Walking the space between what we have to do and what we love to do

Don’t seize up or blow up, fill up.

Footprints

It’s kind of basic to being a Christian. We want to know God’s will and follow it. You can’t call Christ ‘Lord, Lord’ and then go off and ignore what he says. We have to pursue obedience.

But for me the Christian life only works when we pursue joy as well.

My experience is that we try to do things faithfully and obediently but without joy we can manage to a certain extent—and we have to, because we all have to do stuff we don’t particularly like doing.

But if that’s all we do, and we do it for a long time, we start to run out of steam, get cynical, feel trapped. We may not know how it happened—we never wanted it to happen—but we know it has happened or is currently now happening. Externally we can look fine but internally, we know things are not so good.

(Of course the other side is true too. If we merely pursue pleasure and happiness, that too becomes rather empty.)

A kind of repentance

Somehow—it seems to me—the fruitful place is when we are under the influence of both faithfulness and joy. We obey Christ. But we lean towards, move into, preferentially choose, those tasks and roles that seem to answer a deep longing in our hearts, those things that nourish us, those things we love. ‘I have food’ said Jesus to the disciples, ‘of which you know nothing.’ He found joy and nourishment in his obedience.

Choosing joy as well is obedience is a kind of repentance. Why? Because it is turning away from a focus on jobs to be done and gaps to be filled and turning back to Christ himself. It is realizing, again, we have an audience of just One, and everything we do we do for him. It is seeking to have him re-create us again, a bit more in his image. It’s admitting our need and helplessness, not looking to him for a medal.

First light

First light: it isn’t dark: the sky is brightening, day is inevitable. But it isn’t day either, because the Sun has yet to rise in all its glory, transforming everything.

When the Sun rises, it touches the mountaintops first. The church is very like these mountains. We are positioned there in the night-time landscape. We ourselves are a mixture of darkness and light. But what makes us different is that without any merit on our part, without us even particularly doing anything, the Sun is shining on us.

Here in the night-time, we are already enjoying the day-time. God brings a little day-time to us, and through us a light is cast on a twilit world.

Something real has happened to us if we turned to Christ. The New Testament boldly states that when Christ gives someone a new heart, it’s a piece of the world to come: ‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!’

Then—like that sunlit mountain—we are a sign of something, and an example of something, to the world around.

It may not be the end of the world

But it is the end of a paradigm

As has been often observed, the old paradigm in the West is Christendom, and it’s disintegrating.

We now need to rethink this new day. But we have help.

The prophet Jeremiah also saw two paradigms in his own lifetime. He saw the idea of God’s-people-as-a-country, with its surface-mounted devotion, corrupt and hollow, collapse — the end of one paradigm.

At the same time he called on Jewish exiles in Babylon to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:7).

This was astonishing. God’s people are no longer a nation, Jeremiah was saying. They were to be more like a network. In his way, Jeremiah was as radical as Moses, radical enough to see what of Moses to scrap.

No more separation from the non-Jewish people around you, Jeremiah told the people of God: get stuck in. Keep your faith, but build a good city along with them.

No more Promised Land: now the God of the Promise, present with God’s people in every land.

No longer propping up an abandoned structure: now they were starting a new build. No longer a national focus: now a global one.

This echoes down into the New Testament, and is our call now.

Day 33 2014
Andy Atzert@flickr

 

What we lost

Not entirely as expected

New Years day
Nick Kenrick@flickr

The collapse of civilisation is, on current evidence, greatly exaggerated.

In the UK, teenagers are sobering up, youth courts are closing, fewer children are getting pregnant, crime is falling. Establishment hypocrisy and bullying (some of it ascribed to the church) is being exposed. Casual racism and discrimination are being challenged and people who were formerly above the law now seem to be being thrown in jail. And unlike my dad or my grandad, neither my son nor I have been obliged to serve the country as a soldier and, like them be shot at, shelled or gassed.

It may not last. But across the world (hard though it may be to believe), a smaller proportion of humanity is being killed by conflict, childbirth, childhood diseases, or mosquitos than in any human memory, living or collective.

An inconvenient grace

This is awkward in some church circles, especially in Europe and the West, where a story of national decline is as familiar as the story of Noah’s Ark:

  • Fewer people have a Christian outlook
  • God-centred morality is being replaced by harm-centred morality
  • National law is diverging from Biblical reference points.

The losses of living faith are I think real–witness the hulking, empty churches that surround us and once did buzz with people at least some of whom actually believed. But these losses of faith have happened in the middle of rising prosperity and health.

What then has been lost? May I suggest (among many things too complicated for me to understand) it is the shelter from the storm?

Shelter From the StormIt’s what happens the typhoon hits. In my observation people who don’t know Jesus don’t do too well when crises and losses come.  It’s like they haven’t anywhere to go, no one to lean into when great sorrow pours down from the sky or erupts within bodies or families.

This is so massively, incomparably different for those of us in churches and with faith in Jesus. We are just as angry, just as confused, just as wretched, but unjustly held and undeservedly loved. And superrationally happy.

That’s the loss.

The arms of love that comfort me would all mankind embrace.

 

‘Don’t die with your music still inside you’ – revisited

Fresh thinking on an idea that changed my life

on ne regrette rienIt’s not actually a Biblical idea; which is a problem.

I was galvanised when I first came across this phrase. Actually, since galvanised means ‘using electricity to coat something with zinc’, I wasn’t literally galvanised, but you know what I mean. The electrodes sizzled and cracked and I sat up sharply. A burst of electricity, and I had a new resilience.

Don’t die with your music still inside you. This was a sustaining thought during the dark period that followed my month-long coma in 2013. I tried to get back to health, for two reasons. To enjoy time with my family again. And to write the stuff that had been going on in my heart all my life. That phrase about ‘my music’ and ‘not dying’ was a sword for the fight.

I did recover, and it’s wonderful, and the stream of books I wanted to write has started to dribble. (See the sites for my fiction and my non-fiction.) I encourage everyone everywhere to take that phrase to heart and do something about it, whenever they can.

But as an idea, it isn’t quite true. It chimes with many Biblical themes: gifting, vocation. Everyone serving each other by doing what they love to do most.  But does it account for the obstacles and traps? For the stumbles in a broken world? For the person who gave themselves to caring for others rather than expressing the deep longings of their heart? For the child you lost or never had? For the fact that sometimes in our lives the night-time blinds are drawn in the middle of bright day?

Is it true that, for love’s sake, some people do ‘die with their music still inside them’?  Or does the brokenness of the world sometimes prevent it?

In truth, I think, everything in this pre-death life is just a preliminary. It’s just the starter for the eternal meal, and we don’t always even finish the starter. Our ‘music’ is not just for this life, but for eternity. Let’s hope some will emerge now, but anyways it will emerge later. It will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright now, that means it’s not the end.

Eternity isn’t just about marvelling over the unfolding creativity of God. We were built in his image. Through the  unravelling ages we will be creating—letting out the music—alongside him. 

The case for beguiling

Some of us need waking gently

A November 2015 survey asked British people for their response to being at the receiving end of a conversation about Jesus from a practising Christian.

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As well as leading us to a grudging admiration for the independence of thought and scepticism of the average Brit, what else can this teach us?

Perhaps the need to be beguiling, not direct, to give people a sniff, not a verse, to bide our time. Some of us take a long time to be woken in the mornings. 

wakeup

Vocation – refocussing in mid-career

An overworked leader changes course

 

TurnMy colleague Flora, from the mission where I work, wrote this:

Two years ago I took time out from ministry, having got near breaking point. This was the result of at least 8 years of trying to cover more than one leadership role. My time out enabled me to recognise that I also have an inbuilt tendency to fill gaps rather than let things fall apart. It has been hard to step away and see others struggle because I am no longer picking up pieces.

Five months of rest and reflection led me to realise I could not go back to team leadership. One of the problems when you are gifted in different areas and good at multi-tasking is discerning what God wants to do through you. In recent years I had come to recognise that at heart I am a mission mobiliser, encouraging people into the adventure of sharing the gospel cross-culturally. Part of my struggle was that I had become tied to a desk. Also, I knew that as a mission mobiliser with no time or opportunity to develop personal experience of cross-cultural evangelism I was at a severe disadvantage.

As I laid this before God I found Him opening up areas of ministry I would never have imagined. Eighteen months on I am in regular contact with refugees and asylum seekers of different nationalities in my city and have a number of Muslim friends. Through my church I am now involved in evangelism and discipleship, primarily with Iranians. Recently I had the joy of helping to baptise six new followers of Jesus!

At the same time God has opened up doors of opportunity and influence locally and nationally as a mission mobiliser.

Flora’s story echoed with me. Perhaps there are seasons when we have to fill gaps and serve our organisation. But it drains us, and it we know it. Unless gap-filling is our particular gift,  there comes a time when we have to get out, rethink, and get into what we love and are good at. For Flora, it took a sabbatical; for me illness.

Either way, a good move.

 

When suffering filters out the non-essentials

seek simplicity

A friend who is nursing a very sick wife wrote about how much they were enjoying talking and eating and Bible study and TV. That resonated with me.

Conversation, company, meals, devotion and story-telling: you don’t know how valuable they are till you’ve lost a lot of other things.

Illness can make you do that, pan for the gold. When a flow of suffering washes normal life away, you realise that gleaming among the residue was the treasure you’d been wanting all your life.

We often stumble into this gold, and then stumble away from it again.  Maybe suffering or illness helps refine our tastes. It’s interesting to compile a list of what does or doesn’t have this life-giving, joy-giving quality. Here’s my attempt — you may disagree:

Does:
  • People creating something together, for example in a sports team or an orchestra or a village fete
  • Pottering in the garden
  • Conversation
  • Meals together
  • Storytelling
  • Belonging
  • Being happily part of a family

Doesn’t:

  • People accumulating together but without community: queues, traffic jams, tourism
  • Email
  • Meetings
  • Eating ‘al desko’
  • Looking at a screen into the small hours
  • Death by Powerpoint
  • Being famous
  • Being wealthy

‘Slow mission’, I think, is about choosing these things — things that will exist in some form in eternity — over the things that will pass away?

The day the stars fell from the sky

Ice on roofWhen ice melts off a roof, you hear dripping and thawing for some time. Then, occasionally, a whole chunk falls off. I think I have lived through such a change in the UK. Census returns show it:

UK Census 2001 Christian: 71.7% No religion: 14:8%

UK Census 2011 Christian: 59.3% No religion: 25.1%

A piece of ice fell off the roof. When I was growing up, we theoretically believed in the ten commandments and the Sermon on the Mount.

School worship was vaguely Christian.

National celebrations like Armistice Day saw the country getting its Christian hardware out.

It was a staple of farce that the moment something immoral was happening in your house, the Vicar would call, and you were bothered.

In fairness it was all ripe for collapse, because not too many people believed in it really, though some did.

What has happened since has been:

  • The incineration of millions of old nominal Christians (after they died).
  • Their replacement by millions of younger people not brought up in Christian traditions
  • A new widely accepted story about what we believe.

The new normal

I blame the BBC for this latter point, though really our national broadcaster only reflects back to us our own thoughts. What is the new normal? All religions are treated equal and thereby categorized and thereby diminished. The BBC looks down on them all and ‘caters’ for them all, while believing in none of them.

The position from which it looks down is not defined, but is assumed to be somewhere liberal, reasonable, empirical, scientific:  a totally superior vantage point to where the poor saps who still follow ‘a religion’ lurk. Christians may prefer Fair Isle jumpers and fair trade coffee to beards and burkhas but really. All religions are the same and don’t lead anywhere. Though of course one must give them the utmost respect.

Ursa MajorThe Christian faith was like the constellation Ursa Major in the Northern hemisphere: always there, always indicating true north, always pointed out to children, always called the wrong thing, but everyone recognised it.

Now the stars have fallen from the sky.

Millions of thoughts flow from this, which might occupy other blogs. One is worth thinking about in passing.

It is a loss. Since the Emperor Constantine the European peoples bought into a project to unite every aspect of their lives– science, philosophy, trade, agriculture, birth, marriage, death–under the Lordship of Christ.However well or badly that worked out, we agreed on where the pole star was. Now it’s gone.

Interesting. Thoughts, anyone?

 

‘Chasing Slow’: great title, helpful book

Chasing Slow: Courage to Journey Off the Beaten PathChasing Slow: Courage to Journey Off the Beaten Path by Erin Loechner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The title was irresistible and was happy to promote this book up my reading shelf. This was the first time I’d come across Erin Loechner who is evidently famous in lots of places for her interior design (in the sense of homes, rather than souls. Though she’s not bad on the interior design of souls either.). Here are the pluses and minuses for me:

The pluses:
* Beautifully designed and very often beautifully written
* A personal life-story, nevertheless it’s crafted well enough to connect her story with ours and is stimulating and thought-provoking.
*It’s an enjoyable, fresh, challenging read.

The minuses
*I found the beginning (?more about hope, ambition and dreams) more interesting than the latter half of the book (more about the challenges of rearing a toddler and for me a bit more been-there-done-that)
* It’s about a blogger reflecting on her blogging life, which as a blog itself contained a lot of reflecting on life. Shades of someone looking at herself looking at herself looking at herself in two facing mirrors. In this sense, it’s quite millennial in its enthusiastic self-analysis, but that’s refreshing for a boomer like me.
* There are some lovely aphorisms in the book, but I got a little worn down by the sheer mass of cutesy one-sentence solutions by the end.

I certainly don’t mean to be harsh. I liked this book, and its writer, a lot and will recommend it to others. Bit more cutting would have made the diamond shine brighter.

** I picked this book up for free as an Adavanced Review Copy. There was no obligation to write a review, still less a positive review, but it’s a good book. **

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