Archive for November, 2009

// prayer house

We built a church out of MDF for our 24-7 prayer week and then proceeded to let our young people loose on it…

The end result is pretty awesome, don’t you think? If nothing else it epitomises what Mike Yaconelli called “messy spirituality”:

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Posted by Wordmobi

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// on spiritual warfare and The Usual Suspects

I am sitting in Starbucks with a vanilla latte, listening to Ray LaMontagne. All thoughts of a spiritual realm seem a long way away; a little bit strange, honestly, and certainly not something to be talked about in polite company…

Of course, that’s not to say that it’s not there.

It was Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects who uttered the memorable statement that “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist”, and me, i couldn’t agree with him more. I never used to believe in spiritual warfare, not really- i thought it was just a Greek way of explaining the ways of the world, something we had to get through before we could start interpreting the Bible properly. But, whether i like it or not, the last few months have made me believe in spiritual warfare…

Because I simply can’t explain everything away rationally. I can’t explain why i, along with a lot of others, find their minds racing when they step out of Oxford station. I don’t know why men who have seen African revivals find it a challenge to pray in this city. And I can’t account for what it is that just caused me to confront one of my colleagues about a whole series of issues that didn’t actually exist. I don’t have answers for the issues that won’t get sorted, for the people who just seem like they can’t be fixed, even though we have a God who declares “behold, I am making all things new!”

You can call me crazy for saying all of this, and i wouldn’t entirely blame you, but i do know this much- if there’s a spiritual realm, and a God who speaks and works within that, then there’s damn sure a dark side to it too.

Sure, i know that, as Peter wrote, “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world”, too, and that’s a great encouragement. But it’s also a profoundly discomforting realisation that there is something out there that does not want you to be speaking up and working out the Kingdom of God here, don’t you think? That Paul wasn’t kidding when he wrote of how “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”…

Friends, i don’t say any of this lightly, or even easily. I can’t explain it well, i don’t fully understand it, and honestly, i always thought it was for crazy people. But i know what i’ve seen and what i’ve experienced- and not just me, either- and i’m all the more prepared to pray like i’m in the midst of a battle. Rationally, it may not seem to make sense, but neglect it at your own risk.

Like i say, “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist”.

It’s also the most dangerous.

Let’s not be blinded by the lies. There is more going on here than meets the eye.

Posted by Wordmobi

// when words fail

I find myself in a 24-7 prayer room reading the words of Paul, and specifically his statement that “I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ…”

I read it again. What Paul is saying is truly astonishing. At its heart, he is saying, there is nothing in this gospel that is of man; this is something other, the product of revelation and nothing else. It’s an entirely different way, something new. It doesn’t rest on logic or philosophy, even if, in places, it intersects with them.

This is a faith that is built upon revelation, from the very start.

And of all places, a 24-7 prayer room is the best place to be reading this, too, as this place only serves to highlight the otherness of all of this stuff. I can’t explain prayer, and I doubt you can, either. Logically, it doesn’t make sense – God knows my thoughts already, God exists outside of time, God is all-powerful, so what’s the point – and yet, indisputably, it changes things in the spiritual atmosphere…

I have been talking with a good friend of mine about where we go from here. Whether the future of the church is in the ‘emerging churches’, or in the radical, alternative models of church, and the truth is that I’m burned out. There are pros and cons on both sides, but my brain just can’t come to a logical conclusion on what to do, as there arguably isn’t one. The hundreds of books that have been written on the subject, if nothing else, are a testament to that fact.

It’s virtually impossible to imagine a different future, you know. Try it. You might think that you have a vision for the way that things should be, but when you try to articulate it in positive, concrete terms, are you able to? It’s a lot harder than you’d think.

That, surely, is the place at which prayer starts; at the place where all words fail.

When rationality or argument finishes or wears thin, and when change seems impossible.

That’s the point at which we have to seek revelation, the place where our capabilities run out and we need that something else

Revelation allows me to make sense of the world, to see with wisdom and insight why things are the way they are, and what we can do about them. It reminds me that for all the apparent chaos and disorder in this world, that there is something out there bigger than all of them.

Nothing happens in a vacuum, and the people in this prayer room are not sitting in here for no reason. The reason? The glory of God, and the transformation of His world. We are a people who no longer live for ourselves, but who live for something bigger. We need to stop thinking like it all depends on us, or like we can do it all alone, for a start.

But revelation reminds me that God is still speaking, too; He spoke to Paul 2000 years ago on a lonely road, and He is still speaking now, challenging His people and continuing to reveal Himself to them. There’s so much truth in the claim in Proverbs that “without vision, the people perish.” In my case, for a long time I constructed a theology in which God no longer spoke to His people anymore, but that was okay, as He’d given us the tools with which to work it all out ourselves.

He is currently in the process of blowing that theology apart, and I’m grateful for that; I’m not big enough to work all this stuff out alone, and nor should I be.

We are not preaching a gospel of man. Paul speaks out strongly against those people who preach “human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ”, who come out with “hollow and deceptive philosophy”; we are preaching something other. And for all the good, valuable thought that has gone into church and church-strategy and church-planting, we need to remember this – that this whole faith is built on something more, something bigger than us…

If our vision for how to transform this world is from this world, then we’re finished. It’s never going to work – the foundations are all wrong. Even my friend, a man passionate about involvement in this world, is profoundly sceptical about politics and the institutions that we would typically use to transform things. That means that we need something new; what the prophet Isaiah proclaimed, a “new thing” entirely – streams in the desert and water in the wilderness.

Shane Claiborne talked bluntly about what he called “spiritual masturbation” – that is, “a faith that feels kind of good while you’re in the middle of it, but never really gives birth to anything.” If our faith changes nothing, then maybe it’s not faith at all. My friend tells me that he thinks “one of the greatest tricks in the devil’s arsenal is to make us concerned, but not moved.” He’s right, of course. We’re stuck. We see that things are wrong – that thousands of people will die today for lack of basic sanitation, or that churches are dying, or that people are dying, or whatever, and we’re sad about it, but we feel powerless – so we don’t do anything.

One of my favourite authors, Jim Wallis, wrote of how “most of us still believe that we think our way into new ways of living, but the truth is that we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” He talks about the Hebrew notion of ‘truth’, and about how the Hebrews believed that unless something has affected their lives in some distinct, noticeable way, then they couldn’t claim to ‘know the truth’ at all.

What about us? Do we know the truth? Has it changed anything?

We need vision and we need revelation like Paul had – because that changes everything. And then we need to start living it. “If I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor”, he writes later in his letter to the Galatians. What are we building, and what does it say about us?

Our starting point has to be God, and His revelation. That doesn’t encourage us to be passive – we are complicit in this, and we have a part in living out the way in which He has called us to live.

But what way is that?

Have we even asked?

// madness and civilisation

I used to think there were two types of Christians, ‘sane’ ones and ‘mad’ ones. That doesn’t come down to a stable ‘conservative vs. charismatic’ division, either; I’ve met plenty of mad conservatives too, and not just the obvious ones (ie. the people who bomb abortion clinics, or the people who thought that the dinosaurs were planted there by Satan to confuse Christians). ‘Sane’ ones, in my eyes, were those people who managed to integrate faith with normal life, whereas the ‘mad’ ones were the people who seemed to have lost all touch with reality, taken things to an excessively high level, and become, in all honesty, slightly frightening.

Only I’m not sure about that distinction anymore. The past few weeks I’ve heard a whole range of teaching from people from both charismatic and conservative backgrounds, and I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that all true Christianity is a kind of madness. That is to say, if you’re really serious about this then it ends up affecting everything about your life, from your priorities to your expenses to your politics; and that kind of follow-through is intimidating, not to mention extremely rare. And if it’s not doing that, then what is it doing?

Very little in this world demands all of you; sure, you can give yourself wholly to fighting climate change or protecting those trafficked across the world, but there’s always a point where you switch off from those causes and you have time that is wholly for you, no matter how dedicated you are. Christianity, at least in theory, asks for it all – work time, rest time, play time – it’s all His. And we’re bad at accepting that here in England – people who are really on fire for God tend to look earnest or pious or idealistic or just plain embarrassing when we view them with our ironic detachment. This is a hard place to be a Christian some days.

Recently, though, I find myself looking pragmatically and looking at the followers instead. Try it. If you look at your community of faith, at your Christian community, try answering this: how (if all) is this helping the world?

See, I was all in favour of that kind of ‘sane’ Christianity until I looked around and asked myself, has my Christianity changed anything, altered anything, impacted anything? Does it look any different to anything else? The answer, mostly, is no; it’s culturally sidelined – culturally acceptable, yes, but equally seen in a lot of spheres as culturally irrelevant, something that’s just there because it always has been.

What about you? You don’t have to be Mother Theresa, but in your school, in your university, your workplace. has Christianity been a positive force, if you’re really honest?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, speaking about the African concept of ubuntu, described the phrase (taken from the Bantu language) as relating to “the essence of being a person. It means that we are people through other people. We cannot be fully human alone. We are made for interdependence, we are made for family. When you have ubuntu, you embrace others…”

He also claimed that “the solitary human being is a contradiction in terms and therefore you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in belonging.” Too often our culture of Christianity has sought to create a new humanity all on its own, relating only to itself, existing only in its little cliques – and that way madness lies. What good is that? Like it or not, we are members of this world, and whether we ask the question or not, the world outside is watching and asking, ‘what good is this Christian thing anyway?”

Is our Christianity culturally irrelevant or culturally isolated? Because the great dream of this world isn’t empire, it’s redemption. At the moment, at least, it looks like it’s the other way round. Christianity looks like it wants to be a conquering force, and it’s not that good at it, in all honesty. It sets up churches that go out trying to spread across the world, and it seeks to expand in order to increase its influence, and in doing so it hopes to communicate the gospel.

That may look ‘sane’, but that’s arguably also because it’s the world’s way of doing things. It’s a capitalist, colonialist model that we understand because our businesses (and in the past, our country) have used it. But at the end of the day it looks out for itself rather than for the good of this world… and that’s scary in itself. That sees Christianity as the only valuable thing in this world, and that’s just plain dangerous.

Sometimes it feels like we sold out, doesn’t it? We compromised on all the dangerous, costly stuff in order to fit in better, we adjusted our politics and our expenditure and our worship so that we could find a place in this world.

“My kingdom is not from this world”, Jesus declared, and it’s never, ever run along the world’s lines. That’s because the world’s foundations are all wrong. But what are our foundations? You may not be praying out the demons over cities or praying into the battles in the spiritual realms but the question still remains as to whether you have any belief in change, any hope that a changed world is possible, or whether you’re just resigned to the way the world works…

I’ll tell you what, a lot of the time I fall into the latter category, and that mentality comes from a desire to survive more than anything else; feeling like our religion is just a solitary group of survivors who are clinging onto each other for dear life.

Sure, survival is one thing, but it’s not the end aim, and it’s certainly not worth compromising for. There’s more planned, and a bigger dream out there. The next step is seeing whether we’re mad enough to pray it into being, mad enough to believe that it could actually happen, and even that we might be able to be a part of it. But that’s going to take risk. Even now it sounds kind of mad. and the safe, sane world seems easy and kind of appealing, if I’m honest.

Unfortunately for me, and for you, that’s no kind of life at all. And it’s not the life we were called to, either.

So what do we do now?