The Ideal and the Ordeal…

This weekend I have been away with my University group and a phrase that resonated with me was how often we begin ministry with an ‘ideal and it becomes an ordeal!’

It reminds me of a conversation about which I am deeply ashamed. It was with Sam my former intern, now a fantastic curate in a deprived area of Bristol and doing amazing work. Sam was 19 and full of vision and fire. I said “Sometimes Sam in this job we have to be more pragmatic and less idealistic!”

He saw what was wrong within the Church community and the huge needs within the parish we served and it clearly broke his heart, he was sad and angry, clearly thinking “it shouldn’t be like this!”

He’s right, the world should not be how it is, but the response isn’t to lower our standards and protect ourselves from the realities of the pain of being called to serve in a fallen world.

That said, knowing that something shouldn’t be this way does not mean that it is not how it is, sadly the world is far from Christ’s intention for his creation, and I guess Sam was learning the lesson that much of the pain of ministry comes from sharing that pain of Christ.

Indeed, I believe we should be angry and indignant, spurred to a theology of prophetic protest that seeks to tear down the sinful strongholds that beset Church and community and see it transformed to become the community that it was intended to be, the community it could –and God willing- will become.
Yet the call is not to diagnose that which is wrong, that is the easy part, the call is our response, the rolling up our sleeves and diving into the mess in a loving, wise, prayerful and discerning way.

As we undertake the downwardly mobile call of obedience and service, we have to live with the tension of the ideal ‘what would this community look like if the Kingdom of God fully came’ and the ordeal of serving in a fallen-world, what has been described as the “already” and the “not yet” of the Kingdom of God, as we glimpse in part what will be fully realized upon Christ’s return.

We follow in the way of Christ, who came and dwelt amongst us, pitched his tent with us, and entered into the grot, grime and gruesomeness of human deprivation, not standing back at a safe distance and holding his nose, with a disapproving look on his face.

The call of Christ is to engage and embrace the world as it is, but in immersing we seek to change it from within as we become incarnate within it, get into the mess of the society, to work in and amongst the brokenness of it, to see and celebrate changes, as we work in and amongst the complexity of it all, discovering our own faults and failures, as we try as best we can –with the help of God- to be ‘salt and light’.

Somehow the ideal becomes an ordeal when we realize how high the mountain is that we have to climb, how slow the progress, how costly and sacrificial the battles and that those often who we think are allies tragically can be those who end up throwing stones. It is at times crushing. It is unsurprising that many of us burn out, and end up on medication for depression.

In a small way I was right in my conversation with Sam, the ideal will never bear fruit fully this side of eternity, but Sam was more right that this is no reason not try!

Somehow having to hold both the ideal whilst living in the ordeal is a Kingdom tension we have to live with, and the danger is too many of us live our lives in a rose-tinted and deeply romanticized idea of mission (indeed many of our books and big conference events can collude with this unrealistic picture of mission).

Yet for me I discovered something beautiful within the ordeal, the heart-break and acknowledging my own inadequacy and the clumsiness of my solutions, I encountered God and saw his hand at work in beautiful and real ways.

In my experience following Jesus and seeking his Kingdom is rarely triumphalist, and often has little resemblance to my initial ministry fantasies of my youth, but that is not to say that we don’t get to experience something of the joy of the Kingdom along the way, often diamonds in the dust, beauty and brokenness interwoven together and the realization that you have been party to a holy moment where heaven has touched earth.

The Christian journey does feel like a battle, a struggle and a narrow path, the call features more washing of feet than we bargain for.

Despite many foolish people telling us some unhelpful stories, there is rarely a magic silver bullet that brings transformation in quick, easy and painless steps but instead often we are called to be the miracle.

In self emptying and downward mobility we soon come to the end of ourselves, but it is here we discover something of the unlimited resources of God.

So, now if we were having the same conversation I would urge Sam never to lose that idealism and that vision of transformation but promise to do all I can to support him in the ordeal of battlefield for seeking to be a good and faithful solider and servant.


The most famous verse… (John 3:16)

This verse is probably the most famous verse in the Bible, let us have a look at it together:

It starts with “FOR GOD” –It begins with God, the God who takes the initiative, the God that intervenes, the God who does.

FOR GOD SO LOVE. That word “SO” in an important word, too often our idea of God’s love is not strong enough –just listen to aul talking about his experience of God’s love “so long and high and wide and deep, this love that surpasses knowledge!” (Eph.3.19) it is an extravagant love, a disproportionate love, a love that is excessive and vastly beyond what we deserve.

And the word “LOVED” is important here too, love was the motivating emotion from God, the Gospel begins and ends with love, it is all fueled and sustained by love. A love that exceeds the call of duty or a mere liking, but is defined by total unyielding commitment and complete sacrifice.

THE WORLD, the Greek word is COSMOS which feels vastly bigger than our planet, a God who loves all he has made, and this vast love stretches beyond our comprehension, but is also personal. My dad was converted when he realized that God’s love for the world also included him personally. God loves you and me, he knows us intimately and knows us by name. He is vast and powerful and yet he knows us and he loves us, he even knows how many hairs there are on each of our heads.

“That he gave” –God’s love is a love that is generous, it was his love that caused him to give. Love does not count the cost but love keeps on giving no matter what the cost.

“HIS ONE AND ONLY SON”: this is a unique event within the cosmos, never before had God given himself in such a way as this, the idea of ‘Son and Father’ has the idea of ‘from my flesh, carrying my DNA’ this is clearly no ‘dime a dozen messenger’ but rather the Divine giving of himself.

“SO THAT”, -God taking the initiative again!

“WHOEVER” is a big word, it is an open invitation, we as the people of the world are all ‘who-so-evers’ whether we are Jew or Gentile, rich or poor, male or female, black or white, slave or free… everyone is a who-so-ever. This gift of God himself is on offer for the whole of humanity.

“BELIEVES”… this idea that it is unearned gift that is received simply by ‘believing in Christ’ accepting/receiving the treasure, the pearl of great price, putting our trust in the completed work of Christ upon the Cross.

“IN HIM” Indeed the word “in” is a significant word, it conveys the sense of putting ones trust “in” someone, it isn’t just I believe some stuff ABOUT them or belief in an impersonal way e.g. “I believe aliens exist” but rather to believe “in” them requires an investment, trust. When someone ‘believes in you’ it means that they have seen something in you they are prepared to trust you with… in this case, we see in Christ his divinity, power and love which we can trust with our eternal destiny.

“MIGHT NOT PERISH”… Sin has consequences and separation from God is a reality and a possibility, a possibility he wants us to avoid at all costs. God’s rescue was needed for us as we were unable to save ourselves, we know that God does not want anyone to perish (2 Peter 3.9) and longs for all to receive salvation through Jesus.

“BUT” we have a God who gives us the amazing gift of free-will, a God who respects our choice to accept or reject him, a God who offers his love to us all a choice, a real choice!

His desire for us is to “HAVE EVERLASTING LIFE” –eternal life- that death is not the end for us, nor our final word, but God has destined and redeemed us that we might have life with him for all eternity.

What of us and our response to all that God has done for us through Christ?

Have we met the missional God that is the instigator of restoring the broken relationship with his people, his creation? Have we grasped the extravagance of God’s love? Do we know this love personally as well as universally? Have we wrestled with who Christ is, the unique invention of God in human form? Is Christ someone we want –and can- to believe in. Putting our trust in the God who is able to save us. A God whose desire for us is not for us to perish but to have life and to be with him for eternity.


Nicodemus: The Late Night Visitor.

Nicodemus is someone I find fascinating, he is meant to be a teacher of the law, a person with all the answers, and yet he is clearly so curious about Jesus that he cannot resist coming to meet him and to talk with him (John chapter 3).

As a pillar of the establishment Nicodemus was risking his status, his reputation, his social standing and his career by associating with someone as controversial as Jesus, and yet he came to see him.

Nicodemus however came at night, under the cover of darkness, he was desperately seeking truth but he wanted to conceal his interest and his spiritual hunger.

Fear I believe is something that stunts many of our spiritual growth, like

Nicodemus we sometimes fear what people will think of us if we are real about our questions, struggles, doubts and issues.
Our desire –like Nicodemus- to appear sorted can deprive us the life transforming encounter with Christ that we long for, our pride can prevent us both satisfying our spiritual needs and hungers and becoming all that Christ has intended us to be.

Nicodemus seems to want to keep a foot in his old religious life where he has all the answers but also does not want to miss out on the new thing that he feels God is doing.

Indeed the fear of what people might think of us, the peer pressure of friends, colleagues or family can inhibit us from coming to Christ, or from following Christ.

Interestingly, Jesus does not say to Nicodemus “come and follow me” but we see that Nicodemus is changed by his encounter with Jesus as he is there at Jesus death unashamed to be associated with Christ even when his disciples had deserted him.

Interestingly, here we encounter a reactive Jesus, Nicodemus comes to Christ with his questions, which Christ answers –although not in the way that Nicodemus expects-. Indeed, it might be fairer to say that Jesus doesn’t answer Nicodemus’s questions, but rather questions Nicodemus’s answers.

Are we prepared to let Jesus question our answers? To let him show us life in a different way and let trust the Spirit of all truth to lead us away from the false assumptions that we have.

In the following chapter we meet the woman at the Well, she is spiritual open, where-as Nicodemus seems confused with his spiritual baggage that makes it harder for him to see who Jesus really is, as he talks around spiritual cul de sac’s trying to see if he can put God in a box and yet fails to be able to do so and so Jesus says to him “the wind blows where it will, so it is true of the spirit”.

Yet from Nicodemus’ confusion come some of the most important verses in the Bible such as “you must be born again” not talking about a literally birth “how can someone return to his Mothers Womb when they are old?” but a spiritual re-birth when we receive the new life in Christ. As St. Paul later said trying to explain this picture of being born again “if anyone is in Christ they are a new creation, the old has gone and the new has come”.

It is here talking to this wise and learned man that we see the simplicity of the call to believe in Christ, God’s rescue plan, to receive salvation:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son to the end that those who believe in him may not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not come into the world to condemn the world but rather that they may have life”.


Jonah 2: The Prophet Discovers the Heart of God.

As we continue to explore the story of Jonah, we looked at this reluctant prophet who tried to block his ears from hearing and heeding God’s call, indeed he tried to ignore it and run in the opposite direction.

Perhaps, we need to be people who echo the prayer of Samuel and say “speak Lord for your servant is listening”? Yes, if we hear his voice we have a choice, do we try and ignore what God is saying and harden our hearts, or do we take that step of faith and say “yes”.

When we admit to hearing God’s voice then we have to face the challenge of our own internal desires whether or not to be disobedient and sinful or obedient and righteous. Too often I fear we try to be disobedient in practice whilst seeking to mask this with righteous rhetoric.

Jonah, inside the belly of the fish, re-commits his life to God, and is restored and trusted afresh with his original commission.

As I pictured this story it reminded me of a self-correcting SatNav where due to God’s faithfulness being more potent that humanities faithlessness, Jonah is returned back to the destination that he should have gone.

Jonah faithfully proclaims the message of repentance and the people respond and repent, turning to God in sack cloth and ashes and begging for mercy and forgiveness. These people whom Jonah had originally written off were in reality fertile soil for God’s message of mercy, grace and transformation.

With our human eyes we often look at people incorrectly, not seeing what God sees, often we find the people most open and fruitful are the people we are in danger of writing off. Indeed, Jonah had assumed that they would reject the message, and now is confronted by their obedience contrasted with his sin.

Yet this is not the end of the story.

The people are spared and saved, just as he himself is spared and saved, and Jonah is angry. He falls asleep under a tree, which withers and dies and Jonah is scorched by the sun, and again Jonah protests to God.

God talks to Jonah and challenges him, Jonah tries to justify his behavior (isn’t that something we all do, rather than confess our sin we seek to justify it, even at times when our actions are unjustifiable?). Jonah said “I knew this was what would happen, after all you are ‘slow to anger and abounding in mercy” (Jonah 4.2).

Often when we are wronged we want justice, but when we do something wrong we want mercy, we are fickle, we too often overlook our transgressions but seek to highlight the transgressions of those around us.

The story reminds me of Jesus’ parable about the man who is spared a great debt by the King and then meets someone who owes him a few pounds and forgets about the grace and mercy he received as he demands payment from his kinsman. Jesus says “judge not lest you be judged” (Matthew 7:1-3), reminding us that if we are to take the speck out of the eye of a brother or sisters’ eye we need to first take the log from our own eye (Matthew 7.5).

Yet, it is here that Jonah encounters God’s radical heart of compassion for the people of Ninivah –and for him personally-.

I wonder too often if sometimes we understand God’s instruction but maybe not his heart?

A modern worship song includes the line “Lord, what is on your heart, show me what to do, let me know your will and I will follow you”.

God does not want ‘robotic-servants’ but rather friends that carry his heart and seek to see his will happen, seeking to see in situations “mercy triumphing over judgement” (James 2:13).

Indeed another worship song we sing contains a dangerous prayer “break my heart for what breaks yours… living my life for your Kingdoms cause”.

1) Song “I want to serve the purpose of God in my generation Mark Altrogge.
2) Song. Hosanna (I see the King of Glory). Hillsong.


Jonah 1. The Prophet and the Prejudice.

I love the story of Jonah, and yet too often we have turned this amazing story into something we teach only at Sunday School and ignore for the rest of our Christian life.

Jonah is a prophet, yet he is a prophet with his own agenda and idea of what God should and shouldn’t be doing. Jonah is something of an ‘un-surrendered disciple’ he is prepared to follow God when obedience coincides with his own thoughts, plans and values.

So, when God calls Jonah to Ninivah to preach a message of repentance to the people there, he is very reluctant to do it.

Jonah protests and says “no” to God and proceeds to go in the opposite direction, Jonah tries to ‘out-run-God’. Often when we read this passage we often get very pharisaical and perhaps tutting in a smug Christian way, and yet

I believe that most of us at some-point in our lives have ‘done a Jonah’ and disobeyed God and gone our own way.

Jonah has realized the consequences of saying “yes” to God and he is frightened and deeply uncomfortable.

I wonder is our acceptance of the call of Christ is often a conditional acceptance? Whilst training at theological college there was a poster up in the common room that said “Lord, I will go where-ever you call me, provided it is Surrey!”

Someone once said: @if you qant a quiet and comfortable life the person you want to most avoid is Jesus Christ!” –Saying “yes” to Jesus is the greatest thing you can do, but to quote Shane Claiborne “also really messes you up!” –His wayus are not our ways, nor our thoughts are not his thoughts!
I had a friend who talked about God having a call on his life but he admitted that he knew he had left the answerphone on, to say “yes” was too costly, frightening and challenging.

Jonah, didn’t care about the people on Ninivah, he thought they were a bad lot, he thought they deserved God’s wrath and punishment, yet responding to God’s call called him to respond to his judgmental attitudes, his cold heart and his deep personal prejudices. God’s call often calls us to confront our bigotry and baggage as Jonah discovered that God’s call on his life was not just to work through him, but also in his, in his heart, in his attitudes and outlook.

Anyway I digress, Jonah tried running away from God, interestingly there was a boat going to Joppa (the opposite direction) that Jonah could board. I remember J.John saying once “if you are trying to run from God the Devil can be trusted to provide transport!”

The Devil wants to keep us from being fruitful in following God, and I wonder if one of his most profitable tactics is keeping us from setting off on the path of obedience in the first place. I have written before about the danger of golden handcuffs when life is too comfortable and secure to risk taking a step of faith, and the opportunity (or dare I say opportunities) remain untaken.
We then come to the bit we major on when we are telling the story, the storm and the big fish (the Bible never actually calls the fish a whale!). As a storm breaks out Jonah confesses that he is running from God and (after a bit of persuasion) the people throw him into the sea!

To me, this is a profound picture of Jonah’s confession and surrender to God’s mercy. He gave up running away and put his life into God’s hands

Yet here we discover something of God’s grace. He could have punished Jonah with drowning and called another prophet, a less reluctant prophet with a more obedient heart and less racial stereotypes in operation. Yet, God did not give up on Jonah.

In the place of despair and hopelessness (inside the fishes belly) Jonah is confronted with himself, his disobedience and also God’s great mercy and grace. Sometimes when we reach the end of ourselves, and see ourselves as we are, not as we would like to believe ourselves to be, we become ‘soft’ enough for God to mold, shape and transform us.

Also, he came to a place of surrender, a place where he said “yes” to God. Inside the whale it feels like a place that reminds me of Jesus’ Gethsemene prayer “not my will but yours”.

Have we got to that place of surrender?


Alpha in a Nightclub…

I had been in my parish of Kingswood for two years and wanted to do an Alpha course, and the people in the Church were very reluctant to let me use their building for it –who would pay for the heating and lighting etc? There was even a suggestion that they could ‘dock a hire charge’ from my tiny budget for outreach.

It was so tragically sad, sometimes in ministry you can sense God’s heartbreak at the attitude of people who profess to belong to him and follow him, and I just felt something of God’s pain as I really wanted the congregations to have God’s heart of hospitality, generosity and welcome –values of Christ’s Kingdom.

We had recently launched the Street Pastors project and were having lots of conversations with ordinary people outside the Church and it was fantastic at ‘getting me out of the Churchy bubble’. I remember chatting to my friend Matt who ran the local nightclub, he had recently taken it over and with the had a really bad reputation. Somehow we got talking and a Holy Spirit nudge happened and I said “I don’t suppose you hire out the club do you?”

Matt was amazing. He not only let us have the club for the full Alpha course (which is about 12 weeks) he laid on tea and coffee, and a staff member to look after us and check we were okay. He really, really blessed us. –Actually with Street Pastors we got given a sizable grant from the council and offered him some money which he refused to take and said to donate the money to “help the Heroes!”

It struck me that this was Jesus’ parable of the banquet lived out before my eyes, the ‘respectable people’ making excuses and missing out, and the people that could be called ‘outsiders’ responding to the call.

Luke 14:15 When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.”
16 Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. 17 At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’
18 “But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’
19 “Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’
20 “Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’
21 “The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’
22 “‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’
23 “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. 24 I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’”

What of us? Are we people like Matt over-flowing with hospitality and generosity? Or full of poor excuses to respond to the Kings’ invitation?


Hezekiah 2: A call to return to the Lord.

Hezekiah is an interesting character as we get some stories of his reign from 2 Kings and some more stories in Chronicles as well.
Our first introduction to Hezekiah in 2 Kings sees him removing the idols from the land and placing his faith and trust in God to deliver him and the land of Judea as they are rescued by God from the Assyrians who are camped on their doorstep and about to invade (the story is repeated in 2Chron.32.1-22).

Our first introduction to Hezekiah in Chronicles talks of him opening the doors of the temple, this is a prophetic image, it is symbolically welcoming God to come and take his rightful place in the temple at the heart of the nation and it is also inviting people to come and return to the Lord.
This image reminds me of the crucifixion image of the Temple curtain being ripped in two showing the way to God is open, open to everyone who will come.

A theme of the Old Testament, many Kings and Prophets have called the people to ‘return to the Lord’ and sought to see a spiritual awakening in the land of Judea, with the call to re-consecrate themselves to God.

A theme we see with King Josiah rediscovering the book of the law and calling for it to be read to the people, challenging them to get themselves right afresh with God. In the very next book of the Bible we will read of Ezra again reading the law to the people calling them afresh to come back to God and leave behind their sinful ways. It is a call throughout the Old Testament right up to John the Baptist and Jesus sending out the 12 and the 72 where they proclaim ‘repent for the Kingdom of heaven is close at hand’ –repent and receive.

In 2 Kings there is a strong sense of turning away from sin, tearing down the idols that have usurped God’s place, ditching the baggage.

In Chronicles it is about returning to God and becoming reconnected with him.
The two stories actually work helpfully complement each other, for in order to consecrate ourselves we have to turn away from the idols we have in our lives that seek to take God’s rightful place, and surrender afresh to him, the King of Kings.

Too often we want God’s blessing and presence but without acknowledging him as Lord.

I have become frustrated with people who preach a gospel purely about turning from sin but don’t major on the necessity to be filled with the Holy Spirit to enable us to live our lives Christ’s way; just as I have become equally frustrated with some Gospel messages that talk about needed to be filled with the Spirit but do not talk about our need for repentance, instead we need both!

As Hezekiah called people to come and connect with God he discovered that people responded to his invitation, indeed people came who were outsiders and technically speaking probably shouldn’t have been there. Yet Hezekiah gambled on the grace of God, his love and goodness and grace and welcomed them to join them.

“Although most of the many people who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the LORD, who is good, pardon everyone 19 who sets their heart on seeking God—the LORD, the God of their ancestors—even if they are not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.” 20 And the LORD heard Hezekiah and healed the people” (2 Chronicles 30.18-20).

I feel that too often we have turned our collective worship into ala carte dining where everyone has a place (and a pew) but a more biblical idea is of a feast with long benches and tables where we can say ‘budge up there is room for another one!’. We glimpse the radical inclusion of the heart of God which is revealed fully after the feast of Pentecost in Acts 2, a God who welcomes even –and indeed especially- those who are far from him, those who society has written off.

When I did my curacy I worked in a Church that had had a famous Parson, George Herbert who wrote an amazing poem called “Love bade me welcome but I drew back guilty of sin and shame… and the poem ends with God inviting the reader to “sit and eat” –echoes of the wonderful verse in Revelation where the risen Christ says “behold I stand at the door and knock, if anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come in and eat with them” (Rev. 3:20).

The idea of eating with someone is a wonderful symbol of friendship, fellowship and intimacy the image shows us of a God who longs to be with us, dwell with us and share with us not just as our Lord but as a friend as Jesus said: “I no longer call you servants…instead I call you friends” –as Christ knocks will we open the door of our lives to him just as Hezekiah opened the doors of the temple?

Are we going to be like Hezekiah as someone who calls people to repentance and to turn away from sin?

Are we going to be like Hezekiah as someone that urges the people, all people, to come and seek the Lord and allow him to come and take his rightful place within our lives.