rising by Pete Greig or Punk Monk by Andy Freeman, talking about houses of prayer, modern monasteries and prayer rooms. We did several prayer rooms including on one occasion a whole week of prayer –and the most unlikely people just wandered in and prayed with us. These prayer rooms use things like posit notes, maps, candles, art installations to help inspire and motivate our prayer times –we all signed up for an hour, that felt a long time at the start of the session and by the end felt not nearly enough. Over that week we spotted lots of answers to prayer, that I think in the busyness of normal life many of us may have missed.

One day the phone rang, and it was a friend who was Vicar of a Church on the other-side of town in one of the most deprived areas, and he said “The Church has just been left a bungalow, I have heard that this guy Chris Harwood is wanting to live in an area like ours, wondered if God is doing something?” From that phone call, Chris and a friend called Alex (who had recently become a Christian) lived there as an intentional community, praying and working there as a detached youth worker. They called the bungalow ironically ‘Rose Cottage’ as it was far from picturesque! It also became a hub for others to come and join with them to pray, and support Chris’ detached work on the streets, parks and bus shelters of the parish.

Intentional communities can sustain long-term mission to an area, and offer something beautiful that the world is longing for.

I remember Chris being worried about looking like a posh middle-class boy coming to an estate to ‘do God’ to the people there, and so he was very respectful and wise about how he lived, talked and acted. Sadly, many Christians with a heart for mission work in deprived areas turn up with an unintentionally colonial or patronising attitude which, unsurprisingly, is not missionally fruitful!

After this, another friend Jon, became the chaplain to the nightclubs in Bournemouth, and was given a Vicarage to live in, which became another intentional community known as “Jesus Street”.

Very few of us were in the same Sunday Morning Congregation together, but in a very real way I think we were “being Church Together” and although we never quite saw Acts 2 and 4 fully realised it was one of the times in my life where I believe I have come the closet to seeing the dream becoming a reality.

At this time there was much discussion in the Christian world about “Fresh Expressions of Church” and this began to birth in us the idea of Church that could look different from that which we had inherited and had been passed on to us we began to dream again.

Yet, I believe the reason this was so fruitful was the depth of community, relationship, love that existed between us as friends travelling together, sometimes stumbling, but mainly Christward, and alongside us were a good number of friends who would not call themselves Christians, and a few who had been Christians but for whatever reason were not currently following Jesus.

I arrived at college which was for me a struggle as much of what I thought was really important, the lessons I learned, were not where many people were at, although there were two lecturers there who really inspired me; Mike Moynagh who had written extensively about Fresh Expressions and constantly challenged us to have the bravery to dare to dream and imagine a very different future –asking what could and should a community of people missionally living out the Kingdom of God look like in this context – the other was our director of studies called Howard Worsley. Howard was a Third Order Franciscan, who had served in some challenging parishes, and was committed to seeing Christians living amongst the most marginalized and broken often quoting “remember the poor” (Gal.2.10). It was Howard who oversaw Simon Cartwrights PHD and later Howard became Vice Principal of Trinity College Bristol and was an influence on Chris Harwood too.

When I started my curacy in Salisbury, I found some comfort in regular times of prayer with both the daily office and also the Trussell Trust who shared our Church hall used to have rhythms of prayer and reading scripture. It is crazy that as a Vicar it is amazing how hard it can be to maintain ones discipline of prayer and Bible reading, and having other Christians meeting together where I could join them really helped. Indeed, later when I was in Kingswood, I remember feeling really burned out and just sat with people praying even though I was struggling too, felt like I was somehow being held in prayer, other Christians praying when I simply struggled and just being there helped me and encouraged me.

I remember feeling really spiritually dry in Kingswood, I was meant to be preaching in another Church the following day, and I thought “I have nothing left to give” –I felt completely rung out. Somehow I ended up on youtube and listened to a talk by a guy called Shane Claiborne; and felt inspired again as he spoke about “the world needing to see a Church looking more like Jesus” another thing he said is we often ask “why doesn’t God do something about…” to that God replies “I did I made/sent you!” One of the thing Shane, this Holy Maverick does, is protests against things like exploitation of workers, the arms trade, the death penalty believing that “another world is possible” this would can look different and more as God intended us to be. One image that really struck me from this youtube clip was where their community hired a blacksmith, and took guns and knives and turned them into gardening tools echoing the words of:
“They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore”.

Somewhere amid all of this I began to use the term new monastic finding echoes with scriptures such as: “Isn’t this the fast that I have chosen: to break the chains of wickedness, to untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and tear off every yoke is it not to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the poor and homeless into your home, to clothe the naked when you see them”. Wanting to both pray and offer practical help, engage in evangelism by word and deed, and wanting deeply to be part of a community that understands and shares this crazy dream of the Kingdom of God becoming more of a tangible reality in our context, that helps keeps one another going in a life that outsiders probably think is a bit bonkers.

My search for this, did lead me to one Church community that I thought got my heart, but sadly appointed someone else with a different vision, and left us feeling deeply confused. We ended up back in Poole, I still had lots of dreams and longings within my heart, but the challenge was finding where fitting in with a new community, who else would understand my crazy vision. Fortunately for my first year back in Poole, Chris who had been travelling this journey with me (over the last twenty years) and I overlapped for a year before God called in to Carlisle.

One day we were having a beer and he said “Mase, I was thinking, do you know a guy called Mark Phillips?”

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