Dog of Grace.

For this blog I just wanted to write the word “grace” a lot….If I ever had another daughter I would probably call her Grace as I’m currently having something of a grace re-discovery at the moment.

Think I have known it as a doctrine, or hypothetically, and have experienced it too on occasions, but this season I am beginning to discover it afresh.

I think ultimately I believed in theory that God loved me (but then I also knew that he loves everyone) and although I knew I wasn’t saved by works (because I was a good protestant) but deep down I still feel unlovable and frightened of “upsetting” God, but then I couldn’t manage to be holy either.

I had odd moments of breakthrough where I grasped how much God loved me and how completely amazing his forgiveness was and how awesome his hope was, but I used to drift back into feeling fearful and knowing the verses about God’s awesome love for me but not always feeling them.

I have described myself at times as a ‘recovering pharisee’ I know I have this lurking within me, but I have realised that perhaps I had just learned more subtle ways to slip back into old, dangerous and sinful mindsets.

I believe that the way we think about ourselves creeps out in how we think about other people, and the way we see God actually underpins it all.  Perhaps I was not in what the rehab community call “active recovery”.

For me, I realised by God foundation was a bit wonky, and needed some underpinning.

God gave me a picture two weeks ago (this is recent for me) of  entering with fear and trepidation unsure of what reaction you’ll receive –maybe a colleague, employer, sibling, spouse, parent- and you are walking on egg shells, you know they are displeased with you but you can’t work out why or what you have done, and apologise for everything hoping that a scatter gun might make things alright. The atmosphere in the room in condemning, they refuse eye contact, and you want to creep away but you can’t (often because you have no where else to go).

God showed me that picture and said “that isn’t how I am” as I think about how I would take a deep breath before putting my key in the lock, ringing the bell or opening the door!

Instead God gave me another picture, that absolutely broke me, reminding me of my beloved dog “Teddy”,  who whenever he sees me his tail begins to wag and he’s excited to see me, leaping up and trying overly affectionately to lick my face.  

God said: “I am like Teddy”. I very rarely cry in my quiet times.  This is the God who in Hebrews we can approach with confidence –or as some translations put it- boldness-  a God who tells us that his perfect love drives out fear, and that (because of Jesus) there is no condemnation. This is the God who Jesus chose to portray as the Father running to meet his child (who had come from the pigsty) and embracing in his ‘shame-covering love’ and whose welcome was so extravagant that the fatted calf found himself on the menu, and the Father said “put a ring on his finger” –which was the equivalent of giving him the family credit card.

Grace is not a doctrine, it is I believe the defining characteristic of God who is “agape love”, Jesus is often described as “love with skin on”, “love personified”.

I have started to read a book “A Christ-like God” I’m only a few pages in, but its starting point is that Jesus says: “If you have seen me you have seen the Father”  (Jn.14.9); Jesus shows us a God who runs to us sinners (not away from us) who ‘touches the untouchable’ and brings restoration, grace and hope, and gives us a model to emulate of grace that reaches out.

As I began to see myself afresh with grace healed eyes I realise that this needs to ‘overflow’ to other people, that God is wanting us to come to him rather than draw away from him,  one conversation always sticks in my heart and mind from when I was doing Street Pastors in Kingswood Bristol, I was wearing my dog collar and a girl came up to me with anger in her eyes saying: “I have had three kids from three different blokes, what does your God think about that” the girl snarled at me. I quickly prayed to God that I wouldn’t screw this up or make anything worse. I saw her arm had GRACIE tattooed on it, and asked if that was her daughters name, it was, and said about how Grace was God’s undeserved love towards us, and ended up talking about God’s love for her, it was only a brief moment, but one that has stayed with me, the moment got lost with a whole load of girls dressed as smurfs arrived (as you do!) but I wanted to shout after her “God’s not angry with you but wants you to know he loves you” but the moment was gone.

So, as I think of Ted, my dog, who runs to meets us, even if I’ve left him in the kitchen (which he hates) he always forgiveness and is pleased to see me whenever I appear. 

Ted, who would greet anyone with same affection whether they were a Princess or a burglar (yeah not much of a guard dog!) his greeting shows no favouritism.

As I thought more of his loyalty and his extravagant love I realised that he is a Dog of Grace.

I wondered perhaps God is calling me to be more like my dog whose first instinct and response is grace and love (although I probably will restrain from licking peoples faces!).


Letter to the Churches 4: Learning from Rehab.

“The problem with church is it is filled with sinful human-beings” is something everyone keeps reminding me, probably thinking that my dream of the Church in the UK looking radically different from how it does now is some naïve dream.

Especially as I am not sure that the answer lies in changing the location to coffee shop, or sitting in circles rather than rows or perhaps even having lunch –or a beer- in the middle of it as think that these are cosmetic changes and I long for the church in the U.K to have a radical heart-transplant: “removing its/our heart of stone and replacing it with a heart of flesh, and the Lord putting his Spirit within us”. 

Maybe I am a dreamer in longing for an orthopraxis revolution (right living revolution) but I believe that a Christ-like Church is also the dream of God to transform the world. I am not writing this blog to ‘church-bash’ but rather like a doctor or physio might look and say “I believe we can do better than we are currently doing”.

I realise too that the church is made up of me and you, and so this desire for transformation has to begin with me and my life, as well as urging others to join us in this quest.

I know too that people will point to the letters to the churches and say “even they had problems” and know that we are never going to reach a place of sinless perfection this side of heaven, but just as in our own lives knowing we cannot ever be perfect ought not prevent us from seeking to live differently.

Interestingly too, people expect church and Christians to be different, people look at our lives and our lives together asking “does it work” and I believe that the more lives we see transformed the more I believe (like in the early church) people would want that transformation for themselves. 

Sadly, as a Vicar and now as a former Vicar, one of the things I hear most often is some horror story of church getting it wrong; I long to hear more and more stories of church getting it right, and sometimes we do and that is great.  I have some horror stories of Christians/institutions behaving badly, but I also have some wonderful testimonies of Christians being amazing; I guess for me it is a truth of which stories I tell and share.

Recently during a tough time was incredibly blessed by several people, one a who we didn’t know very well, welcomed me into their home and looked out for me (and held me accountable).  For me they exemplified church at its best.

One of the times that transformed my thinking about church the most was when I did a college placement at the Priory Drug and Alcohol clinic,  this little small group had a such an awesome sense of the Holy Spirit the like of which I have rarely ever experienced.

I remember looking at this older well dressed gentleman crying being comforted by a young guy who had been on the streets for many years, and this intergenerational/inter-class love brought a lump to my throat.  In that group people were real, people offered love, support and hope, shared their story and listened patient. The group leaders weren’t on pedestals, they were just another alcoholic who was helping hold the meeting together; which is perhaps how we should think of our Christian leaders: “just another sinner helping the group happen?”

Much of the problem with the Church is what I call “The Pharisee Complex” whereby we split people into “sorted” and “needy”, those who have and those who are ‘done too’… Yet, none of us are sorted, and the ‘sorted Pharisee types’ are often the most lost.

Henri Nouwen described Christian leaders as “wounded healers” that although God works through us, we are broken vessels, far from perfect, one beggar telling another where to buy bread and pointing them to Christ, we may be a ‘sign of hope’ but in reality we are merely a signpost to the greatest hope of all: Jesus Christ.

Although our recovery can inspire others and our testimony can bless and be powerful, but we also need to remember that God opposes the proud but lifts the humble, pride comes before a fall for the alcoholic and the Christian leader and so we better hear and heed these scary warnings.

The Theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer part of the illegal and underground church in Nazi Germany and realised that to meet together with other Christians could cost him his life. This changed his outlook, instead of what he called “the fellowship of the righteous” where everyone is superficial and polite he discovered the “fellowship of sinners” where everyone was honest and real with each other about their struggles to be faithful to Christ in the midst of  the third riech.

I thought about too much of the western church and feel that there is not enough vulnerability or honesty about what the Christian life is like… Have you felt like the only sinner in the room? -I know I have at times!-

As I thought more about the persecuted church –which is growing rabidly- and also the movement of AA/NA I realised that these are mainly run with no paid staff, nor owning a building and yet they grow rabidly and impact widely and deeply.

Yet this is an uncomfortable challenge, these groups are not soft or cosy –in fact at times it is brutal- but it is also beautiful.

In wanting a transformed church, in wanting to live a different and more Christ-like life, I discovered I am asking for something that is going to be costly, difficult and challenging, it is a call to sacrifice and struggle, but yet it is worth it; this is the “life in all its fullness” that Christ promises and is the aching and longing of the world to see Jesus truly reflected amongst his followers,  a Christianity that looks like Jesus again is a wonderful thing to wish for, but is hard graft to live for it…


Letter Three: Love and Lordship…

In the Eucharistic liturgy of the Anglican Church there is a phrase “it is our duty and our joy” –that has in many ways summed up much of my Christian life, there have been times when I have felt full of the Spirit, in love with Jesus and serving was a joy; other times I have been beset with doubts and struggling and I have continued to turn up and serve out of duty.

When I did things out of joy I felt like I was a ‘good’ Christian, and when I did it out of ‘duty’ I felt like a bad one!

This thinking we transfer into our view of love, which we mistakenly believe is mushy sentiment. Love is not a feeling but rather a choice;  it is a commitment, a deliberate act of will. So, we pick up our cross and follow Jesus when (to quote Matt Redman) “the suns shining down on me and the world is all as its supposed to be… and when the roads marked with suffering and there is pain in the offering” –doing it even when we don’t want to and don’t feel like it, that is what reveals to love.

My marriage sermon used to talk about how in Jesus, who was love personified, love with skin on, he reveals his love for humanity most clearly when he died on the cross for us showing his total commitment to us and willingness to surrender absolutely everything for us.  This is the agape love we are called to emulate and embody, Jesus is the example we have to follow.

Yet too often I fear that we as Christians can be very good at saying the right words but when we are called to step up and be obedient we can be missing in action. Jesus tells a parable about a King inviting people to his banquet and yet his guests make excuses and opt out. Jesus also is pretty brutal in his language about people following him saying things such as “let the dead bury their own dead” or “no one who puts their hand to the plough and keeps looking back can be my disciple”  -Jesus looks at the Rich Young Ruler and (despite loving him) sends him away with a command to give away his money. 

The problem that many of us have is we can be tempted to accept Christ as Saviour –we all want to go to heaven- but we do not really want to accept Christ as Lord, because we know that is a total and costly commitment. A phrase I find deeply challenging is “if Christ is not Lord of all, is he actually Lord at all?”

This is the imagery Paul uses when he talks about us as “living sacrifices”  -most sacrifices were dead- but a living sacrifice is choosing to perpetually and continually offer themselves to God, minute by minute, hour by hour, 24-7, 365…  

The Christian life, following Jesus, is a call of saying in everything and all of the time “yes” to Jesus, even  (especially?) when it is hard and tough.

It is saying ‘come what may’ I have offered my life to Jesus and I will not take it back from him, whether I am on top of the world or the bottom has dropped from my world, my life is no longer my own it belongs to Christ, and was bought by him at an incredible price.

Yet sadly my commitment to Christ waxes and wanes at times, and over-time we all have the danger of “loosing our first love”, we cool down, we become (inch by inch, degree by degree) a little bit cooler until we are pretty lukewarm, apathy creeps into and suffocates our faith –we become neither hot nor cold. We maybe warmer towards God than some people we know that can lull us into a false sense of security.

I used to make ‘re-commitments’ to God regularly as I kept feeling I had messed up and wanted to start again, as I grew older (but not necessarily wiser) I realise that real relationships have peaks and troughs and that was also true of my relationship with God.  Yet recently I have started to re-do it again, just saying that despite all my struggles, poor choices and failures, I still want to follow Jesus and say “Yes” to him. I don’t  Jesus minds that I end up saying this to him on more or les a daily basis, along with a prayer of confession of how much I have screwed up as I really wanted to be different.

I have become aware not of who am I doing a bit better than, but of how far short of God’s Holy and perfect standard I constantly and habitually fall. I want to follow Jesus I fail frequently.  There was a smoking advert that said: “Don’t give up giving up!” –which has become a bit of a spiritual motto.

So, what is my message to the Church, to re-think what it means to love Jesus, it’s not just about mushy feeling when certain worship songs come on (although that is nice and there is some value in that) but about being committed to Christ even when it is tough, even when it would be easier not to be a Christian, when the cost feels huge, love says I’m not going to quit on Jesus, it may not look pretty and heroic, we all mess up and need God’s grace loads each day, but part of our commitment is to keep on returning to God time and again admitting that even though we try we still struggle, and fail part of returning is part of our strength and our growth.

I realise as a Christian who tried to hold it altogether and couldn’t do it, I have come to know that I need God’s help to do my life his way, and I also need other people.  If I am to faithfully and fruitfully carry my cross I need help from both God and from those around me, and I in turn need to help and accept help with others. It is not easy, we like to help other people, but not always so keen to let them help us.

So, let’s be a people who love Jesus in our commitment to him, that is not just with words, but with keeping going following Christ –taking his help and that from those around us- knowing our need of God’s grace whose love continues when the walk becomes a crawl.  

My message to the Church would be, whatever it has been like, and however hard it has been, or however much you have messed up, why not re-commit yourself again (and maybe again), let us be serious about following Christ and deeply committed to him, knowing our spiritual survival depends on God and one another (other Christians) and that we are in need of Grace, and judging other people who aren’t doing as well as us is a sure sign that somewhere along the line we’ve missed the point of it all. 


Second Letter to the Church.

“Please, please, please fill me with your Holy Spirit” I heard the lady pray… This disturbed me, as I was reminded of the verses that tell us how much God desires to pour out his spirit, we do not have to beg him to come into our lives, he wants to come in and dwell within us, in fact this lady was begging God for something I believe he had already given her.

The Bible says that God has given us “all we need for life and Godliness” () we know that those God calls he also equips and is an abundant provider and yet our prayers betray our theology: “fill us afresh” indicates that we believe that we are empty and what we have is stale/stagnant. 

This ‘poverty spirit’ I believe extends to our vision, life, mission, ministry where we can believe that God has not spoken nor gifted and skilled us for the task ahead.

I believe that much of the work of ministry in the church is about unearthing that which God has already placed within us rather than expecting some supernatural download to happen out of the blue.

God has already equipped, spoken and empowered us for his mission in his world and we, as Christians, need to grasp that and walk in it.

In the film Return of the King, the final part of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, there is a wonderful part where Aaragon –has to step up and step into his destiny of Kingship which requires him to take the sword, it is a dramatic moment in the film, and for many of us I believe God has so much for us that we need to grab hold of.

One of the greatest tragedies I saw frequently in church work is people who are massively gifted for who could be doing mighty things for the Kingdom of God, never step up and become all that God has for them, but rather stay splashing around the shallow end refusing the use their potential; their talent buried (unused and utilised) in  a hole in the ground.

When we launched the School of Mission, my friend Jackie spoke about “unblocking wells” by which she meant that God has already placed great treasurers within us –amazing Holy Spirit springs of fresh, life-giving, bubbling water, but for whatever reason often our springs have got blocked up –Perhaps someone ridiculed or belittled your idea? Perhaps you have been disappointed in the past? Perhaps fear is stopping you stepping out the boat (to mix my metaphors!) Yet what amazed me was those who stepped up for prayer afterwards, many people had wonderful dreams to be released in the world, they just had never had a good midwife.

I long to see the church in the UK rise in transforming love in this nation and I often wonder “what is the key?” and in that moment I realise that God has given us the keys already the problem is that they are locked away within us.

What would it take to be someone who says “if you’ve got a crazy dream you think might be from God, lets do what we can to help you implement it”.

I’ll close with a quote from only fools and horses “you’ve gotta have a dream Rodney, because if you don’t have a dream, how you going to have a dream come true?”

What’s your dream, what has God already put inside you, I believe he’s gifted us all to change the world… Are you in?


First Letter to the Church: “Who Does What?”

I’ve just started a new job (well a couple of jobs!) and one of the things I am learning is what is my role and what is someone else’s job (people don’t like it when you do their job!) and also when we don’t do our job it leaves a gap, or a gaping hole! Yet many Christians have no idea what their “job/role/calling” is.

We may use the phrase “follower of Christ” that sounds great but is also a bit vague, if you are like me you might want something a bit more specific!

Many of you know that for many years I was a Vicar, a Church leader, and at an interview I was asked “what was I going to do if appointed?” and I said “visit people, build relationship with them, and see how I can serve and help them in being fruitful in the mission God has called them too”, to which the response was “but what about the Church” –to which I was tempted to say “that is the church!”.

Clergy will talk about equipping the church members to be missional and most of the church members think that “bringing them in” is the Vicars job! The problem is that there is never an honest conversation about mismatched expectations from either side. The truth is we are all called to live out our faith by our words and deeds, and we are all called to help one another grow, develop and improve in becoming more like Christ as faithful and fruitful people.

The greatest problem is not human beings working out how they serve God together (although that is an important question for the people of God locally to explore prayerfully and sensitively together) but rather understanding what is that which is Gods role and what is ours.

There are two errors we can easily fall into, we can abdicate our own responsibility to such a level that we say: “God’s going to do it all” and hit ‘snooze’ on my spiritual alarm clock! Or we believe it is all down to us and our effort and we largely ignore Gods contribution completely, however I believe that there is another way of partnership with God, hearing and heeding his voice, asking in everything we do and everywhere we go what is God wanting us to do? To love, listen, help, speak words of hope/life/truth, offer to pray, to sacrificially serve, to forgive and to dream with God of his plans and purposes for where he has placed us.

As I thought about this I was reminded of how stressed many churchy meetings can get worried about buildings and resources much of which seems to feel vastly different from the words of Jesus when he tells us not to worry:

Matthew 6:25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[a]?

28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 

As I thought about this I remembered the promise of Jesus when he promises that “he will build his church and even the gates of hell wont prevail against it”  -yet when I read church profiles or things that come from the Diocese or denominational bodies you would think that Jesus’ great commission was to ‘grow the church’ –when Christ clearly says that is his job! Moreover “If the Lord does not build the house the labourers labour in vain!”

Yet, what is out job? The Matthew passage continues with Jesus saying: “but seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness AND ALL THESE THINGS SHALL BE ADDED UNTO YOU!”  -when we respond to God’s call in obedience as our primary response we discover afresh that God is a faithful provider. As someone once said (somewhat crassly): “God’s will, God’s bill!” –he will pay!

So, how do we seek first the Kingdom of God, what does “following Jesus” actually look like on a Monday morning rather than on a Sunday Night?!

I believe it is the saying “Yes” to God in those moment by moment choices –too often we talk about “praying a prayer” at some point in our history, in my grandfathers case in 1953 at a Billy Graham Crusade but the question is what difference has that made to your everyday life since 1953, today, this morning, now?-

I believe it is about being “light and salty” people who love; the apostle Paul says “If I don’t have love I am nothing but a clanging gong or a crashing cymbol! Being people who “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly before your God” (Micah 6.8) where they choose to do the right and the kind thing without getting smug and arrogant about it! I believe we are called to bless and be a blessing –bless and see what God does with it- being generous and willing to go that extra mile with a smile. Having your “conversation seasoned with salt” –inspiring people to ask about Jesus because the words we have used help them to see that they are in fact thirsty to explore the one who calls himself the “living water” that requires us to be “always ready to give an account for the hope that we have, but doing so with gentleness and respect (2Peter.3.15), we are called to “hold out the word that gives life” and to “do the work of an evangelist” which I believe begins with simply admitting we follow Jesus and being unashamed of him, praying for opportunities to talk about Jesus and when they arrive to take them.

I had a lady in my last church who when I was talking about this said “I don’t think I am called to this sort of thing” to which I replied: “If you love Jesus and you have a pulse you are in, you are called!!” –She wasn’t happy with that answer! Yet the call of Christ is to pick up our cross not just enjoy fuzzy buzzy feelings and indulge in spiritual obesity of the empty calories of consumerist Christendom.

Christianity is a battle and fight, following Jesus will take you down some narrow paths at times, and that is not always easy, much easier to sit in church and tell the Vicar that s/he is doing a good/bad job.

Attending church and following Jesus are not the same thing, in fact I would go further, that sometimes doing things that are loosely or vaguely churchy can be a bit of a conscience salve for not actually doing the hard graft of discipleship. Or sometimes Churchianity can wear us down and burn us out (what do churches and helicopters have in common? They both suck you into the rota’s) –one of my friends has a mantra “the devil wants us to have maximum weariness for minimum fruitfulness… whereas the spirit wants us it the other way around”).

Following Jesus ought to be supported by being in relationship with other Christians and we are called to support other Christians but we need to ask” “is what we are doing here as church to help us all to ‘seek first the Kingdom of God” and to see in our community and context “his (Jesus’) Kingdom come on earth as in heaven”.

So, what would I say as my first letter to the Church in the UK is “are we each seeking first the Kingdom of God” where God has placed us, in our families, amongst our neighbours and neighbourhoods, in our workplaces and amongst our mates? What does it mean to you and me each and everyday when we respond to the one –Jesus- who tells us to follow him, and also to pick up our cross?

Are we trusting him to grow his church –his bride and body- whilst we seek first his Kingdom?


My Seven Letters to the Churches…

I believe someone else once wrote seven letters to the churches… In fact in some Bibles they are written in red to indicate they are the words of Jesus himself, God incarnate speaking!

Shane Claiborne –the American activist said- “my words ought to be written in pencil” meaning that they can be rubbed out if needed indicating that we -as mere humans- are fallible and flawed but that shouldn’t stop us trying to at least say something of value!

I wondered what I would say if I had the opportunity to write to the Church not in the first century BC in Asia minor, but in the 21s t Century United Kingdom? And as I thought about this question, I agreed (unsurprisingly) with my hero Shane Claiborne about my words being written in pencil but also dared to believe (or perhaps hope?) that my words could be used by the Holy Spirit to say something to those who long “to hear what the spirit is saying to the churches”.

I wondered firstly what was just my own baggage and personal preferences and what was deeper than that, what has been called “A Holy Discontent” a dream and a pursuit of something better.

I often hear people talking about being an Acts 2 Church (I think they probably ought to include Acts 4:32-35 too, but we seem to get twitchy when we start talking about our response to Christ and our personal finances, but that is an aside for another blog!). Yet many of these churches that say they are modelled on Acts two just appear to have a louder sound-system and a worship leader with a cooler haircut and better t’shirt.

What does it mean to be a group of people following Jesus together, that care about the things he cares about, for the reasons that he cares about them, what does it mean to be both faithful and fruitful, what is the Holy Spirit saying to the Church today –what is he saying to us as a national church and a local expression? What is God’s missional strategy for heralding in and advancing his Kingdom amongst us in our context, and are we part of that.

So, as I blog about what I think God is saying to the Church in this nation, I am not claiming to be anything other than a fellow follower of Christ longing to see us all become more the body and bride of Christ that we are called to be, and God is longing for us to be.

You might disagree, and probably even have better ideas too… If you were writing this blog, what would you say? Let’s have a discussion, but let’s not just talk, let’s heed God’s still small voice and try new things, and let us/our local area/our nation be changed…

The Revival Revolution could start today, with you and me, if we are prepared to step up to the plate and echo the words of Isaiah “here am I send me”.