Archive for March, 2010

// off the grid

I’m off to India at about 10pm tonight and i’m not taking anything electronic, which means i’ll not be blogging for the next two weeks – although if i’ve invited you to contribute to this blog over Lent, then do feel free to continue doing this in my absence.

If you want more information about what we’re doing (not least on how to pray) do check out my last post, india, social action and St Patrick. I’ll keep a journal during our time out there and probably take some footage too so you can expect something to be put together when i’m back.

And while i’m at it, happy Easter, too!

(He is risen!)

I’m meditating on 2 Corinthians 4 during my time away – among other things – and it provides a fitting message for what it means to be a Christian in what can frequently seem disheartening times:

For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us…

Why not join me in meditating on that during this time? I’d love to hear your thoughts and i firmly believe that if you read that once a day and really get under its skin, it will blow your mind. But hey, try it and see.

See you in two weeks.

// india, social action and st patrick

In a week’s time, i’m off to India along with the rest of the interns here at St Aldates, Oxford to work with Betel, the drug rehabilitation charity that i’ve previously spent a little time working with in Spain (see Rehab). You can find out more about it here and i’d love to encourage you to be praying for us as we head off – not only for protection, but also for focus (it’s surprisingly easy, after a few missions, to feel like this is just another work commitment), wisdom and unity. Betel is a fantastic example of what Christian development and aid work can look like, demonstrating a simply breathtaking level of selfless love on top of some really sophisticated – and effective – planning, and we arguably need more organisations like it.

In the context of the recent debate that’s raging over at the Sojourners community, with right-wing Christian commentator Glenn Beck asserting that “social justice” is simply a code-word for communism and Nazism, it’s always worth re-examining how effective any Christian model of social justice is – not to mention how scripturally grounded it is. As one blogger pointed out, it’s fine asserting that the Bible talks more about justice than anything else, but, in terms of pure word counts, it also devotes more space to the useless kings of Israel than it does to the crucifixion of Jesus, and so it is important to look at the real emphasis of Scripture. Justice in isolation ultimately doesn’t cut it, not without a theology behind it – i know many of the readers of this blog have a theology of social justice, but i’d love to hear how you got there, for the furthering of the debate as much as anything else.

Shane Claiborne opened his book The Irresistible Revolution with a quote from Catholic activist Ammon Hennacy, who stated that:

Love without courage and wisdom is sentimentality, as with the ordinary church member. Courage without love and wisdom is foolhardiness, as with the ordinary soldier. Wisdom without love and courage is cowardice, as with the ordinary intellectual. But the one who has love, courage and wisdom moves the world.

I certainly tend towards cowardice when it comes to justice. Love – real, selfless, agape love – is hard work, and takes real courage. It takes an element of risk and a willingness to go the extra mile, to fight for the people who need to be fought for, as well as a willingness to look up from ourselves in order to do that. Much of this blog has been about my responses to the challenges laid out in Scripture, and whilst i still think that sharing those responses (and how i came to them) is useful, it ultimately has to be accompanied by action.

James described the very picture of introspection in his letter to the church, telling his readers that:

Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.

You can so easily create a mirror image of yourself, a picture of where your flaws and strengths are and a sense of what you need to do as a result, and then never act to change it. Somebody once told me that they thought it took courage to write about myself in this blog, but the truth is that it doesn’t really – it takes courage to do something about it.

The real risk of going away on mission is not that you might have your eyes opened to the need; the needs, at the end of the day, are pretty obvious. The real risk of mission is that it might force us to be different, to change our priorities – and that’s something that you can’t do so easily from the comfort of a Caffe Nero.

It’s that which takes real courage. Love wins, sure – but love hurts, too.

Yesterday was St Patrick’s Day, and 24-7 Prayer posted this awesome prayer:

Christ, as a light
illumine and guide me.
Christ, as a shield
overshadow me.
Christ under me;
Christ over me;
Christ beside me
on my left and my right.
This day be within and without me,
lowly and meek, yet all-powerful.
Be in the heart of each to whom I speak;
in the mouth of each who speaks unto me.
This day be within and without me,
lowly and meek, yet all-powerful.
Christ as a light;
Christ as a shield;
Christ beside me
on my left and my right.

That’s a prayer i’d love to echo during our time away, and it’s a prayer i’d love for you to echo too (both for yourself and for us), remembering that this is a task that is hard enough that only God can accomplish it. We need some kind of outside influence to help us – as we’re not strong enough alone, even if sometimes we may feel like it. It’s Christ in us, the hope of glory, which transformed us in the first place, and it’s Christ working through us that has the potential to transform any of our situations. He is our love, wisdom and courage, and at the end of the day it’s him who’s going to be transformational, not me.

I have to discover that over and over again, as i keep forgetting it, and it’s entirely possible that i’ll forget it again before we head out to India a week Monday. Likelihood is, in fact, all fourteen of us will. That’s why we need your prayers. I’ll write something about it while we’re out there, but for the moment, pray for us – inadequate, broken and glorious nonetheless.

Just the way it should be.

// language acquisition for the recently born

Our current 24-7 Prayer Room at St Aldates Oxford

There’s a famous story in the first few chapters of John’s account of Jesus’s life where Jesus tells a man called Nicodemus, a respected religious leader who has come to see him by night, that “unless is one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

Nicodemus, understandably mystified, replies, “how can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” and Jesus tells him, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

Because the term “born again” is now an established part of culture, and it’s pretty easy to point to the groups that would identify themselves as “born-again Christians”, it’s become pretty easy to skim past this without really hearing what Jesus is saying in all its strangeness and power. You lose the sense, for example, that new birth is a painful thing; something eagerly anticipated, true, but only coming after the agonies of labour.

Incidentally, did you know that the closest analogy that many ancient writers could make to the pains of labour was that of being crucified?

Interesting…

You also lose the sense that the person who’s just been born isn’t yet the finished product; yes, they’re new creation, but they also have a lot to learn about this life. They don’t even know how to walk yet.

Elsewhere, Peter, writing to the early church, tells his readers to, “like newborn infants, long for pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up in your salvation – if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” And at least in my own case, I’m regularly struck by just how young I am when it comes to this whole ‘spiritual life’ thing; I’ve been a Christian nearly eight years, but I feel like only recently have I started to ‘get’ any of it, and even then, not all that much. Maybe I’m a spiritual toddler now…

This all comes to mind, I think, because it’s 24-7 prayer week again this week – and one of the lines that always stuck in my mind about 24-7 prayer was Pete Greig talking about how prayer is “climbing into the lap of our heavenly father”. I don’t know about you, but whenever I come to try and write about prayer, I find that I lose all powers of articulation. Some people can write eloquently about prayer (usually the ones who have been praying forever), but not me – and if my prayers are eloquent, then it’s usually in an attempt to impress someone, and that’s not really the point, is it?

That, then, is the beauty – and the joy – of 24-7 prayer. It provides the space to pray inarticulately, or ineloquently, spiritual toddlers in our father’s arms – simply conversing, not trying to impress. It allows us to pray at the level we’re at, even if that’s just writing three or four heartfelt words.

“God, I love You.”

“God, help.”

So maybe we pray childish prayers, but maybe that’s okay, too. Either we claim to have arrived, to ‘get’ prayer, or we’re still learning, and I think I prefer the latter, in all honesty – there’s more wonder that way.

I can sit here and pray an impassioned prayer that all Oxford will come to this prayer room, but it’s unlikely to be heartfelt. I don’t have the level of faith, or the personal connection with ‘all Oxford’, to pray that way. But I can pray this:

“God, this place is incredible. Let others come and see that too.”

I could spin that out to a meaty two or three-minute prayer and, at a prayer meeting soon, I probably will.

Not that I’m proud of that fact.

But the core of that prayer ultimately stands here instead, “in the lap of our heavenly father” – inelegant and ineloquent, perhaps, but true nonetheless.

// plodding and heroes

(I’m not Tom either.)

One of my heroes is a guy called Adrian Plass. If you haven’t read ‘the Sacred Diaries of Adrian Plass, aged 37¾’, I’d recommend it – it helped me learn to laugh at my attempts to follow Jesus, and that’s oddly enough a pretty powerful weapon against discouragement. It’s a book with a simple message: Christian life is about plodding. Trying to do things right, often getting them wrong, learning to listen to things God is saying to you, often hearing him wrong…

In the book he frequently makes bold forays of Christian-ness – deciding that he’s going to pray for 2 hours every morning, for example – and falls over in the process. But he does grow, and God does speak to him, and work through his blundering attempts. I think it’s a pretty good life philosophy, the theology of plodding.

Because for me, like Adrian Plass, life as a Christian isn’t usually about the great triumphs or even the great tribulations. Speaking with my whole soul to a mind-numbing holy and heart-achingly loving God is easy when I have a worship band playing E-minor in the background. (Yes, I stole that line from Pete Grieg). In the real world however, with my housemates annoying me by not doing the washing up, and my laptop choosing a real bad time to try to remind me that I rely too much on material possessions by crashing, and my pride smarting after I put your foot in it by saying something stupid again… the real world causes my soul to make noises that sound less like singing and a lot more like sulking. But, as one of my favourite fish once said: just keep swimming.

However, recently I’ve realised there’s a problem with my theology of plodding: I also believe in heroes.

I loved – still love – children’s fantasy stories, with their stubborn and reckless heroes, and fantastically foul villains. Authors know there is something about children which hungers after the extraordinary, the adventure. Matilda, Peter Pan, Harry Potter, the Northern Lights, the Chronicles of Narnia, the Redwall series… why do I love them? Because something inside me wants to be a hero too; to fight recklessly and courageously for freedom!

But how does that fit in with plodding?

I could reconcile the two by bringing in the spiritual realm. Maybe if I sacrifice some valuable revision time to go shopping for a friend who having a rough time, on some plane I’m actually wearing a suit of armour, and charging into battle. But it seems kind of a cop out. It feels more like plodding than heroism to me. Maybe the stories are just stories, escapism for a world which can sometimes feel rather grey. Maybe I need to stop searching for Narnia, and accept that I’m never going to be a hero.

Nope, I refuse. The stories, I’ve realised, contain both plodding and heroism. In the Lord of the Rings trilogy the two main heroes essentially just go on a really, really long plod; most of the Narnia books are built on the premise of getting somewhere, with a lot of plodding involved; the Wind Singer trilogy is about one long journey.

Life isn’t a three hundred page novel though; it’s years long. I read Anna Karenina recently – more for the kudos that anything else – and one of the things that struck me was how LONG it was. Its length made the overall narrative more difficult to see, and the point that the author was trying to make with each event and scene more obscure. It also made for a lot more frustration, as the happy ending isn’t reached again and again.

So, maybe I have to wait for heroism. Even in this world, there are plenty of people that need rescuing, beautiful lands that need protecting, and freedom that needs to be fought for. All of which are very much part of God’s plan. It just takes longer than three hundred pages, so the plodding involved is going to be a lot longer. And, coming back to humour: laughing at myself is a very good way to plod with gusto.

That’s why tomorrow, when I fall into thought about some grand scheme to help elevate poverty, get completely engrossed, and then trip over a paving stone in the middle of a crowded street and fall flat on my face, I will imagine the God of heroes and plodders looking down at me, and we will both laugh.

// how to be a tiger

Simon Barnes’ excellent (and heartfelt) article on living with a son who has Down’s syndrome really stuck with me when when i read it in the Times on Saturday, and is well worth reading in its own right. But it also contains a profound image of what God wants to do in us, something that didn’t really stick out until a prayer time on Monday where it lodged again in my brain and wouldn’t go away…

Simon describes his son Eddie’s love of tigers, ever since putting on a tiger mask at a young age, and describes “the transformation, the transfiguration [that] took place” as a result. He describes his son’s “glorious respect” for the book The Tiger who came to Tea, and specifically of the tiger in that story, and how he would read his son these stories of tigers before putting him to bed at night. And, most significantly, he describes the day that his son decided to dress up as the tiger, his favourite literary character, for World Book Day at school:

We got him a tiger costume, and he was so delighted he couldn’t speak. Then came the day in which he was to go to school as a tiger, as the Tiger — but alas, he went down with a cold. A cold is a hard thing for a child with Down’s, because their tubes are extremely narrow. Breathing is difficult even at the best of times; a cold robs Eddie of sleep and of comfort, for he can’t suck his thumb, and it casts him down, utterly. He was deeply dispirited, but determined to go to school as a tiger: a very sad, tearful, snotty, red-nosed tiger he was too. He threw up in his tiger suit and he had to come home before the day was done. Eddie the sad tiger was a heartbreaking sight: it had all started so well and ended so poorly. Eddie lacked the philosophical basis to give these things the perspective most children his age possess. It was a bitter blow.

The story of wanting to be transformed and yet not being able to is one that a lot of us can identify with. We tell ourselves that as adults we should be able to put these things, these disappointments, behind us – we call them naive idealism and move on from them. Reality doesn’t match our dreams or ideals a lot of the time; we end up not measuring up and we fail or fall or mess up, and that’s all okay provided we learn something. That’s life, right?

Only there is a happy ending to Eddie’s story. And it goes like this:

The following year, the two tiger books were still part of our lives, and the Tiger, the one who ate the cakes and drank the tea from the teapot and drank all the water in the tap, was still Eddie’s favourite book. And so he went to school in his stripes once again, this time as a happy tiger.

So the story, like all the best stories, has a happy ending…

Thing is, our ideals aren’t necessarily impossible. Not always. And, although there are sometimes points where we do indeed need to give up, accept that this just isn’t right, a lot of the time we’re just too willing to give up all too quickly…

This story came back to mind with a verse, and that verse was 1 Samuel 16:7 – “For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” God isn’t interested in putting a crying child in a tiger costume and then sending them out as some kind of counterfeit tiger; he’s interested in facilitating that kind of transformation that means we have that integrity in us, that we become that embodiment of those ideals that we dream about in all our being.

It’s not a universal rule, true, and i wouldn’t apply it to all situations. That said, though, it’s a beautiful thought, don’t you think? That one day we might reach a point where we fall less short, where internal might finally match up with external – even when, in the past, these attempts have met only with tears and pain.

That, perhaps, we could get to a place where we don’t just look like the tiger, but we become the tiger.

// slightly about prayer…

So Tom suggested we could maybe write something about prayer this week (what with it being 24-7 and all). And I’m not generally much of a rebel, but this is not a post about prayer.

This is kind of a post about sin.

It is also a post about my friend. (And I don’t mean in an agony aunt “my ‘friend’ has this problem” kind of way).

I have this friend, and he doesn’t know Jesus but he writes beautiful poetry.

Some of it is about love or salvation or how amazing the world is; but most of it is about how broken and hurting and wrong things are, and about how angry that makes him. Most of what he writes is about sin.

I both love and hate that.

I love that this guy has the same burning anger as me, about how the world is not how it should be, about how children should not experience what they do and how selfish people are, how selfish I am, and how not right that is.

And I hate that he hasn’t found the way out yet. That he is experiencing the same despair as me without the grace-filled whisper in his ear reminding him to lift his eyes and find hope.

And I’m still self-absorbed and still self-addicted; I still sin most of the time if I’m honest. But I am being pursued by grace; and that is amazing.

I love spending time with this friend of mine because (although he doesn’t know it yet) he shares something of God’s heart for the world, and I find that both massively convicting and inspiring. I am praying (less than I should be) that he would come to know Jesus, and I thank God for placing people around me who challenge me and who don’t just accept the way the world is. The struggle I have is how to look like Christ to this guy, how to be real and humble and honest with him about what I believe without seeming like a ‘crazy Christian’ who he discounts as irrelevant.

(Any suggestions do leave them below)

And I guess my question would be who do you know that wouldn’t say they know God, but who nonetheless you can really see God’s heart or passion in? Because if that’s not a sign that He’s after them, I’m not sure what is, and that is most definitely a call to prayer.

Ok, so maybe it is slightly about prayer…

// dreaming

I have never remembered my dreams. I guess I do have them – my roommate this year tells me that I talk in my sleep – but almost without fail, I wake up and they’re gone. Some of my friends tell me that God has spoken to them in incredible ways through their dreams – predicting things that have come true down to the smallest detail – and I’ve asked for similar, but to no avail. Evidently I just don’t work that way.

I daydream, though. My imagination often carries me further down the line in so many situations and so, before I know it, ideas become appearances on Dragon’s Den, blog posts become book deals, and the list goes on…

It’s not a wholly positive habit, because much of the time my dreams are too big anyway, and so when it comes to putting them into practice, I feel ludicrous or inadequate, without a clue where to start. And so, usually, I panic and do nothing.

Oswald Chambers once wrote that “dreaming about a thing in order to do it properly is right; but dreaming about it when we should be doing it is wrong.” Maybe you’re like me, and you catch yourself wondering how to reconcile your kind of dreaming with what Walter Wink called “praying the future into being” – seeking the dreams that God gives us, those good visions that come from Him and which change the world for good. See,  in my case, even when my big dreams are of good, valuable things, I still lack the faith to believe that they’re actually possible. They’re not bad things to dream, but I’m conscious that, at least at the moment, I just don’t have the capacity to do anything with them.

Chambers also went on to write, “dreaming after God has spoken is an indication that we do not trust Him… leave Him to be the source of all your dreams and joys and delights, and go out and obey what He has said.”

Lately I’ve been praying a simple prayer: “God, give me Your dreams, and not my own.”

And it’s weird – it’s like since I started praying that, my dreaming has shifted from the big visions (that have me at the centre) to visions of what the next step looks like instead. It’s almost like God is building the faith to believe for the big things by proving Himself in the small…

See, I don’t know that I’m ready for the big dreams yet. I don’t have the faith, the trust, the maturity or the character to deal with those big dreams, even if they are there. I’d only make a mess of them. But God knows that, too. And He’s involved at the absolute ground level in getting me – getting us – to the point where we have enough faith to trust Him by stepping out to where He’s called us and making those dreams a reality.

As I’ve taken those first steps, already I’ve been conscious of the element of risk involved in all of this. Even in the small things, it still takes faith to step out and trust; but strangest of all, as I’ve stepped into those situations where I’ve felt God’s leading, I’ve been conscious of His hand in all of it. And that gives me confidence for the next step. Whatever that next step is.

So why not join me in that prayer: “God, give me Your dreams and not my own.”

Maybe join it with a short plea: “And give me the courage to take the next step.”

Maybe you have big dreams and you don’t know where to start, or maybe you switched off your capacity for dreaming altogether, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. God called you for a purpose in the first place, and He’s not too small to work that purpose out both in you and through you.

As the poet Anna Akmatova once put it:

Anything is possible

But he who walks there now

Will have to dream it stubbornly.

Time to start believing it.