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Going East?

There was yet another knock at the monastery door and the monk went to answer it, yet again, and discovered more hippy young people asking if this was the Buddhist temple. They had been disturbed all day with this. Again, it was a young guy asking where to find the Meditation centre, but this time the monk ended up chatting to him and discovered that he was wanting to go to the meditation centre because he had a deep yearning in his soul for something deep, real and authentic, filled with questions about life, God, truth and simply about how to make life work, to ‘be happy’ and to ‘be a good person’. He and the monk talked long into the night, and the young guys discovered that the Christianity he thought he had rejected was something of a caricature, that what he thought/sought from Buddhism provided was available in the Christian faith, and the practices he felt he needed were there in abundance in the Christian tradition.

For any of us who have been involved in mission and outreach for a while have noticed something of a transition, we live in an age of greater spirituality but less engagement with traditional types of established religion. For the postmodern generation their spiritual hunger and hunting has led them to explore Eastern theology, philosophy and practice such as Buddhism and meditation.
Understanding spiritual maturity and openness is a complex matter, where we have thought that having someone in Church but thinking about fishing was better than having someone fishing and thinking about God (which is a caricature of the difference between the modern generation -in church thinking of fishing- and the post-modern generation -fishing thinking about God)! Each generation has to learn afresh how to communicate the unchanging truths of Jesus, and what is certain that what we have done in the past might need to be re-looked at to see if it still works for the mission in the 21st century, and perhaps the things we have previously thrown out might need to be picked up afresh to reach a new generation?

An image I refer to often in my mind as I think of God showing us a new way into the future is of David being given Saul’s armour to fight Goliath, it being too big and cumbersome and David fought Goliath another way, which worked, and David won the battle! Too many of us are trying to fight Goliath in the clunky armour of a previous generation.

Yet, I am excited by this generation, and believe that God has gone ahead of us -for such a time as this- preparing the way, opening doors and preparing hearts and minds to meet with God.

The conversation around spirituality has gone East, are we prepared to go onto unfamiliar territory for the sake of the Kingdom of God, to learn new things, new ways of talking and being, to reach the people we find there, and as we wander we discover that Jesus has got there before us, has gone ahead of us and will be there long after we have left. When Paul left the comfortable Jewish world and began to speak in Athens (Acts 17) he learned a new way of preaching the same unchanging message to a new audience (compare the message with Peter in Acts 2 it sounds very different, but yet was the same message inspired by the same missionary Holy Spirit).

Those of us who are Anglican clergy, have to promise that we will ‘proclaim the Gospel afresh to each generation’, yet too often I think we simply proclaim it ‘again to every generation’, often answering questions they’re not asking and missing the keys that God has put within the culture (and every culture) to draw people to himself and his arms of love.

The Monks in their monastery soon had a group of travellers exploring faith with them, discovering the rich treasures of Christianity, realising that the Christian faith was not about wearing Sunday best, minding your P’s and Q’s and reading the Daily Mail… Discovering the dynamic and depth of a real Christianity living the way of Jesus.

What of us, are we prepared to re-think how we do Church and Mission to discover both the spiritual seekers but also the work of the missional God active within every culture and wanting to draw everyone into a real relationship with himself.

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Contemplation.

We are gathering together a community called “Poole Neo Monastics” and exploring ideas around rules/rhythms of life, hospitality and communitas (if you want to know what Communitas see a previous blog!), social action (helping being who are having a tough time) and social justice (protesting at injustice), reciprocity (sometimes the right thing is to receive someone else’s generosity/hospitality), activism (not just talking about stuff but actually doing it) and contemplation.

Contemplation really matters. Church in its own way can end up making us feel like a hamster on a wheel, which gets us running fasting and faster (but often less and less productive but more and more exhausted, giving our time to an insatiable that is never satisfied and only ever cries, “more” and “faster”). Indeed, often these Hamster wheels are distractions from the real work of mission and ministry, a friend says: “Jesus wants us to have maximum fruitfulness for minimum weariness, the devil wants us to have minimum fruitfulness for maximum weariness!”

Athletes have time following their events called ‘intentional recovery time’ it makes sense we need a Godly rhythm to maintain fruitfulness and to stay the course for the long-term.

I heard a story of two lumber-jacks who were in a competition to see who could fell the most trees, one did not stop and chopped from morning to night, exhausted he sat down thinking he must have won, and yet he discovered he had chopped much less than the other lumberjack, who looked much less red-faced than he did. “How did you manage that?” he asked, “after every-tree I felled I re-sharpened my axe” he replied.

Often, we are hacking away with a blunt axe and exhausted arms. Jesus says: “come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, and you will find rest for you souls”, we where made for life not exhaustion, fulfilment not burn-out.

I have often reflected on the story of Mary and Martha (and if I’m honest often sympathised with Martha) and yet I forgot the wider biblical narrative, from Mary’s place of intimacy sat at Jesus’ feet we see her (from John’s Gospel) anointing Jesus, being their as he is crucified and being the first witness of the resurrection where Martha disappears in the narrative. From her investment of her life in Jesus enabled her to be there when it really mattered. A former Vicar I worked with talked about “investing in your secret history with God” a similar idea to Soul Survivor when he talks of “living for the audience of one!”

Yet, for me the narrative of contemplation is corrupted by Christians, too often (as with the rest of life) we get the ‘shirkers’ and the ‘workers’, my theory is that sadly too often the ‘shirkers’ have used the language of reflection and contemplation as religious rhetoric to cover their sinfulness and laziness: “I’m just waiting on God” -which means to actively seek- sometimes is misused to indulge in disobedience. Sometimes I think we con ourselves and appease our consciences with this talk.

An athlete needs recovery to maintain their performance, but a sluggard that does not engage in faithful obedience will just become less and less match-fit.
What we need, I believe, is the discernment to know and understand the difference between laziness and contemplation/rest/reflection and restoration.

For me the command to “be still and know that I am God” is not an indulgent thing, but a costly discipline which is difficult. “Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength” is not only a faithful promise of God but also requires a step of faith and obedience from us.

Contemplation, prayerful reflection and Biblical meditation is not often easy (sometimes when we are parched and dry coming into God’s presence can be like jumping into a cool stream on a hot day) However, often seeking God and being renewed can feel like the lumberjack sharpening the axe whilst his colleague stormed ahead.

Being on our own with God is often a challenge place to be, being still is not easy, being with ourselves before God often means we face the stuff we don’t want to face -too often busyness is a form of avoidance from dealing with the things that need dealing with!

So, to be contemplatives, to be people who walk deeply with God, to be renewed, healed, restored and transformed is something beautiful, but requires us to surrender to God, to allow him to speak to us, and to listen to his voice. To hear the voice of God is wonderful, but also uncomfortable, it is the voice of loving affirmation and the voice of challenge, God often puts his finger on the bits of our lives we would rather ignore. Yet, in hearing and heeding the voice of God we are submitting ourselves to the refiners’ fire who purifies the gold within us.

We need to be people of contemplation, with a relationship with God that has those deep reservoirs of divine faithfulness, that can enable us to be like Mary who was faithful when it mattered.

The final image I want to leave us with is that of a bow and arrow, this retreats back, but to advance forward, to retreat back in and of itself is not the point (and actually is tiring on the arms!) but it is the withdrawal that propels us forward.

So, let us in our walk with God, take that moment to go deeper, to reflect and be restored, the discipline is not easy and is counter-intuitive, but it is worth it in being fruitful obedient servants that finish the race well.

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Do not touch!

David again brought together all the able young men of Israel—thirty thousand. 2 He and all his men went to Baalah[a] in Judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the Name,[b] the name of the LORD Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim on the ark.3 They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart 4 with the ark of God on it,[c] and Ahio was walking in front of it. 5 David and all Israel were celebrating with all their might before the LORD, with castanets,[d] harps, lyres, timbrels, sistrums and cymbals.
6 When they came to the threshing floor of Nakon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. 7 The LORD’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God.
8 Then David was angry because the LORD’s wrath had broken out against Uzzah, and to this day that place is called Perez Uzzah.[e]

This is a shocking and uncomfortable story, Uzzah’s motives seem honourable in so much that he was trying to stop the Ark of the Covanant from falling out of the cart and smashing onto the floor, and yet he is struck dead for touching the Ark. I wonder what we can learn from this rather tough story?
Firstly, the Ark was never intended to travel in a cart, it was meant to be carried on poles, which made me think about what we carry within us, Christ himself, the DNA of the Kingdom of God, are we trying to carry that which God has given us in a vehicle that God never intended to travel in. I wonder whether much of what we think of as “Church” -denominations, services, buildings and committees and councils feels like it might be like Uzziah trying to ‘carry the work of God’ in an unsuitable vehicle. I don’t believe that God’s intention for us and his Church was to be shoe-horned and reduced into simply a Sunday morning spectator service, nor do I believe God intended his Church to be run-ragged trying to maintain Victorian buildings. Another image Jesus uses for trying carry the things of God in an unsuitable vehicle is when Jesus talks of Old Wine-skins bursting when new wine is poured into them. Are we trying to contain the things of God in a wine-skin that needs to be thrown out and a new one bought in its place?

Secondly, Uzzah’s actions were in some way faithless, he was ‘trying to give God a hand’ -something we try to do sometimes as though God cannot be trusted to look after his glory himself. One of my friends used to have a saying which used to make me feel desperately uncomfortable “God’s not doing it, so could you do it Vicar?!” -it stems from this idea that we know better than God, and if he does things our way then it will be all alright, yet the truth is the reverse of this, we are at our most fruitful when we surrender our desire to control God, when keep our hands off from the wheel (or the Ark). Reminding me of Abra(h)am sleeping with Hagar because God had not (in Abrahams mind) fulfilled his promise quickly enough with Sara(h) becoming pregnant (and to be fair to him, he did have to wait a long time!)

When I worked in my last parish of Kingswood I studied the history of the place where the Wesleyian revival, the Great Awakening, began with thousands of miners responded the message of Christ with repentance and faith, and yet over-time human hands got hold of this move of God and all the way up Kingswood High Street there are Churches that fell out with each other and built an impressive building, yet now despite lots of Church buildings very few people in Kingswood actually know the resurrected Jesus, and the Methodist movement which began so excitingly upon Hanham Mount now is a Church in rapid decline. God moved and people couldn’t keep their hands off and the movement abated.

So, what of us, are we trying to carry what God has given us in an unsuitable vehicle, what does God say about transporting what he has given you?

Are we trying to give God a hand, do we need to trust him with his glory and surrender our desire for control? Do we need to not put our hands on that which is holy, are we interfering unhelpfully with the things of God?

So, let’s not carry the Ark of the Covenant on a cart but rather transporting that which is God in the way he wants it carried, and trusting and surrendering to him to be faithful, believe he is good and sees the wider picture.

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