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The Kings Dome

Nearing the end of my journey I visited Stephen Sutton at Coulby Baptist Church, he recently posted a youtube video all about the Churches working together with various people talking about “my church” and the things they are involved with, the things they do, the similarities and differences they have and as you watch the clip you realise they are not talking about a congregation but rather the true Church of Teeside which is the united followers of Jesus Christ seeking to live out their faith corporately.

I didn’t really know Stephen but he is a friend of a friend and agreed to meet me when I sent him a random email talking about my desire to learn from other projects in the UK and see what God was doing in our nation, yet what I had not realised that his dad, Roger Sutton, had done something similar several years before seeking out great examples of where Churches were working together collaboratively and gathered his findings into a book which he has since got published.

So, it is with fear and trepidation that I try and write up my conversation with Stephen fearing it will probably sound like a pale imitation of his dads book! I arrived at the Church and there was no one there, I realised too I had no idea what Stephen looked like and so I ended up grinning inanely at all these blokes who walked passed (I’m surprised I didn’t get punched in the head!) before a guy appeared with a bottle of milk and two bags of extra large cookies and introduced himself as Stephen, he let me in and made me a coffee, I did a quick bit of mental maths and realised he had brought ten large cookies for a meeting with just two of us, that meant he was expecting me to eat at least five cookies -I thought I like his style, this is hospitality with style!

I had a whole load of questions planned to ask him, but I was surprised when he began to ask about me and about my tour, and about why I felt called to do it, and what the school of mission was all about, whilst he grinned, nodded and listened. I was struck by the hospitality of the cookies, but also more struck by just how powerful it is when someone listens, especially someone who I had come to see expecting to learn from.

I ended up talking about the talk Jackie gave at the launch of the School of Mission about discovering what God has put inside each of us: the dreams, the passions, the ideas which I believe God wants to birth from us for his glory, normally when I reach this point I get bombarded by the strategy questions, the logistical queries and the finance issues by those listening, but instead Stephen (taking a cookie) said: “I knew this really wise old preacher and he said that he spent the first half of his ministry trying to get his vision into people, and then said he spent the rest of his ministry trying to get Gods vision out of people!” -I cannot tell you how affirming that was that my crazy longing was actually something other Christians resonated with and longed for too.

We were even both having finished our first cookie, would it be greedy to go for a second, and what of the unopened packet, was that just a challenge, I took a second cookie -but was mortified to discover it had stuck itself to the third cookie, what could I do now I’d handled both cookies, and eating three large cookies at a meeting looked greedy!

“So, tell me about Transform Tesside Together?” I asked hoping he would forgive or not have noticed ‘giant cookie gate’ -pointing to a map on the wall Stephen showed me that Teesside, was the conurbation around Middlesbough, by the river Tees, which also includes communities of Billingham, Redcar, Stockton-on-Tees and Thornaby (see I was listening!). Stephen told me about how he had started at this Baptist Church and had worked really, really hard at being the best Church pastor he could be, and occasionally he and other ministers locally would meet up for a sandwich and a pray, which felt a bit token-gesture, and only a few of them gathered, but was okay. Until someone came to talk to them about a leaders prayer meeting in York where around twenty leaders met together each week, early in the morning, to pray for one another and for the city of York, and have been praying together for nearly twenty years. Stephen said that they all felt challenged to commit to one another more and to pray together.

The first thing that happened as they prayed for each other was that God helped evaporate insecurity and ego amongst themselves, bitching and bragging stopped, and the realisation of the negative effect thoughts of empire and entitlement can have on the dream of God becoming a reality amongst us. In prayer, making themselves vulnerable and accountable, relational unity was formed, Pastors and Ministers became friends, they saw each other not as competing players on the pitch, but rather team mates wearing the same football shirt, on one another’s team, and rejoicing in one another’s joys and sharing in one another’s sorrows, a realisation that each had one another’s back, a call to compliment rather than compete with one another. In Teesside they made a covenant with one another “”that we will only speak well of each other with respect and integrity and honestly” an ethos that filtered through from the leaders to their congregations “we are not going to slag off other Churches”.

I thought back to my time in Kingswood, remembering friends like Pastor Benson or Captain Michael from the Salvation Army, and I thanked God for the way they and their Churches were so different from me and mine, and yet had really blessed and encouraged me in my time serving in that community. As I thought of these guys who I have much to thank God for I realised what a powerful gift to give as leaders to one another, as one of the questions that is rarely asked is: “who pastors the pastors?” -I know technically denominations all have someone like an area dean or bishop who has responsibility for this role, but in reality most of us can feel pretty ‘unpastored’. In prayer the ministers of Teesside saw themselves and each other differently, they realised that they needed one another.

Recently I have been reading some of Alan Hirsche’s work where he talks about the difference between community and communitas, a community is a gathering together of people, whereas communitas is more like a battalion of soldiers that are interdependent on one another working together as a team, whereby coming together they become something greater than that which they could ever have been on their own. Perhaps this is why Jesus prayed that his Church would be one, as God is one, where the unity is so close it is impossible to see where one ends and another begins.

This thinking leads us onto thinking differently about the Kingdom of God, not just about our own patch, our own congregation, but seeing the land that God has called us to differently, asking collectively “What does it mean to be a Church in this place and for this time?”, seeing themselves as God’s salt and light to the town, we are God’s given gift. Stephen said he has begun to explain the Kingdom of God like this, “it’s the Kings Dome”, in my head I pictured one of those snow domes filled with figures and lots of falling snow, he went on “under the Dome of the King, is where Jesus is King, and the Kings will is done, he gets what he wants under his dome, now imagine under this dome is the whole of Teeside (or Poole, Kingswood, Bristol or where-ever God has laid on your heart and called you too). What would the fullness of the rule and reign of God look like in our communities? As I thought of this I was reminded of my friend Simon Cartwright and his dissertation for his PHD which was based largely around the call of God to Jeremiah to “Seek the welfare and prosperity, the peace, the shalom, of the city” (Jer,29.7.Amph).

It was around this time that the chief executive of Middlesbough council said of the Churches “‘if you could get yourselves United and organised we could work with you!” which was a challenge the Churches of Teesside rose too, it became clear that the Christian resources where not equally dispersed (as with many areas) the most deprived areas has the smallest and struggling Churches, and so they support one another discovering that they can do more together than on their own, and when people from the various congregations begin to work together they feel part of something larger than themselves, indeed they feel part of the move of God in their area, as they put into practice the call to “seek first the Kingdom of God” -showing the people of Teeside a united Church being the fragrance of Christ, being salt and light, shining out light stars in the universe.

Stephen talked about the message he wants to convey to the people of Teesside “We are your Church and Teeside we want to serve you!”

As I began to hear their exciting projects I began to think back and realised that the most exciting things I have been involved with in my Christian life have been when Churches have intentionally let their walls down to other Christians and learned to serve alongside one another: I remembered my year out in Wakefield where a number of Churches came together and put on a youth alpha (each Church had to bring a leader with their young people for the small group time) and we saw forty five young people come through Alpha; being around at the birth of Bristol Street Pastors coming from all sections of the Christian community and caring for the most vulnerable on the streets of the city; I’m currently sat here typing away on the laptop at 3:30am here in Bournemouth, with ten rough sleepers are asleep in a warm comfy bed having had a hot cooked meal, with breakfast coming in a few hours (and a packed lunch) as we try to serve the homeless and help them find safe and secure accommodation all made possible by armies of volunteers from most of the Bournemouth Churches (and some who have no Church connection too); or down the road in Poole where a local Christian charity working with single mums have organised the local Churches so that each week there is a different messy church happening with free craft and games for the kids and a hot meal for all the family too. A Kingdom mindset changes everything, we eves-drop on the prayer of the Godhead, Jesus talking to the Father about us! “all of them be one, as you and I are one” (Jn.17).

Stephen told me of a mission event that the Churches did collaboratively that summer when they served the council by providing over seven hundred and fifty volunteers, which resulted in fifty two thousand volunteer hours doing jobs such as gardening, cleaning, painting and many other activities, the Church not weak and invisible but a redemptive, transforming revolutionary movement of the people of God living out their faith in obedience within their context seeing something of heaven touching earth, the Church mobilised not hidden away in the dark corners of its buildings wanting to be invisible.

The Kingdom of God and his mission beckoning us all to come and partner with him in seeing Jesus Kingdom come on earth as in heaven.

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The Prince of Preachers and his heirs.

It was a sermon that changed my life, or rather it changed my Dad’s life and its ripple effect profoundly impacted my life.

My Dad, Bob Mason, was (and is) a nice bloke and a good man, he had been actively involved in a local Church that got closed down and so he went with a friend to another Church in the town. Dad thought he was a Christian, after-all he was English, a good person and a Church going Anglican.

He sat there one Sunday evening in St. Luke’s in Maidstone where a young curate called Malcolm Hill was preaching on John 3:16, probably the most famous text in the Bible “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life” -it was at that moment that for dad a penny dropped that God did not just love the world, but that included him personally too, and as Malcolm explained the Gospel message, Jesus’ death and resurrection for the forgiveness of our sins to restore our relationship with God, in his sermon Dad was transfixed. Malcolm ended his talk with the line (and having met him I can imagine him saying it!) “don’t leave this Church if you have unfinished business with God still to do!” and it was this challenge that Dad responded to and surrendered the Lordship of his life right there in the Church. A decision that was life changing.

A few years after that my Dad was ordained and became one of the best preachers I know, wanting to do for other people what Malcolm had faithfully done for him, enabling them to hear clearly the message of God’s salvation in Christ in a way they could understand and respond to, wanting to see those who were already Christians being transformed to become more like Christ and see the prodigals run back into the arms of our loving heavenly Father. Dad also preached with expectancy, he believed what he proclaimed and was looking to see God at work in the lives of those he was talking too. Over the years many people have found faith through my dad’s preaching and teaching, including my best mate Mark Davey, who will cite a moment in a confirmation class when for him he came to understand the gospel message and responded to it, now Mark is leading a Church in London and he too is a straight talking preacher, seeking to proclaim Christ clearly to those who are listening, like Dad expectant that the Holy Spirit will be at work in the lives of the hearers. Unsurprisingly as my dad was primarily a preacher (although gifted in many other areas too) one of his heroes was Charles Spurgeon, the man they called “the Prince of Preachers”, yet for many years I struggled to grasp his appeal, although I did like his comments about beards: “Growing a beard is a habit most natural, Scriptural, manly and beneficial!”

Yet recently my opinion is slowly changing, today we have Christians who have through the internet and other resources access to some of the best preachers and theologians on the planet and yet more and more Christians I meet have increasingly patchy bible knowledge, are unable to articulate what they believe -or why they believe it- often believing several contradictory things all at the same time.

At the moment I work a lot with young people, mainly in evangelistic work, but my real passion is to see and disciple young people to be able to effectively and fruitfully talk to their friends about their faith and encourage them to explore the claims and teaching of Jesus for themselves. When I worked for the schools work project that I am now working for again there was a young guy, Simon, who became a Christian following an assembly at the boys grammar school, he was hungry to explore faith and was very diligent in studying the scriptures and prayer and went on to lead the Christian Union into growth -and also running a combined youth alpha with the neighbouring girls grammar school- and I thought that in many ways he was like a young Spurgeon.

Spurgeon came to faith when he was fifteen and snow stopped him going to his usual Anglican church he went instead to a local primitive Methodist church and heard the words (from Isaiah 42) “Look to the Lord and live” -which challenged him to realise his need of a Saviour, three months later he was baptised, and less than four years later at just nineteen (with no formal theological training) he took over the Pastoring of New Park Chapel in Southwark, with his abilities as a preacher causing the congregation to grow, and he published his weekly sermons each week, these became widely distributed and read by many people. When much of the established Church was from the privileged classes unable to speak the language or relate to the experiences of ordinary working people, espousing liberal theology and cloaked in the in accessible language of academia Spurgeon’s messages, in the vernacular of the people, must have felt radically different from the dreary droning’s from the majority of pulpits across the land. Scripture reminds us that “knowledge puffs up” and sadly too often sermons can become a bit ostentatious. One of my favourite lecturers from theological college once said: “To understand something deeply means that you can explain it simply!”

Yet, even today, over hundred years after Spurgeon, I have sat through many inaccessible sermons, often more than a tad boring, which I have struggled to understand what the preacher was talking about, much less find anything applicable and beneficial to my everyday life seeking to follow Jesus. We need to learn afresh that it is not just what we are saying that matters, but whether the people who hear us speak can understand and respond to what we are saying.

For a radio to work effectively it needs to have both its transmitter and its receivers working properly, even if the transmitter is over-active if the receiver is not receiving then the radio is not working, the same is true of our communication when thinking about the good news of Jesus.

Yet despite primarily being someone focused on the word, Spurgeon advocated Christians getting involved practically in social action, and like George Muller, he ran a number of orphanages, and challenged people to think of their Christian duty of care to those who were in poverty or facing hardship. Rather than simply being an evangelist seeking to make converts, Spurgeon would seek to preach the canon of scripture and address many of theological controversies of the time, so that people could engage and understand what and why they believed what they believed, facilitating apologetics amongst ordinary people, Spurgeon is possibly the greatest theological educator this country has ever produced.

Spurgeon wrote up his works in pamphlet form and made these readily available to anyone who wanted to read them, encouraging ordinary people to think about their faith and engage in theology and those questions about existence, also by putting accessible messages in the hands of ordinary people he revolutionised personal evangelism and popularised theology as something for the ordinary Christian. In 1857 he founded a college for Pastors (later after his death becoming Spurgeon’s College) and encouraged vocations in many people who would not have normally been able to afford an academic education -indeed Spurgeon allowed them to study for free- ensuring that continuation of people speaking the Christian message in a way the ordinary people could understand and respond to.

Spurgeon too was expectant that through his preaching God would change and transform lives, so much so that whilst he preached he had a group of Christians serving in what became termed as ‘Boiler Rooms’ who were faithfully praying, the power of prayer and the power of proclamation resonates with the very heart beat of God.

So I long to see more young people like Spurgeon hearing the gospel, accepting Christ and thriving in their faith and sharing that faith with their peers in their own language and vernacular, seeking to enable Christians to have the tools to read the Bible and wrestle with issues, to learn apologetic and to encourage vocations from communities often under represented.

Spurgeon shook the Church in his generation not by telling everyone they have got in wrong, but rather by practising something different, something better, and saw many lives changed and transformed and his legacy continues to this day.

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To preach or not to preach, that’s not the question…

Before I started my tour someone asked me, how it was going booking up places for “my preaching tour” interestingly I had preached in Bristol a couple of times and was down to lead couple of seminar/discussions in Derby but not very many “preaches”.

I began to consider “preaching” afresh, something I had been thinking about quite a lot as I visit quite a number of Churches to speak at their Sunday Services, this is something I do really enjoy, and it is good to share with other Christians, Churches and Congregations. I think there is something beautiful to bring as a guest speaker as I often discover that I had been inadvertently prophetic (rather than pathetic!) where being a stranger unaware of the lives of the people I am speaking too something of God’s truth has blessed them, which might not have been heard by them if a preacher-friend said the same message as it would have looked like an intentional act.

I like preaching, sometimes it felt in tough times in the parish that even if the congregation had been unresponsive I felt better because at least I said what I felt God was calling me to say. Yet, I wondered too whether there is a danger in this, where we put all our time and effort into the sermon which makes us feel better, because “at least we have done something” -especially as much of a ministers work can feel quite intangible- and many clergy spend hours sometimes days on their sermons but I often wonder how much is retained? I wonder too as an introvert whether sometimes preparing a sermon is actually escaping real life and real ministry and can be an excuse for not doing other things that God is calling us too.

One of the questions I have found myself asking is: “Does preaching actually ‘work’?”. I ask this because sadly I know of many Christians -or people who would identify as Christians- who have sat in congregations where fantastic speakers have faithfully proclaimed Christ week in week out, and yet when speaking to them they know little of scripture, have limited assurance of salvation and it is hard to see how spiritual truths have been in anyway applied to their lives. The quality of preaching and the spiritual-maturity in discipleship does not always correlate the way we would like it too! I have wondered about other ways in which people can engage with scripture and every-day life, often Churches will tell you that home-groups and Bible studies are the place for this, which is true there is a better level of personal accountability and it often is an easier place to ask questions rather than passively absorbing a monologue of a preached sermon. Yet, as I have journeyed on as a minister for a number of years I have come across a lot of Churches (in fact I would say the majority) where home-groups (or cells, life groups, growth groups or pastorates call them what you like!) have got stuck, people plateau, the group becomes inward looking and people confuse gaining knowledge with becoming more Christ-like. Nearly every parish profile looking for a new vicar will say “we need some help with our home-groups”! Which, when we scratch bellow the surface is really asking “how do we continue to grow as Christians and become more and more Christ-like? How can we become more equipped and empowered in our daily lives to live for Christ? How can we see the Kingdom of God impact our context more fully?”

The problem is I believe two-fold: firstly the lack of authentic, deep, healthy and committed relationships we have with one another within our Church families? Often we reach a level of comfort with one another, we have complicit relationships that are nice but do not have the necessary depth to take us on to a deeper level with our faith, we stop challenging each other and spurring each other on, or we begin to develop ‘selective accountability’ rather than “whole life discipleship”. Alongside this, I do wonder, is our loving care for others sometimes a distraction from sorting our own junk out? As I wonder, in our faith we reach a point where we have got used to being Christians and human nature kicks in and we become comfortable where we are, we know enough to feel like experts and can regurgitate the right answers and are living off yesterdays spiritual bread. Our lives have developed a routine, and our faith neatly slots into various places in our lives (and Church attendance and involvement is not the same as spiritual maturity). How often do we let someone ask us “how goes it with your soul?” -and (probably even more rarely) do we answer that question honestly and authentically?

Sadly when I was in Bristol I regularly prayed with another Church leader, and I thought we had a good and accountable relationship with one another, and then suddenly one day we discovered a whole load of messy sinful stuff he was involved with that destroyed the life of this gifted pastor as he not only lost his job and went on the sex offenders register. I often wonder if he had been brave enough to share with me what he was feeling we might have been able to help him make different choices and so much tragedy might have been avoided. Yet we have to be willing to let a brother or sister shine the light of Christ into the darkness of ourselves, which is costly and painful, and often it feel (at the time) to keep going as we are. Are we brave enough to be real and honest with those around us? -And do we have relationships that are strong enough to cope with the grit and the pain of life.

As I type this, I am reminded of a couple of days ago, when my wife was talking to me about the move back to Poole and some of the people who I feel a bit let down by, and some of the pain from the previous parish, and she said to me “you’ve not forgiven them have you? -In fact I think you hate them!” It was really painful because she was right, she was holding a mirror up to me, and I did not want to recognise my unforgiveness -which was bad enough- but also recognising my vengeful feelings towards them; and knowing both the right answer ‘I need to forgive them’ is not the same as actually forgiving them. Yet, as with all spiritual maturity it is rarely a one off thing, I struggle to maintain my forgiveness of people, it’s not just an ‘in the moment choice’ but an onward process of choosing to forgive them. Discipleship is rarely a one-off choice, but a choice to walk along the narrow path and carry our cross. Without Allana’s challenge I would have probably let my hurt fester (in some cases, one in particular, for years) and if I’m honest I do keep renewing my anger, hurt and pain and have to start the process again. I am an addict to sin, and certain sins (like in my case unforgiveness) I am more prone to than others, which is why we need those uncomfortable challenges, which can really hurt at the time.

The problem with my unforgiveness -or whatever it is for you!- I know the right answers, I could probably do a great sermon on the need to forgive people, but actually doing it is so so much more difficult. Hypothetical Christianity is easy, authentic Christianity is much much harder.

It is easy to respond when we are in Church and the songs are wonderful and we are “really feeling it” but Sunday evening breaks into Monday Morning when its difficult and uncomfortable and “we are not feeling it” and somehow we all need to learn to keep walking towards Christ when the oomph from the band and the sermon has worn off and we are left with just us and God alongside all the noises of the week.

To preach or not to preach, that’s not actually the question, but rather how can we put in place all that we need to grow into Christ-likeness and how can we love and bless those around us in their walk too. I discovered that I need to take responsibility for my own discipleship, and help other people take responsibility for theirs; the preaching and the small group may well help with this, they are tools but not the solution, all of us have to put the work in ourselves with God in that secret place, the place of our own private history with the almighty, the journeying and soul work that no one probably sees where we apply our faith to our lives.

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The other Bristol Spiritual Hero: George Muller.

One of Bristol’s Spiritual heroes is a guy called George Muller, although a Prussian by birth, he moved to Bristol in 1836 when he was about thirty, he was a Pastor and a Preacher, who led Bethesda Chapel on Great George Street (which has now become Alma Church, now located on Alma Road). Muller was a leader in the ever changing Brethren Movement at that time.

Muller began to run an orphanage, caring for vulnerable children with no one to look after then, originally he had a small building for girls in Wilson Street, Bristol, but he had a big vision to house three hundred children and young people and moved to Ashley Down in 1845, but the work grew so dramatically that by 1870 Muller was housing one thousand seven hundred and twenty two orphans. The cost of building these homes cost over a hundred thousand, but yet Muller never made a public appeal for monies, but would pray fervently that God would touch the hearts of wealthy donors that they would give generously to provide for the orphans he cared for. Despite the cost of building and running such a large and expensive project Muller never went into debt. Mullers journey tells of conversations where people would write him sizeable cheques completely unexpectedly and unsolicited. On one occasion they had no food or money for breakfast for feed the children, Muller got the children to say grace, thanking God for his provision, just then outside in the street a milk delivery wagon broke down in the road and with the heat of the sun, the milkman donated all the milk that day as unless it was drunk it would have done off, the same day a baker gave the orphanage a large donation of bread and so they all had plenty to eat. Over his life-time he cared for over ten thousand orphans, without getting into debt or receiving a personal income.

Muller raising not only enough money to run his orphanages but also was able to give generously to support the missionary endeavours of his friend Hudson Taylor, before aged seventy Muller himself went on the mission-field, on the mission field.. Later in his Seventies when many of us would be settling down to retirement Muller went off on the mission-field for the next seventeen years.

Mullers life really gives testament to Jehovah Jirah, the God who provides, a God who is faithful and generous, and a God who is trust-worthy, his discipline and righteousness with his finances came when he decided to follow Jesus and realised that for him that a wrong attitude to money had been deeply at the root of much of his sinfulness. Yet, the example of Muller is one we as Christians need to hear and heed better, we need to realise that our own personal bank-statements, and those of us as Church gathered corporately, are theological documents, statements of faith, a revelation of our true beliefs and practices.

Scripture tells us clearly that “the love of money is the root of all evil” -which is interesting as it is not how much you have that is primarily the issue but your attitude towards it- and Jesus is emphatic “you cannot serve two masters, you cannot serve both God and Money” and yet so often our Church erect fundraising thermometers outside their buildings and shake the tin at every opportunity. When I was working in Kingswood we regularly used to visit local pubs with the Street Pastors, and local businesses with our town centre chaplaincy and people used to try and give me money (I used to always refuse) and it upset me as people have come to see Church always begging and on the scrounge “get rid of the Vicar by giving him a couple of quid and he’ll go away” rather than see us as being a gift to them.

We see within creation the generosity and extravagance of God and who rebukes Cain for his lack of generosity, the narrative of a scarcity mindset when God gives the Israelite manna and Quails which they are to trust him with each day (apart from the Sabbath when they can take enough for two days) yet when the Israelite refuse to trust God and try and stockpile the bread goes mouldy and infested with maggots. Through out scripture, especially with the incarnation we see God’s extravagant generosity -not even sparing his own son- and are called to be like God in our giving.

Sadly in one of the Churches I worked in it felt as though money and the fear of not having it had become such a stronghold that I feared they would probably have tried to charge Jesus for the last supper, and this pervasive attitude was so damaging to the growth and advance of the Kingdom in that area, however despite an immovable treasurer I discovered afresh the awesome faithfulness of God, when we were able to plant a new congregation in a new building and launch several missional projects on almost nothing, but God provided through many varied means, sometimes with donations that were anonymous and surprising, sometimes through grants (occasionally ones we were not expecting to be successful in).

When I was in Poole we founded an under eighteens night club called the AREA on thirty five pounds and at the end of our first year were able to give a £100 towards the homeless work and towards outreach amongst young people in Poole, God was incredibly faithful (we even had to borrow a tenner for the float for the tuck shop on the first evening!).

I find the Muller story incredibly challenging, as sometimes I have times when my faith stirs and other times when fear seems to speak louder to me, sometimes I make that initial step (like Peter getting out the boat and walking on the water) but then having made a couple of steps I can feel the fear conquering faith and I get plagued with doubts and anxiety. Nor can I say that I have always got what I want. We have had tears and fears when our card has been rejected or the cash machine has refused to give us money.

More recently I had to take on a second job so that we could afford to keep food on the table, we have had times when we have had to eat through the cupboards and the freezer rather than go shopping that week, we have had times when we have gone down the back of the sofa and had long talks late at night panicking about our money, we have had to cut our expenses -especially my love for coffee shops!- too, and we have been blessed by generous friends and family, but despite being very tense and stressful at times, I can write this and say that (despite getting pretty close to the wire on a fair few occasions) God has been faithful to us financially all the way through our life and ministry.

As I thought of Muller, as we began to launch the vision for the school of mission, particularly the ever looming Cornwall for Carlilse tour, setting out with lots of questions -would the car make the journey? How much would fuel cost? And not much money coming in (in fact our launch event cost more money that we made!).

I remember before I set off on the tour I was at a School doing a prayer station, the kids wrote prayers and stuck them to the cross with post-it notes, at the break, I scribbled the words “Dear God, help me with the trip let us have enough money to get there and back OK, thanks” and stuck it under some of the children’s prayers.

I wondered even though I have stepped out in faith a few times and God has been faithful, each time still feels scary, I know people say that faith is a muscle that stretched and we develop resilience, but for me, each time still feels hard and difficult, I wondered whether this is due to my attitude, where I write my blessings in the sand and engrave my difficulties in marble, so I remember my fears and struggles but I forget too easily God’s faithfulness.

How can I write my blessings in marble and my fears sand?

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Bonhoeffer and the New Monastic Dream…

“…the restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ. I think it is time to gather people together to do this…’ wrote the German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his brother Karl Fredrick on the 13th January 1935, which he also described as “(the) Monastic life thus became a living protest against the secularisation of Christianity, against the cheapening of grace” in his work “the Cost of Discipleship” (p45).

In many ways Bonhoeffer words have a prophetic edge, sadly since the second world war we have seen Christianity become much more consumerist and becoming much more marginalised within society, the monastic movement has a long tradition of being ‘communities of resistance’ -in there own subversive way of not selling out to the prevailing culture they are much more subversive and rebellious that some wannabe rock star trashing a hotel room. The restoration of the Church here I do not believe is a saving on organised religious of the preservation of the institution, but rather a rediscovery of what it truly means to be a Christian community, one we have glimpsed within pages of Acts 2 and Acts 4:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved”.

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need”.

Sadly many people will talk about “being an Acts 2 Church” but sadly (and very ironically) often it simply seems to mean serving great coffee, with the right choice of songs and preacher and the worship leader both having the right haircut (and perhaps a hipster beard!) but nothing like these shared lives together, living deeply and sacrificially together in relationship with God in a community that embodied the DNA of the Kingdom of God, note that this is a community of real depth -its prayerful and centred on their relationship with Christ)- but yet its faith is embodied, lived out in practical ways in everyday life.

Some of us have wondered whether the monastics are one of the closest expressions of faith lived out to resemble (at its best) this the early Church we read of in acts, this was a Church that many joined, but do not do so lightly, indeed in Christ’s ministry he told those wanting to come and to follow him to ‘count the cost’ -describing himself as the pearl of great price (that cost the merchant everything he had, but was of infinite value), this faith Paul describes as “for me to live is Christ and to die is gain”.

As a James Bond fan I discovered the production company that runs the films is called EON, which stands for Everything or Nothing, which I believe is what Jesus call us to when we hear and heed his voice and respond to his call to follow him; Jesus does not want lukewarm and apathetic disciples but rather asks us to love him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength -all that is within us. Jesus says: “let the dead bury their own dead” and “no one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit to be my disciple” -a call that every other call must bow the knee before.

Too often we have excuses like in the parable of the great banquet, missing out on all God has for us because we have “bought a field”, “just got married” or purchased some oxen” or whatever excuse have for complacency and consumerist Christianity which turns Jesus from our Lord to a mate we like to boss about and doesn’t cost us anything.

Recently I was stood in the queue for a coffee at a cafe I go to sometimes, and someone ordered a “skinny, decaf coffee with extra froth” which struck as the opposite of what Bohoeffer is on about, here he looking for a costly Christianity, that truly is salt and light, walking on the narrow way and engaging in spiritual battles, rather than some frothy slightly Christian-ish movement that is more worried about bums on seats than transformed lives or the advance of the Kingdom of God. The call of Christ says Bohoeffer “is to come and die” echoing the words of Jesus to “pick up our cross and follow him”.

Bonheoffer was part of what was called “The Confessing Church” which was an illegal Church movement in Germany which refused to say ‘heil Hittler’ because “Jesus is Lord not Hittler” refusing to have the swastika in their buildings or Mein-Kemf on their lectures, they soon were driven underground and many of their members went to Concentration Camps and were killed; Bonheoffer rediscovered something about what it meant to be a Christian, and to be a Christian journeying with others, re-assessing what Church and faith really meant when much of its trappings and traditions (such as buildings etc) were stripped away as the Church was forced underground, needing to hidden from the Gestapo.

Writing in his famous work “Life together” Bonhoeffer reflects of the two fellowships he discovered: the fellowship of the righteous -where we are all polite with each other but remain guarded and superficial- or the fellowship of sinners, where we are real and share our lives with one another, honestly, authentically and vulnerably. Bonhoeffer and other Christians at that time realised that if attending this illegal gathering with other Christians could potentially cause you to be martyred, then why did you go, and what did you need from one another and they from you?

Perhaps we need to re-think what really matters to us, and how we live out our faith together as community, as for Bonhoeffer and the German Christians at that time they realised that just going through the motions was as dangerous as it was pointless.

As someone a bit battered and bruised by Church Bonhoeffer says:
“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community” -I wonder whether I am living an idealised, romanticised version of what it means to be a community (of broken and dysfunctional people, of which I am one) that is together seeking following Jesus.

Growing up I knew a lot about what Christians were supposed to believe, it seemed as though we had something of a Pauline obsession talking a lot around how we do and do not understand the atonement (which is obviously important) or issues around human sexuality but rarely did I ever hear a sermon on what it means to be the people of God living out our faith together, and never talking of things such as common ownership or living with a shared purse… I think it is really good to study Paul’s letters, and indeed the whole canon of scripture, but we perhaps need to be as diligent with the words of Jesus?

Bonhoeffer struggled to contextualise his faith, how could he live as a follower of Christ in the midst of such evil as Nazi Germany? He went to safety in America to lecture at Universities there but chose to come back to support the German Christians, even though he knew this probably would result in his death, rather like Jesus ‘setting his face towards Jerusalem’.

Bonheoffer struggled with the ethical dilemma of trying to incarnate his faith with the horrible context of rule of Nazism, not content with just trying to help a few people and praying for the end of the regime, he got involved with revolutionaries and was part of the plot to kill Hittler saying:
“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

Bonheoffer was hung at a concentration camp literally days before the war ended, killed as a political traitor but motivated by his love for Jesus, someone who sought to live out his faith and his writings have inspired many Christians to think afresh how we follow Jesus faithfully.

The Sermon on the Mount is I believe the greatest sermon ever preached (something we look when we have our monthly meet ups of the community we are just beginning to establish for those of us who “love Jesus, but -for whatever reason- struggle with Church”) a faith that is not just a long list of doctrines to affirm but is practical and applicable to our everyday lives, incarnating the beatitudes and the rest of the sermon. I believe the world is looking for a Christianity that looks like Jesus, the one who shows us how to live our lives, what it truly means to be human.

Many of us have taken Bonhoeffers words seriously and are trying to explore what a New Monasticism might mean, how do we really live as Jesus intended us to together as his body? Perhaps too, missionally there much sense those of us who live in a ever increasingly post-Christendom world might learn from those from the pre-Christendom era? The monastics were known for their prayer -which is not a bad place for us to start our journey but on our knees before almighty God- many such as the Jesuits were ‘great proclaimers’ of the good news of Jesus, others such as Benedict sought to champion discipleship and the Franciscan Friars (among others) practised hospitality, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and tending the sick.

It is important that we do not romanticise the monastics as a group that always got things right, sadly we know that in the course of Church history (and even recent history) they like all other flavours of Christendom messed up and failed, however despite some of their failings there is much within their tradition that we need to learn from, I believe monasticism has to teach us as followers of Jesus today.

Indeed some of us think that the future of our faith in this nation might depend on it.

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Catherine Booth.

We often forget just how radical the Salvation Army was when it was birthed, too often we think of quaint uniforms and people playing tuba’s, but this started as a radical transformative movement, socially reforming and Kingdom proclaiming. Historically few movements in the Christian tradition have held faithful proclamation and the pursuit of justice together as well as the Salvation Army.

Catherine and William did not just set out to plant a Church instead their ambition for the Kingdom was bigger and bolder, on one occasion William Booth was asked if he was waiting for a move of God to which he replied “No, I am a move of God!” -what if each of us saw ourselves like this, how our nation would be changed!

The Booths certainly were “a move of God” I discovered the former Labour MP Roy Hattersley had written a biography about them and he said this: “within a dozen years of its inauguration, (the Salvation Army) boasted 3’000 ‘corps’, 10’000 full time officers and countless adherence in Great Britain alone, and had established outposts in Iceland and New Zealand, Argentina and Germany, the United States of America and South Africa” (Hattersley: Blood and Fire. Abacus. 1999. P2).

Catherine is called the ‘Mother of the Salvation Army’, an equal founder of the movement with her husband William. The Gospel was proclaimed in words that ordinary and uneducated people could understand -preaching in their own language- and that they could respond too. Yet, the Salvation Army was not just a movement of altar-calls (or Mercy Seat calls) but rather their words where matched by embodied by practical deeds, compassionate works and loving support with “sleeves rolled up social action”. The Words and Works of this new movement were accompanied by miraculous wonders of the supernatural manifestation of the Holy Ghost (so much so that they had ‘stretcher barriers’ at their meetings to carry off those who had been ‘slain in the spirit’).

The Booths used ‘Army Imagery’ illustrating that the Christian life is a spiritual battle, where we trained for combat and learn through discipline and obedience and are deployed to serve in mission on the dangerous front-line of real life -called to serve- soldiers in a battle, and dressed them as such.

The Salvation Army was a movement that lived out Jesus’ great commission not just to make converts but disciples, akin to the radical discipleship of Saints Francis and Benedict or their own heroes Wesley brothers. It was a movement that grew from the grass roots equipping and empowering ordinary people, indigenous disciples, to share their faith and transform their communities. They went into Pubs and places of ill-repute, no-where was a ‘no-go-area’ for the Salvation Army and the Good News of Christ that they carried.

The Salvation Army were shunned in many areas, when they marched playing the tunes of the music halls (the pioneers of contempory worship movement) they were pelted with stones, rocks and rotten vegetables; sometimes their meetings were picketed and disrupted, but even in the midst of all this the Salvation Army persevered, unwavering in obedience to their call.

For many with chaotic lives often soaked with gin and addicted to opium, having to sign the pledge and live with the routine and structure of the army helped people manage their lives and live free from addictions and restored to a new life.

In 1859 Catherine published a pamphlet called “Female Ministry: Women’s Right To Preach The Gospel” the following year, in 1860’s, Catherine got to the stage when William was preaching in Gateshead and asked if she might be able to “say a word” -which was incredibly rare and controversial at this time- her ministry took off becoming a great evangelist and teacher in her own right, preaching both to the ragged poor and the affluent and wealthy. From there she recruited many “soldiers” and “officers” both male and female who served in some of the toughest and most challenging areas of the country.

Catherine not only was a great Church-planting pioneer, evangelist and Pastor she also gave birth and raised eight children, two of whom -Branwell and Evangeline- became Generals in the Salvation Army. She came from a higher social class than her husband William and yet was able to relate to both the destitute and the affluent and was instrumental in changing the law that raised the age of consent for sex to 13 for girls.

Sadly, this amazing woman died at the age of 63 from breast-cancer leaving her husband William to carry on leading the movement for twenty years after her death, but he missed her dreadfully and had times of severe depression.

I’ll end with an inspirational piece written by Catherine’s husband William Booth:

“While women weep, as they do now,
I’ll fight
While little children go hungry, as they do now,
I’ll fight
While men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now,
I’ll fight
While there is a drunkard left,
While there is a poor lost girl upon the streets,
While there remains one dark soul without the light of God,
I’ll fight-I’ll fight to the very end!”

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