Head stuck in the trunk

I remember running a community building festival in a northern town of rural Ghana a few years ago. There were hundreds in the centre participating in games and races and another couple of hundred having a go at the various activities that encircled the games. To the untrained eye, it was utter pandemonium, to those aware of social processes in crowds things were going well; either way that sort of setting can be fairly stressful. I recall a particular moment where I needed one of my colleagues to direct the centre games, as I scanned the crowd, I eventually found him rummaging through the trunk of one of our vehicles whilst things unravelled in the centre! Some of us react to stress of chaos by burrowing down deep into some detail that we can manage, others of us take a step back trying to contextualise the mayhem and catch the patterns by viewing the big picture. The trouble is that if we get stuck with our heads in the trunk we may find what we were looking for but have missed the real danger that was approaching and is now upon us!

 I have now run seven discussion workshops in various parts of the country looking at discipleship, mission and transformation of society. It’s been a chance to step back and get a bigger picture (more of a thumb-nail sketch!) of where things are at. To start us off I get participants to pair up with someone they don’t know and share their story with each other focusing on those things that have helped them in their discipleship journey as well as those things that have been a hindrance. I also get them to reflect together on what a mature Christ follower looks like. Just 10 minutes of this yields some rich fare for discussion and reflection in the bigger group!

 With varying strength, and through different stories the following things have come up each time:

1.       Something significant, hopeful and strengthening happens in the process of sharing and hearing each other’s story, even for just a few minutes.

2.       Having others to share the journey and encourage us in our walk is the single most significant, almost universal thing that contributes positively to our discipleship. This is closely followed by spiritual disciplines (prayer, bible study, worship etc) in the context of the church community.
3.       The biggest hindrances to our journey are isolation or negative relationships (especially when life is challenging) and Christians who lived a double life.
4.       Maturity as a follower of Christ is more about living out our faith in everyday life, than about knowing all the right stuff.

A few minutes of reflecting on our own and each other’s narrative enables these and other pretty simple patterns to surface. We then move to Jesus and his disciples and see the same things echoed there. They shared life together for three years and when he left he told them to keep on sharing life together with him in the centre. It was only after he left that the disciples begun to understand the truths, and doctrines started to fall into place, and by this time the doctrine was simply an articulation and explanation of all they had experienced and heard in their three years with him, and now, with his Spirit.

It is then an odd experience to engage with the question of how the church is ‘doing’ discipleship and what it is we are inviting people to in mission. Because it’s quickly obvious that what we are doing bears little relation to what our own narrative tells us is important, what Jesus himself did and what we intuitively know works.  Much of what we call discipleship focusses instead around teaching people stuff, we have our series of courses that people do in a particular order, failing that, Sunday sermons might suffice. Then there are a bunch of external behaviours that serve as measuring sticks of maturity. These externals will vary depending on the church and tradition…. the list and hoops and yard sticks grows and changes but keeps going on. And what does it all produce? Well that’s a whole other discussion!

It appears we got stuck in the trunk and forgot what we were really trying to do. If we come out and look at the bigger picture, is there another way?

Perhaps there is another way that’s at least worth giving a go. What if it is the shared life of disciples that revolves around Christ himself, that in turn, makes disciples?  If faith happens and grows where the rubber hits the road, as life comes at you, then let’s embrace life in all its complexity and pain but with each other and Christ – and if we don’t know how to do that, let’s work out how to do it! Isn’t that what discipleship is? This then becomes a faith that is relevant whoever you are and wherever you are, it’s not just a fair weather faith, it’s a gutsy, earthy, courageous faith with a real life, gutsy, compassionate, just and present God at the centre, with his sleeves rolled up, face leathered and gentle hands roughened. And that there, that group of brothers and sisters doing real life together with Christ at the centre, that there is what’s going to change the world.

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Hey, leader, stop blending in!

What do you do when you find squatters on your property? I don’t have property and I certainly am not facing this dilemma in a literal sense, however I am realising how much it features in so many ways, less literal but just as destructive.

A couple of months ago a friend was sharing how she was told by a church leader that she could only really belong if she was committed to this leader’s vision. There was more, but to preserve the honour of those involved I will leave it at that. Just this week a colleague shared how a discussion amongst the leadership of a church pitched commitment to God against commitment to the details of the church constitution; the discussion went in favour of the constitution.

There are so many ways in which we as Christians blend in seamlessly with the system and values of the environment around us.  In the area of leadership and authority, great swaths of the Christian community have embraced the values and practices of the business world and other systems; often our efforts to be relevant and attractive in our world has resulted in us looking very much like it. It was a sad, sad day when Israel asked for a king, the reason they gave was so that they could be like all the other nations. It didn’t go so well for them even though God redeemed the situation through David and ultimately through Jesus. Yet I know that the church tradition that I grew up in modelled so much of its life and structures on this and other similar aspects of the life of Israel. But actually, was this God’s intention?

In current discussions around how small groups can be a vehicle for effective discipleship, mission and transformation, questions around leadership and authority rise, quickly followed by those around ‘who’s in and who’s out?’. The assumption is that one person knows more than the others and leads the way for the group; the groups’ role is to follow submissively. That’s what we have been doing in the Christian community for a generation, and it’s part of what we need to rethink and redesign if we are to be part of God’s mission of grace and mercy into the future. If we look down the corridors of history we will find that this monarchic structure didn’t serve exponential growth or the transformation of society’s values very well. On the other hand models where God not man was central (really), where leadership was service to God and his people, and accountability was mutual with a shared passion to know God better and follow him better… a theocratic model… these had great effect.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that we shouldn’t have leaders. I myself am a leader. What I am saying is that we need to make sure our models of leadership reflect God’s heart and nature much more than the systems around us. I am becoming more aware of the assumptions and habits I have that come from a value system that is different to the one I say I ascribe to. Like squatters who have taken up residence and become ‘part of the place’, it doesn’t matter how long they have been there and how entrenched they have become, they don’t belong. Like enemy strongholds in a newly conquered territory, until the stronghold is removed, the territory will never be fully conquered.

The Christian community is here to help with the great rescue plan of God on the world, we are here to help make all things new, to help bring mercy, compassion and justice, reconciliation and shalom. We cant do that if we simply melt into the background and become part of the problem.

Just saying…

Building with precious metal

This morning, someone referred to the passage of scripture in first Corinthians 3 about building on the foundation with gold, silver and precious jewels or wood, straw and hay and it dawned on me that I have invariably thought of this in terms of individual growth and narrative. Perhaps it’s because I have been mulling over the subject of discipleship and what it will mean to ‘be church’ in this next few decades here in the UK. Perhaps I just had a rare moment of clarity, I don’t know, but I realised that Paul was actually talking about the growth and narrative of a community, not of an individual.

There is coming a time when church as we know it just isn’t going to cut it when it comes to the job of being the incarnation of the Father’s heart to our nation; disciples making disciples in and of families, communities and sectors – society unable to dismiss the transforming love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If this is the task, I think we have some work to do and I wonder if Paul has given us the key.  I wonder if the job isn’t to recognise where, in the church, we have been building with wood, straw and hay, and to embark on a deconstruction of our edifices. Then with new eyes to find the gold, silver and precious jewels with which we need to build.

Gold and silver are precious metals that undergo the intense furnace of purification to reach their pure identity. Precious jewels are made in the intensity of prolonged pressure, stress, irritation and pain. Will we as the church have the courage to enter into the pain of the world around us, armed not with the pat answers of the indoctrinated but the long suffering, faith and hope that come from the Holy Spirit who is willing to travel to the depths of despair with us? Will we sit with the doubts, live the real questions that dwell in the depths of our hearts? Because I think it’s in traveling this ‘road to Jerusalem, the city of suffering’ that we are able to find the gold, silver and jewels with which we will build the cathedral that will inspire hearts to rise to the creator of heaven and earth.

The more I reflect on the nature of discipleship the more I think it has little to do with answers and everything to do with living real life fully engaged with the questions it embodies. For too long we have been stressing about having the right answer to ‘the questions’, too anxious to take the time and listen deeply enough to the questions in our own hearts let alone those in the hearts of others. The people in my street need a church that is built of gold, silver and jewels, indeed they have their own stores of gold and pearls that belong. Perhaps as I learn to bring precious metals from my life, I can stand with them as they bring forth their own. I wonder if the very things I try to shut out are the treasures designed to build for eternity, whilst the easier things I thought were so important, simply straw and hay?

Can I, can we, can the church become a movement of the Father’s disciples making disciples seeking and bringing treasure from the furnace of real life, treasure that will build a new tomorrow worthy of our Lord Jesus, our firm foundation?

Its never too far

It really isn’t cool to doubt. The aim of all questioning and doubting is to find the answers and move on, or so it seems in my generation. There is this burning desire to get all our ducks in a row and if we can’t, then there’s either something wrong with the ducks (so chuck em out) or with us (so it must be the ducks..). The stress of ambiguity is almost intolerable.

If you, like me, are in the business of mentoring others, then one of the worst things for your internal world is when the person you are working with ‘goes off the rails’. It often takes a super human effort not to wade in and ‘set them right’. I love the story of the vicar, when asked how his eldest son was going, replied ‘He’s coming along very nicely thank you, he’s an atheist.’

A week ago I spent a couple of hours with six interns, bright eyed and bushy tailed, going through their induction training before placements started in a few days’ time. They were chomping at the bit to share Jesus with everyone they met! The discussion went from getting the ‘Jesus bit’ right, to sharing one’s own story then eventually we got to where the rubber hits the road and what to do with the parts of our journey when in truth we hate God and frankly ‘he b****d off some weeks ago, so what am I doing here anyway?’. What do we do with that? Because you see, it’s not cool to doubt, and besides we are the ones who should have the answers, right?

Perhaps one of our greatest fears are the doubts we carry in the darkest corners of our soul that not even we visit often. We fear that somehow going there will result in the unravelling of the very framework of all we know and trust. Perhaps it will, but do we need to fear that?

When Jesus was preparing the disciples for his death and departure, he said to them, ‘guys in the next few days you are going to go so far and so low from where we have been these past three years – you’ll lose the plot so completely that, Simon, you’ll be back where you were before you even met me….. but even that wont mean that your faith will have failed. You’ll work it through in your heart, you’ll come through it and see clearly again but Simon (Peter) don’t forget you’ve still got a job to do, go strengthen your brothers.’ (well, that’s my paraphrase anyway!). the journey that the disciples were about to go on would freak them out, but Jesus wasn’t phased by it.

I recently had the privilege to spend a morning as part of a learning community on discipleship. We went through Lectio Divina, a simple, beautiful, reflective way of reading a portion of text with a group of brothers and sisters that brings out the sweet richness in the words. We took Matthew 28v16-20 as our text and the treasure that I went away with was that those who doubted were no less valued and commissioned by Jesus than those who seemed to have it all together.

There is no shame in doubting, there is no shame in discovering ancient, brokenness in one’s soul, it is not a sign that faith has failed, it is simply another precious step in the journey of faith.

Messy Discipleship

So yes, last week I started sharing about our recent National Conference but went off on a tangent. The weekend was about celebrating the past and preparing for the future. To do either of those things fully, we need to be grounded in the present. When I think back to all the things that God was doing amongst us during the weekend, it is astounding; its sobering to think of all we might have missed had we been too caught up in the past or the future.

We were very grateful to have Ian and Haddon Macdonald with us. Ian took us through three sessions or conversations exploring authentic spirituality, authentic discipleship and authentic living. God is a very present God. Often in my walk with him I can get preoccupied with what he has done and what he is going to do and forget that he is here, right now, with me, wanting to look me in the eyes if I have the guts to stop for a few seconds. I think that is the most challenging and confronting place to be, present with God in this moment; there is nowhere to hide. Even now in this moment, I would rather keep writing than open my heart to him here and now. But how else am I to know him and make my life his own?

In mentoring others and discipleship, if I am constantly living in the past and the future with no courage for the present, I am just a hollow shell of pretence and activity. It’s in being present to God, myself and my brothers and sisters that I can actually make contact, live and give life and progress with intent. I wonder if this is not what God is looking for, in each age and generation, people with the courage to worship him in spirit and in truth.

One of my favourite traditions that Fusion has is that of the evening devotions at conferences. These are brought by members of the team who share from their journey with God over the recent months or years. They are based on the premise that I am strengthened and encouraged in my faith as you share your real experience of the joys, pains, doubts and rigours of discipleship and ministry. This type of sharing requires a high level of being present with God both in the preparation and delivery, but authentic fellowship, encouragement, applied theology and strengthening of purpose are all outcomes. Those who aren’t used to the process might react with pity and not a little bewilderment, but with time they begin to understand that rescuing and feeling sorry for those sharing misses the point entirely. The reality is that authentic spirituality, authentic discipleship and authentic living are very messy and often pretty uncomfortable; but that is what we are called to, together with God. There were one or two bewildered, uncomfortable individuals last weekend!!

For us as a movement there are many exciting things I am sure that God will do amongst us and through us; but the pathway to all of these things is through the gateway of alertness to the present and responsiveness to him in the moment, and that might get a bit messy and uncomfortable at times.