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Enslaved?

A couple of years ago we watched the BBC adaptation of Little Dorritt, a story which starts and centres in the early part around the debtors prison, but as we watched the story unravel it became apparent that everyone within the narrative were in some senses prisoners. Some maybe in gilded gages, but none the less still very much prisons that hold captive and enslave.

What of us, what of me, am I enslaved by anything? Or, if we’re more honest, what are we enslaved by? Are we even aware of it?

The film the Matrix portrays all of humanity caught as a slave to a system that gives them an illusion of freedom. The Bible talks of us all being slaves to sin, Paul speaks into humanities addiction which controls us “the good I want to do, I don’t do, and wrong I don’t want to do I do do!” (Rom.7).

As enslaved people we are controlled and our ability to make good, free, healthy choices is impaired.

As I read the story of Pharaoh enslaving the Israelites it is clear that he is also a slave to his fears and paranoia.

Fear (like guilt) is a very bad motivator, yet something we all feel from time to time. What is scaring us and making us afraid at the moment? How is fear affecting our choices and how we treat those around us?

Much of the writings of liberation theology and writings of politicians such as Nelson Mandela talk about true freedom sets free both the oppressed and the oppressor.

Fear holds us captive and often causes us to lash out and hurt those around us. Oppression is contagious just as much as fear is divisive.

Fear makes reasonable people behave in unreasonable ways.

Fear creates knee jerk reactions often which are foolish, blinkered and prejudiced. This Pharaoh’s fear driven choices caused the death of his son and grandson.

Fear makes us think it is all down to us where faith reminds us that even when it doesn’t look or feel like it God is in charge and he us good, all good.

Scripture talks of “perfect love casts out fear” knowing God’s presence with us brings peace -a peace that passes (trscends in some translations) all understanding.

The story of Moses is a story of liberation, but one could argue that although they were liberated after the first passover their true liberation of hearts and minds took much longer.

To imagine a new life, with a new identity, and seek to live it out in everyday reality is our inheritance bought by the blood of the cross and the power of the resurrection.

Jesus is our great liberator, Paul says “those whom the Son (Jesus) sets free shall be free Indeed!” but how do we live in the freedom that Christ brings?

We remain prisoners in our hearts and minds when we cannot imagine a different future from what we have always known. We need hope of a different future and path, we need what the Bible calls ‘the renewing of our minds’, whereby we make every thought captive to the blood of Christ.

Freedom often is not a one off badge we can sew on our jerseys but rather a way of life with God, won for us by Christ but lived out each day, step by step.

Have we discovered that freedom in Christ, and living differently.

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Growing Courage and Bravery

Exodus 2.14: Then Moses was afraid and thought, “What I did must have become known.”

15 When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian, where he sat down by a well.

water and fill the troughs to water their father’s flock. 17 Some shepherds came along and drove them away, but Moses got up and came to their rescue and watered their flock.

18 When the girls returned to Reuel their father, he asked them, “Why have you returned so early today?”

19 They answered, “An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds. He even drew water for us and watered the flock.”

20 “And where is he?” Reuel asked his daughters. “Why did you leave him? Invite him to have something to eat.”

21 Moses agreed to stay with the man, who gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses in marriage. 22 Zipporah gave birth to a son, and Moses named him Gershom,[c] saying, “I have become a foreigner in a foreign land.”

When I worked in Bristol we ran the mission shaped ministry course from Fresh Expressions with a weekend away in the middle of it, the session on Saturday evening was “overcoming hurt and disappointment” as so many people with incredible potential have been crushed by various things such as opposition, bad experiences, negative reactions and dismissive comments. Within the Christian life we all get knocked down at times -and sometimes kicked when you are down there!- but our challenge was to rise up from the floor, move in from the pain of discouragement and try again (and maybe again, and again!). My friend Jackie was leading the session (and also speaking from experience) and she prayed for us all to have the gift of courage and bravery. She then said something I will never forget. “Bravery is like a muscle, perhaps God is like a personal trainer building up muscle tone within you”.

That morning I had (in vain) tried to loose some of my flabby stomach with a few sit ups and I was in pain. Growing muscles is painful. Yet everything doesn’t change with the occasional stretch, but rather through ongoing persistent discipline.

Moses here probably doesn’t feel very brave as he’s on the run from pharaoh but it feels like he’s growing braver here when he fights if a gang of bullies stopping some young women water their animals. Clearly Moses intervenes even though the odds are against him and the thugs run away.

Later we read of Moses becoming a shepherd which is a role requiring courage taking on all sorts of dangerous wild animals in order to protect the sheep. God stretching Moses who is becoming more and more brave until he is ready (with God’s help and empowering) to face down Pharaoh -the leader of a superpower nation and possibly someone he had personal history with?

Interestingly the story starts with Moses killing an Egyptian and Pharaoh being angry and wanting to kill Moses, rather than confronting Pharaoh and saying: “let the Lords people go!” yet Moses wasn’t ready and had fled and spent a long time letting God work in him so that he could work through him?

Perhaps God had been trying to work in him but Moses blew the opportunity and God had work in Moses afresh so he had the courage to return to face Pharaoh.

What of us?

Do we need to rise up afresh and not give up on the call of God on our lives?

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Why are you fighting each other?

Exodus 2:13 The next day he went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, “Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?”

14 The man said, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “What I did must have become known.”

15 When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian, where he sat down by a well.

“We wished you had all been hanged” said a group of black political prisoners (from the PAC, Pan African Congress) to Nelson Mandela and his fellow colleague-prisoners from the ANC in the jail at Robbin Island.

As I read this I couldn’t believe what I was reading these two groups both wanted to end black oppression by white minority rule and yet they hated each other and refused to work together towards liberation.

Yet as I thought about this I realised that sadly when people often should pull together they pull apart, rather than unite against a common enemy they fight amongst themselves.

I remember in the film “The Krays” the two brothers, Reggie and Ronnie, fight each other in the Boxing Ring, and their mum tells them “we are family, we don’t fight each other, we never fight each other, we fight them out there together, but we never fight each other!”

Sadly this is so evident within the Church and the Christian community, on both the macro -denominations and other groups acting like school children squabbling and bickering- and the micro, personal, level where the levels of spitefulness that is launched at one another for trying to do things differently to see Christ made known and lives transformed.

The Americans have a horrible phrase “friendly fire” where an ally kills a fellow ally, we as Christians know that there is no place within Christ’s Church for such behaviour, but sadly I know many wonderful and Godly Church leaders who have left ministry broken because of the behaviour of people within the Church.

Speaking personally some of my most painful wounds I received both as a vicar and now just as just a random guy trying to be a faithful follower have been from people I felt should have “got it” and understood and been on the same side.

Moses question: “why are you fighting one another” remains as valid today as it did many millennia ago!

The tragedy with fighting one another not only means we have lost our perspective and our thinking has become distorted, but we are are actually impairing the body of Christ, reducing our effectiveness, hampering mission and thwarting the advance of the Kingdom of God and grieving the Holy Spirit.

It sometimes is easier to think of when others have lost their perspective but not always as clear when we have ourselves. Bizarrely it is often easier to see the speck in someone else’s eye than notice the log within our own.

The writer of Hebrews urges his readers to “fix their eyes on Christ” avoiding the entanglement of sin and the distraction cul-de-sacs (slight paraphrase) and run the race set before us.

Many years ago I had to write a letter to an emerging leader and give some advice the advice I chose was “keep the main thing the main thing -the main thing is knowing, loving and following Jesus and seeking to see his Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven”. It’s a call to lift our eyes to ultimately who and what we as Christians are living for!

And I’ll close with another image, the opposite of the one I began with, it is from the film Shakespeare in Love where the rival theatre groups collaborate together -whereas earlier in the film they were fighting and trying to kill each other- in order to put on a play (Romeo and Juliet) in defiance of the master of the realm trying to shut the theatres down.

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Holy Saturday.

As many of you know I suffer with depression, so despite the (many, many) blessings God, sometimes I feel like I live in Holy Saturday yet everything within my soul is yearning for Easter morning.

Currently I’m in the weird place of having left the security and stability of a structured and paid role (as a pioneer vicar in Bristol) and am currently seeking to build and birth something as a ordinary ‘lay’ person who loves Jesus and seeks to follow him. This place of transition having left somewhere but not fully arrived at the desired new destination -the airport lounge or the train station cafe- again feels like I’m living in Holy Saturday of liminality.

Currently, the new monastic community and the school of mission seeking I’m involved in building/birthing feels very fragile and although there are green shoots and signs of hope I also feel and fear the size of the mountain, and feel a bit like David looking at the size of Goliath and then the smallness of the few stones. Having had many disappointments and setbacks along the way and doubts, fears and questions plague my mind this is an uncomfortable, confusing and at times lonely time. Holy Saturday is a place where past pain and baggage collide with the part of me daring to hope, believe and clinging on to God (although probably in reality he’s clinging onto me, although it doesn’t always feel this way).

Today too, I went to Southsea, where there was a job I didn’t get although I felt so sure I had heard from God that he was calling us there, actually yesterday wandering from the train station I found myself crying that I felt so called there and yet the door had been shut and just pouring out my confusion and pain to a heaven that doesn’t answer those unanswered questions that my heart was/has/is breaking over? Holy Saturday is a day when the answers don’t fully satisfy.

For me, Holy Saturday has become a day that resonates with me and the last few years. Jesus has died, it has been painful, and the resurrection hasn’t happened yet -if fact the disciples doubted it was going to happen, the only people who appeared to have any faith were the priests who feared it would happen!

Faith in God’s faithfulness and promise in a fallen, broken and fallible world is a difficult place to believe.

Holy Saturday is a place of waiting for breakthrough, it’s sitting in the hospital waiting room with a plastic cup of horrible coffee trying to make sense of the mix of emotions, past experiences and the realisation of our lack of ability to control the outcomes of situations.

Sunday does come, the light breaks through, Jesus our living hope rises from the tomb defeating death and darkness but St. John of the Cross said (or was it Christopher Nolan’s batman?): “The night is at its darkest before the dawn”.

I sometimes wonder if my evangelical/charismatic heritage rushes from Good Friday through Holy Saturday to get to the resurrection of Easter Morning failing to take in all that this journey has to teach us.

The picture of ‘the third day’ is a recurring biblical theme -and perhaps I’d suggest the place the missionary and pioneer often is forced to dwell- the third day is the day of break-through which has been preceded by a time of waiting with expectancy, but (as anyone who has been on a long drive with a small child will testify) waiting is a difficult, confusing and painful time. I often wonder if this ‘third day’ metaphor is a picture of life where we live with the pain of the fall a reality and awaiting the coming Kingdom.

So, let’s walk through Holy Saturday and learn the lessons today has to teach us for life of faith following the crucified and risen Christ.

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Moses: Should I stay or should I go?

Exodus.2:11 One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. 12 Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. 13 The next day he went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, “Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?”

14 The man said, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “What I did must have become known.”

15 When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian, where he sat down by a well.
—-

The American civil rights bus boycott began when a black woman, Rosa Parks, remained seated on her chair rather than giving it up for a white person.

She not only didn’t give up her seat but remained seated, staying on her chair when the conductor shouted at her to get off, threatened her with the police, called the police, who came and arrested her.

She didn’t give him but preserved even when the pressure mounted, she did not capitulate and back down.

Her courageous act followed by defiant persistence sparked a movement that changed a nation and altered the course of history.

Moses made a stand, he killed the Egyptian, and I wondered was this making a stand? -Or was it more of a gesture?

A gesture is something we do that does not cost us very much and does not interrupt the normal flow of our lives.

As Christians we sometimes love to make a grand gesture! Yet I have discovered that often the real fruit lies in the unglamorous habitual preservice, the call of Christ is normally deeper and more costly than the tokenism we would often like it to be.

Moses, came across an unjust situation which provoked him into anger, he killed the Egyptian but afterwards he went home and his life carried on as normal, this sounds like a gesture! Where-as a stand changes our future -in fact often it changes everything and may include ‘burning our bridges’.

I wonder if Moses attempted a gesture, but it ended up snowballing into a stand? He did kill an Egyptian but was not expecting the reaction he got, the consequences of this caused him not to stand and fight for the liberation of the Israelite slaves, but to hide and save himself.

Sometimes, like Moses, I’m sure we have had moments full of faith and courage -perhaps our adrenaline is going- and we’ve been bold and brave, only later the dark night of the Soul rises, and we become filled with doubts, fears and anxieties, and we review our choices? Fight or flight?

Moses was a Prince, schooled no doubt in valour and battle, and yet he chose not to fight but rather to flea away, he saw the dangers and battles ahead, he counted the cost and decided it was too much, too costly, and he run away.

I’m sure many of us have run away from big challenges, and if we have not we probably have at least been tempted to too.

I was facing some very difficult choices in my last parish did I ignore some behaviour, or did I bring a challenge? I knew if I brought a challenge it would result in a lot of unpleasantness, but I knew it was the right thing to do. My friend the Elim Pastor said to me “do it scared!” In other words, even when we are afraid still do the right thing.

The Bible says: “in your anger do not sin” -but I would add “in your fear do not neglect righteousness”.

Yet, the picture of Rosa Parks which we started with is one I want to end with, Rosa Parks was a Christian, and I believe that as she must have felt afraid as her stand caused an almighty and costly backlash but I also believe she must have been praying too, and I believe that her amazing courage is both a tribute to her character and a testimony to the amazing God we serve who strengthens us and grants us courage.

So, what of us, are we people of small gestures or genuine stands? Are we prepared to do the right thing even when it is costly and we are afraid?

Are we like Moses who ran for the hills when the times got challenging, or Rosa Parks who prayed and was courageous and changed the world?

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Ish

One word that has increasingly annoyed me within the world of Church -but actually more generally in life- is the word “Ish”.

What does “ish” mean, often it is really saying “I know we should be doing something (or not doing something) that I know we aren’t (or are)”. “Ish” (often accompanied by that wobbly hand gesture) is the word that illustrates the gap between what we “espouse” -that we say we do/don’t do- and what is “operant” -what we actually do do!

“Ish” means we’re sitting on a fence and not willing to make a stand, “ish” is the “lukewarm, neither hot nor cold” that Jesus says in his word to the people of Laodicea “makes him want to vomit” (Rev.3.16)

“Ish” means trying to have you cake and eat it e.g. I wonder if I’m left-ish to be trendy and liberal, but not left-ish enough to really want to make sacrifices to life the marginalised out of poverty? -I want to be ‘all-in’ and prepared to take the consequences of righteousness on the chin.

“Ish” is an embarrassed word, where we hedge our bets, we see what way the wind is blowing so we can go along with the crowd.

“Ish” is not a word I ever hear Jesus use, and the fruit of the spirit is not pre-fixed with “sort of” or “kind of” (another way of saying “ish”).

In fact he once said “If anyone puts their hand to the plough and keeps looking back is not fit for the Kingdom of heaven” (Luke 9:62).

We are not called to “Sort of follow him -ish” or “kind of pick up our cross -ish” or “repent-ish”.

“Ish” isn’t a word we use with our nearest and dearest -imagine if your spouse asked you if you loved them and you replied “ish!” -it is a sort of word that conveys no certainty, depth or on-going commitment.

You can’t build a movement on “ish” people because they are like shifting sand or wobbly jelly. They are not properly behind you, -especially when it matters- it doesn’t take much to swing them the other way, they’ve not nailed their colours to any mast, they have a foot in both camp, they waver and vacillate.

Yet, I wonder am I sometimes an “ish” person? -Sometimes the answer is yes!

Am I an “ish” Christian? -Again sadly sometimes again the answer is yes”

Which lead me to think, how can I become less “ish” in my life, my faith and as a community? As I thought of removing the ‘ish’ from my faith, I know I need God’s help to follow him.

So let’s have the courage of our convictions and live out our lives following Jesus with confidence, unapologetically, as we ask him to help us live our lives his way!

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Forgetting Your Story.

Exodus 1:6 Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, 7 but the Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them.

8 Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt.

The opening remarks of the book of Exodus tell us that the Egyptians had forgotten the story of Joseph saving the people of Egypt from starvation through the famine. It was a crucial part of their history because if he hadn’t done so the nation would have perished.

There is no gratitude here in the Egyptians. Yet as I began to ponder this I began to wonder if I have lost my story, forgotten my history, and overlooked my narrative. As I believe all of us are shaped by our journey and the tale we tell ourselves.

Sometimes, I wonder too, is my tale true -as often I tend (as some great mystic once wrote) to write my wounds in marble and my blessings in sand; sometimes I miss-remember things blaming myself unfairly and underestimating the influence of others. Yet, tattered though it maybe it is my story and my life, a life where I still believe the story of God and our story do intertwine, the divine weaver at work amid the broken threads of my confusion, often working in my life and often I am unaware and completely oblivious to it, yet sometimes I have caught glimpses and sometimes I have seen for the odd moment more clearly.

Yet I know at times I have become trapped in my story, caught in cul de sac’s of negative thinking, despondency, and tough times and need to find God in my story and encounter him there, often our places of pain and our places of encounter often are the same place, our places of ‘stuckness’ and ‘freedom’ often meet and we need to find the Good News of God in our own lives and situations.

As I think of this idea of remembering our story I am struck by the idea that I need to examine my life to uncover God’s activity in my life, recognise his hand at work and recall and remember this as I continue onward in my life, with my memories of God’s goodness, kindness, grace, love and support shaping my future, the past informing my present.

Choosing to view life from a God perspective rather than letting my narrative be shaped by the hurts, bitterness, grievances and other noise from the past.

Remembrance is a choice of both what to remember and also how to remember, part of the Jewish tradition especially from the story of Exodus, is about telling, sharing and owning the story of God’s rescuing work to the people of Israel. Each year they would gather at Passover and tell the story again, because stories need to be told and if they are not told regularly the detail and the colour fade, rather the need to be re-visited regularly and passed on so that our experience and story of God can be shared with the next generation so that they might have faith, be expectant and our story can help them build on greater and more sturdy foundations for themselves and their lives, and in turn can bless the next generation. Our stories are like cycles they are meant to go on and on and bless, encourage and inspire -to spur one another on to love and good deeds.

In the book of Revelation we are told that the people of God “over came by the blood of the lamb and the word of their testimony” -Jesus died 2000 years ago in a country a long way from here and yet people have told his story and their story through the ages until it has come to us, we know his story through other peoples faithfulness. Yet that crucial event, the greatest day in history, is brought into the present reality by our story -our testimony- of God at work in our lives.

So, ponder afresh where God is and has been at work in our lives, see his hands and recognise his handiwork, celebrate it and share it, and let’s not forget our story, our shaping narrative.

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