It’s a bit uphill, admitting it at parties. Pulses probably don’t thrill when you whisper shyly, ‘I’m an administrator.’ Once I had to park at a small airport and my designated spot was next to the spot marked, ‘Chief Test Pilot’. I didn’t notice a parking space for ‘Chief Administrator’ and I probably wouldn’t have mentioned it anyway.
My project for 2021, and I’ve started early, is to read the Book of Acts in Greek, looking up all the interesting words as I go along. It’s a slow job (I don’t know Greek), which is good, because normally words fall on us like ticker tape in a parade, blizzards every day, and we are not good at processing them slowly.
The early Church was a kind of Ponzi scheme, it seems to me. New entrants were selling property and the proceeds were feeding a bunch of widows. I don’t wish to criticize, but it looks a bit unsustainable. Elsewhere in the New Testament we see Paul trying to regularize the Church benefits system, so perhaps he would agree.
Yet we Christians rave over the early church. Thousands were flocking in. Signs and wonders are done at the hand of the apostles. Even Peter’s shadow falling on people did the business. Many of the priests were becoming believers.
But because there were arguments over allocating funds between Hebrew-speaking (local?) widows and Greek-speaking (?diaspora) widows, the Twelve appointed seven (Greek-sounding to me) administrators. Middle-managers. In the midst of all the miracles and crowds. It was so cool for all these reasons:
They let the people choose the administrators. The apostles picked the best for the job, rather than cronies.
They didn’t say, ‘Bring the hard cases to us’ (like Moses did in a similar situation). They delegated completely to the administrators (or managers or in church usage, ‘deacons’). This is fascinating. Any accountant will tell you to follow the money if you want to see where the power is. And the apostles let someone else do the money.
The apostles were gutsy enough to stick to teaching and prayer. Remember they served a Jesus who had said, ‘You should wash each other’s feet.’ But they quit serving at tables. Did they ignore what Jesus had said? I think not. They rather figured things out about roles and giftings and went with where that led.
Admin was necessary even in the middle of miracles and rapid growth. There were so many miracles going on you would have thought that a couple of waves of Peter’s hand and you could’ve fed the lot, no admin problems and no Ponzi scheme. But that the wrong tree to be barking up, as they presumably quickly discovered. This new Kingdom, this thing to supplant the old arrangement, this taste of a new world, needed sound administration and proper management very soon after its start. The new church needed the power of the Holy Spirit and a pragmatic look at cashflow.
The regular readers of this blog, both of you, will know I’ve been exerpting chapters from my new book over the past weeks. Well, it’s finally finished and I’m really pleased with it. Here is the cover art:
It is, I hope, a fun refresher on some of the big themes of discipleship. A refreshing refresher, perhaps. If you click on this link here you can help yourself to a free copy that you can read on your phone, laptop, tablet, or Kindle.
(This is what publishers call an Advance Review Copy and it’s intended to generate reviews and whatnot, which are very welcome, but mostly it’s nice to have something to give away after what has been a stressful 12 months for many of us.)
It will be available for sale in all formats after publication day on Feb 19th 2021. Do share this free link in the meantime with anyone if you think they’d like it; it stops working on publication day. After that the title will be available in its various formats at Amazon, Eden and the like and orderable from any other bookshop worthy of the name.
Consuming two outstanding bits of media got me thinking about kindness. The first was the film Marvellous, a true story about a man with learning difficulties who served as a kit-man for a professional soccer team and was eventually awarded an honorary degree. The other was the first series of the terrifying and brilliant Line of Duty, once on the BBC, then on Netflix, then, suddenly, just on the BBC again. Both lingered in the mind long after we disconnected our video projector. (If we watch TV, we like to take up a whole wall.)
Without giving too many spoilers, Line of Duty, a police procedural, had some scenes where a person with learning difficulties was horribly abused by a drug gang. In the trade this is called ‘cuckooing’, using a vulnerable person’s flat as a drug-distribution centre.
The big difference between the uplifting Marvellous and the horrifying Line of Duty was not the vulnerability of the people with learning difficulties. It was that one encountered kindness, and the other didn’t.
Which did get me thinking.
Kindness is such a potent, invisible power. I find it helpful to think about people whom I disagree with and remember when they were kind. It helps me defuse personal animosity. Kindness, if you’ve ever shown any, is what people will speak about at your funeral. It will moderate you and moderate what people think of you. Kindness is remembered and treasured. Such a small thing–weightless, odourless, like God–but secretly infiltrating our minds, and changing us.
This appears as the introduction to my blog and is about fruitfulness: personal, social, in every season, and tracing a pattern established before we were born and which will still apply after we are dust.
‘Slow mission’ is about huge ambition–all things united under Christ–and tiny steps.
I contrast it with much talk and planning about ‘goals’ and ‘strategies’ which happens in the parts of church I inhabit, and which have an appearance of spirituality, but make me sometimes feel like I am in the Christian meat-processing industry.
Here’s a summary of slow mission values, as currently figured out by me:
Devoted. Centred on Christ as Saviour and Lord. Do we say to Christ, ‘Everything I do, I do it for you.’ Do we hear Christ saying the same thing back to us?
Belonging. We sign up, take part, dive in, identify, work with others, live with the compromises. Not for us a proud independence.
Respecting vocation. Where do ‘your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger’ meet?1. Vocation is where God’s strokes of genius happen. That’s where we should focus our energies.
To do with goodness. Goodness in the world is like a tolling bell that can’t be silenced and that itself silences all arguments.
Observing seasons. ‘There’s a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.’2.The world will be OK even if we check out for a while. (Note: our families, however, won’t be.)
Into everything. We are multi-ethnic and interdependent. We like the handcrafted. We are interested in all humanity and in all that humanity is interested in. Wherever there’s truth, beauty, creativity, compassion, integrity, service, we want to be there too, investing and inventing. We don’t take to being shut out. Faith and everything mix.
Quite keen on common sense. We like to follow the evidence and stick to the facts. We like to critique opinions and prejudices. We don’t, however, argue with maths. Against our human nature, we try to listen to those we disagree with us. We’re not afraid of truth regardless of who brings it. We want to be learners rather than debaters.
Happy to write an unfinished symphony. Nothing gets completed this side of death and eternity. What we do gets undone. That’s OK. Completeness is coming in God’s sweet time. ‘Now we only see a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.’3.
Comfortable with the broken and the provisional. Happy are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for right, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the laughed-at. This also implies a discomfort with the pat, the glib, the primped, the simplistic, the triumphalistic and the schlocky.
Refusing to be miserable. The Universe continues because of God’s zest for life, despite everything, and his insouciance that it will all probably work out somehow. In sorrows, wounds and in the inexplicable, we join God in his childlike faith.
The turn of the year isn’t a bad time to step back and look at the landscape in time and space across which we humans swarm. I did a summary of mission theology for our church’s Mission Sunday a few weeks ago. Here it is.
We can get a snapshot of mission theology, and the story since, by looking at three simple parables of the kingdom.
The banquet (Luke 14:15-13). The main ideas here are (1) A great party in heaven. (2) Some people refuse the invitation. (3) The master of the banquet orders more people to be invited- first the poor and disabled, then people everywhere, whether they are on the great thoroughfares or sheltering in the hedgerows.
2. The yeast. (Matthew 13:33). A very simple picture of how God’s rule extends from a tiny start to work through and transform a vast batch of flour in its entirety.
3. The mustard seed. (Matthew 13:30-31). A similar tiny start, but this time something grows so that birds can perch in. If yeast is about the invisible influence of the Kingdom, perhaps the mustard seed is about visible structures.
What do these parables look like after 2000 years (fifty generations) of Christian influence in the world?
We have a better sense just of how big the world is, and its complexity: 200+ countries; 7000 languages (though about 40% of these are small and endangered like Cornish or Manx); more than 10,000 ethnic groups, who typically marry among themselves and often speak their own language. Minority ethnic groups in the UK might include, for example, the Roma, Irish Travellers, Welsh-speaking Welsh, who exist alongside the majority British. All countries are a patchwork of ethnic groups, and most of our ethnic labels are fuzzy and situational (are you Asian, Glaswegian, Scottish, British or European? Or Catalan or Spanish? Or a Batak or an Indonesian?) Jesus’ command to ‘make disciples of all nations’ or ‘make disciples of all ethnic groups’ is thus like working inside a turning kaleidoscope. The overriding idea is not ticking off boxes on a spreadsheet but missing no one out and bringing a unity in Christ to all the diversity.
Refusal and the gospel going elsewhere. This is a clear pattern in history. People get blasé about the benefits of God’s rule among them. Paul writes of Jews (mostly) rejecting the gospel so it was taken to the Gentiles. This pattern repeats again and again – the gospel moves from those who are familiar with it to those who have not heard it. Christianity declines in Europe, stalls in Korea, grows in China.
The ‘yeast’ parable is surely about extending God’s rule into everything we influence, so far as it depends on us. It affects who we are and what we do every day. The ‘yeasty’ effect of 2000 years of God’s people in the world is impossible to untangle from other historical influences but is surely significant and is fascinating to speculate about. Why is forgiveness a virtue? Why do we believe in history at all, in progress, in transformation? Where does the idea of equality come from? Or the dignity of every human, or the value of a child? Some of these things have roots in the yeasty lives and behaviour of Christians.
The ‘mustard seed’ parable, if it is about visible structures, also has a story to tell. If you roughly count ‘census Christians’ (ie people who would notionally tick the Christian box on a census form, and who are, therefore, visible and countable), the numbers have climbed from 12, to 120, to 3000 (all in AD 33) to 522 million in 1900 (34.5% of the world) and to 2.4 billion (32.3%) in mid- 2020.1 Decline in Europe (another example of refusal) has been offset by growth in Africa, Latin America, China, and S E Asia.
Thus our challenge as a Church is to be everything we can be for God within the networks he has put us in; not to forget the poor and disabled; and to be generous-hearted and diligent in begetting good news to forgotten or neglected groups.
Another article dredged from my archives, lest I am ever guilty of deliberately harbouring an unpublished thought. It is due to appear in my forthcoming book ‘The Sandwich‘ and was written for the Singaporean magazine for which I used to work. I am pleased to report that the children described in the article both ended up with Master’s degrees from Cambridge University, and that we all survived their childhood. Somehow.
Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it (Mark 10:15)
Christ said we must become as little children to enter the Kingdom of heaven. Dear God, this is too much. Have we got to become such idiots? (Protestant reformer Martin Luther, c. 1538)
Our children normally have a banana for breakfast and I have got into the habit of ringing it up before we eat it.
‘Hello, are you a banana?
‘Would you like to be eaten today?
‘Oh, alright then.
‘OK Thanks! Bye’
Presumably this little game will one day cease to be entertaining for the kids in the morning. (I hope quite soon.)
However, I was doing this one morning recently when my five-year-old daughter suddenly spoke up.
‘It’s not the banana talking at all! It’s you!’
I looked at her out of the corner of my eye, Has she only just realized this? I thought. Has she thought all these months and years that you can ring bananas up? And that they talk back? I wondered what else was going on, unsuspected by me, between her ears.
‘You’re right’ I admitted. ‘It’s me.’
Wet and wild
I work from home, in an upstairs room overlooking our garden, so I sometimes get to watch our three-year-old playing on his own: tramping about in his red wellies (rubber boots), watering the plants, digging in the sandpit. He shovels out sand and heaps it into his tractor. He collects stones in a bucket. He stirs the sand round and round with a stick, all the time talking. ‘Mum, I’m a collector. I’m collecting things.’ ‘Mum, I’m baking a cake. It’s a chocolate cake. With lemons.’ His mind, I observe, seems like a home you’ve just moved into: all the furniture’s there, but it hasn’t been straightened out quite yet.
In his book Queen of Angels, science fiction writer Greg Bear writes about an age when psychotherapy and computer modelling are so advanced that therapists will be able to take computer-aided journeys round the landscape of people’s minds, investigating the country and solving deep traumas.
Brilliant and daring though he is, he never speculates on the insides of a child’s mind. I can imagine why: it’s too wild. Certainly my kids’ minds are like that, mad, happy tea-parties where disconnected ideas and talking bananas jostle together.
It can’t be true
A child’s mindset is interesting in the same way the roller-coaster ride called Space Mountain in Euro-Disney outside Paris is interesting: riding it you’re completely in the dark and you don’t know where you’re going to be thrown next.
But it’s also interesting because, as we know, a child’s mind is a holy thing, a thing we must emulate if we are to get in on the kingdom of God. A child’s mind is nearer to the kingdom of God than a grownup’s. How can this be? Here are two ideas:
Wonder. Children know about wonder; grownups have to relearn it. Remember the answer Jesus gave to John the Baptist’s question, ‘Are you the one that was sent?’: the Lord Jesus told the questioners ‘The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.’ (Luke 7:22). ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him,’ says the apostle Paul (1 Cor 2:9). ‘Dear friends, now we are children of God,’ adds John, ‘and what we will be has not yet been made known.’ (1 John 3:2).
According to the New Testament, we are seeing the first, outriding snowballs of goodness tumbling down heaven’s mountainside into our lives; an avalanche will follow. As Christians we have every reason to develop a childlike capacity for wonder. Outrageous, lovely things really do happen. The future will be rich with them.
Relationship. Children have the enviable ability to have their problems solved with a hug. As grownup Christians we think a hug is not enough. But it is enough. ‘Peace I leave with you,’ says the Lord Jesus, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid’ (John 14:27). ‘Do not be anxious about anything,’ says Paul, shockingly; instead, ‘present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus’ (Phil 4: 6-7).
It is characteristic of Jesus that in the toughest times he does not explain things. Instead, he showers us with love and peace. It isn’t (rational, modern) explanation or (shrugging, post-modern) escapism we need; it is enough to be loved. Children know it; adults forget it.
At the heart of the Universe — we need to remember– is not a series of laws, nor something blind and chaotic, but a Good Person whom we do well to know (as children easily accept). His normal speech is what we call the laws of universe; his special words of love are what we call signs and wonders; fail to see him and we miss everything.
Maybe we should not be so committed to edifices of adult thought. Maybe the foolish playfulness of God, the God of talking bananas, is a surer foundation. We need the playful mind of a child to keep up with the rampant gaiety of a good God. Try this song as a quick summary of all we need to know (though in our case sung to Jesus rather than to a lover):
‘I don’t believe in many things, but in You, I do, I do.’
Here’s another piece I wrote for the Singaporean magazine for newish Christians and which is destined for my forthcoming book The Sandwich.
Prayerlessness requires real effort on our part.
When the Holy Spirit brushes against your soul, you need to brush him off. When you see a need, you should suppress the desire to bring it to God. When you sense a flame rising in your heart for God or eternity, you must douse it.
Practice, of course, helps. With dedication you can coat your heart with a solid shell that resists most holy urges. But even so, if we are Christians, every day we are buffeted by any number of nudges, longings, sorrows, questions and needs that prompt us to go and find God. It’s hard work to dodge them all.
The root cause
I think the reason for our prayerlessness is mostly the same reason that we don’t eat a proper diet, read improving books, make that call to a friend, or learn the piano. It’s that in the moment, we decide to play on our phone or flick through our social networks instead. We say no to prayer when we should be saying yes, or yes to some attractive thing when we should be saying no to it, and the accumulation of thousands of those moments eventually hardens and forms us into what we are and will be: I didn’t learn the piano, I didn’t look after my body, and I’ve just declined my millionth invitation to meet Jesus in prayer.
Yes, we are urged to pray
Do we need to pray? Er, yes:
‘Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people’ (Eph 6:18). ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God’ (Phil 4:6). ‘Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful‘ (Col 4:2). ‘Pray continually‘ (1 Thess 5:17). ‘I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people’ (I Tim 2:1). ‘Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed’ (James 5:16).
Then we notice that Jesus was quite happy to live as a human being, but he did not seem to manage life as a prayerless human being. Sometimes he stayed up late to pray. Sometimes he got up early. Sometimes his disciples just caught him praying. Ministry decisions? He prayed. Healing? Ditto. Feeding thousands? Ditto ditto. Personal crises? In the desert, in the garden, didn’t matter. He called on God. He called on God until he was satisfied. You would say there was something of a pattern there.
What if you’re too busy?
Perhaps you are too busy?
I refuse to believe anyone is too busy to pray. To my way of thinking, the busiest people most of us ever meet are parents with young children. Babies poop, cry, need comfort, get hungry, get mad and never hesitate to get in touch. They tend not to be all that patient either. Parents of such creatures, especially when not helped by others, are busier than a general fighting a war. Show me a young mum doing most of the caring of two small children and I will show you a sleep-deprived zombie who is too busy to finish a sentence, let alone a meal, and for whom a bathroom break is a triumph of battlefield planning.
And yet she has time to pray. When the kid is sleeping, or plugged onto her breast, or being wheeled up and down a corridor in the pit of night, she has time to reach out to God. Her prayers may not be coherent, but that doesn’t matter. Coherence can be overdone. She’s slurping an energy-drink at the spiritual ringside, ready for another round.
Honestly, you’re not too busy to pray.
So what is the cure?
Is there a cure? There is.
First. Understand you can be more fluent in the things of God and prayer. Look around your church. Some people have mastered it. Some people know God and walk with him every day. There are even some people–plenty of people actually—who are quiet and hesitant in social settings, but when they are switched over to prayer-mode they turn confident and eloquent. When they start to pray these people are like an academic walking into a library or an alcoholic opening a bottle of Scotch. They’re home. Heaven is their happy place, even while they keep one foot on earth. You can be a bit more like them.
Second. Understand what happens when you pray and what happens when you don’t. To turn to God in prayer is to access a secret, invisible world where you can pull levers that change things on earth and where you can come face to face with Christ.
Missing out on prayer, on the other hand, means that part of us lies forever fallow. Part of us that could be fruitful, colourful, playful, remains unploughed, unsown, and the butterflies must flutter elsewhere. All of us have areas of our life like that: but our prayer life never needs to be one of them.
More than that, if you don’t pray you’re mostly stuck with earthly solutions to everything. This is not great.
Third. There are a million possible solutions to the issue of prayerlessness. I suggest they all flow from a single principle. Combatting prayerlessness requires some mixture of discipline and spontaneity. This is the same way we become fluent in other areas of life, such as keeping fit or learning a musical instrument.
We need to build in some regular habits, but we also have to remind ourselves that keeping up the habit is not the aim. Enjoying God and being with him is the aim. It’s like practising the piano. We don’t practise so that we can say ‘I practised’. We practise so that we can make music.
How do we practise prayer? It surely varies with each individual and each season of life. It’s good to find out from other people what does and doesn’t work for them. Then see what works for you. Here’s my list; your friends will have other lists.
Schedule a regular time- either a part of a day or a number of minutes in the day. You might start small: ten minutes. Then you might get more ambitious. I have a friend who as a young Christian decided to tithe his waking hours. A tithe of sixteen waking hours is 96 minutes. For some years he aimed, and mostly kept, to the plan of either studying his Bible or praying for 96 minutes a day. Things changed, I am told, when he got married; but it was a good discipline for a long time.
If you’re married, get into the habit of praying together every day. My wife and I do this every night. We didn’t always. But it’s a good habit.
Decide that you are going to pray even when the situation is non-optimal. It isn’t perfect to pray in the corridor at work as you walk to the toilet; but it’s not a bad moment to turn over whatever’s on your mind before God.
If you can’t get alone, write or type your prayers. People will think you are just fooling with your phone.
Reclaim your insomnia. Can’t sleep? Pray. Stay in bed if you like. So your mind drifts? Well, steer it back. Non-optimal, half-sleepy prayer is better than no prayer at all, like a sleepy kiss is better than no kiss at all. Stop waiting for everything to be perfect.
Don’t always use words. It’s OK just to be in God’s presence. Sometimes you don’t have words.
Alternatively, it’s OK to speak words if that helps and it’s OK just to pray in your heart if that helps.
Sign up for some regular prayer food. This can help broaden your horizons. I recently started working with the Operation World prayer ministry. They have an app that you can access every day and thus pray for the world over a year. Many groups have similar initiatives.
Try things. Pray through the alphabet – pray for something beginning with A, then something beginning with B, and so on. Pray through the psalms. Use the Lord’s prayer as a set of headings.
Try a total immersion method. If your church has 24-7 prayer room, or prayer event, sign up for an hour and see what happens.
You get the idea.
Bonus material: my scientist friend Ruth Bancewich has also been blogging (and experimenting) on prayer. Here‘s her helpful thoughts.
About not living on fumes: being an extract from my new book which might be called ‘The Sandwich’.
Here’s a new extract from my new book, ‘The Sandwich’, originally written for a magazine in Singapore that is aimed at young adults taking early steps of faith.
Two passages in the New Testament record people’s shock when they are shut out of the Kingdom of God at the last day. They can’t believe it. In one passage, people complain, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets!’ (Luke 13:22-30). In the other, they go even further: ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?‘ (Matthew 7:15-23).
‘I don’t know where you are from,’ Jesus says to those who lived in his neighbourhood. ‘I never knew you’, he says to those who worked spectacular miracles in his name. What does he mean?
In both these examples, things look fine on the surface, but underneath, there’s nothing.
More of the same
Plenty of other places in the Bible talk about situations where people looked good for a time, or even worked miracles in Christ’s name, but shared the same deep lack. They were running on fumes, not on steady supplies of fuel.
The parable of the Sower talks about seeds that sprout and quickly grow, but never come to harvest.
Judas Iscariot went with the other disciples on preaching tours, healing and driving out demons. He looked just like a proper apostle but was always a thief and was found out in the end.
In Ephesus, some Jewish exorcists tried casting out demons in the name of Jesus. It worked until one day they were mauled by a demonized person and barely managed to escape alive.
In the Old Testament a prophet for hire named Balaam prophesied accurately about the people of God, but money rather than God owned his heart. The New Testament warns us several times of Christian-era Balaams (see 2 Peter 2:15 and Jude 11).
Frequently, the Bible warns us against people who look good but are in fact, bad. ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.’ (Matthew 7:15). Beware ‘false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 11:13). ‘They are blots and blemishes, revelling in their deceptions, while they feast with you’ (2 Peter 2:13).
Knowing and being known
Jesus says to all these surprised people, who looked so good, ‘I never knew you.’ What does he mean? And does he mean us?
It can’t mean that there is anything God doesn’t know about us. He is God. He’s measured our shoe size, counted the hairs on our head, heard every word of our self-talk. He knows when we meant well. He knows when we say we meant well but really didn’t. He knows everything about us and judges it with an utter fairness. Every good point we might want him to consider – he will already have listed it. Everything we’d rather he hadn’t seen – he will have seen that too. We are entirely exposed to him, even if we would wish to cover some bits up.
Yet there is another sort of knowing. If you fell in love with someone from afar, you might over time learn a lot about him or her. Stalkers, who turn this kind of behaviour into criminal obsession, may learn a lot more, all the facts – creepily so. But all that is nothing compared with the knowledge of actually knowing that person as your boyfriend or girlfriend. It’s that heart-to-heart knowledge, that relational knowledge, that openness to each other, that Jesus seems to mean when he says, ‘I never knew you.’ I never knew you like that.
This personal, heart-to-heart knowing is a two-way thing. Paul puts it like this to the Galatians, ‘Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again? (Galatians 4:8-9). Jesus says simply, ‘I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me’ (John 10:14).
Pride makes us stupid, but humility lets us see and know.
This opening of the heart to the Other, to God, is what some of us so strenuously avoid. I can go along with the Christian crowd. I can even get involved in all kinds of spiritual fireworks, impressing everyone with the show, just don’t let me face him heart to heart, naked and unarmed. Let me keep busy in his name instead. Or let me just gingerly tread around him and his call, keeping a respectful distance: ‘Oh yes, I know him well, I’m quite familiar with the teaching.’
This is such a huge theme of the Bible. Adam hides behind a tree, not a brilliant strategy when the one looking for you is All-Seeing. ‘These people worship me with their mouths but their hearts are far from me’ says Isaiah, quoted later by Jesus, and identifying a later group of Adams sheltering behind a tree of religiosity (Mark 7:6).
‘Here I am!’ Jesus says to the smug and all-knowing Christians of Laodicea. ‘I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me’ (Revelation 3:20 NIVUK). Don’t hold me at a distance, cool and sardonic and flip. Face me. Meet me.
Knowing is trusting is following
This heart-to-heart knowing, this relational knowledge, is bound up with trusting. If you are emerging from your hiding place, laying down your weapons, taking off your headphones, and facing God defenceless, argument-less and alone, then necessarily you are trusting him to deal with you kindly and well.
Necessarily you are also committing yourself to do what he says. So another way of looking at ‘knowing’ is ‘trusting and obeying’. This is God’s ‘firm foundation’: ‘But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his”, and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity”’ (2 Timothy 2:19).
It is a surrender. That is why it is so simple and so terrible. It is why (I think) the biggest barrier between anyone knowing God and being known by him is not ignorance but pride. God can take a humble person a long way even if they have just a few sandwiches in their mental lunchbox; a proud genius with all the world’s information on a smartphone will still be blundering in the dark. Pride makes us stupid, but humility lets us see and know. But when you surrender, when you trust and follow, knowing him and being known, there is healing for your wounds, rest for your tired bones, comfort for your sorrows, forgiveness for your rebellions and stubbornness, energy for your serving, and quietness and happiness and glory.
Being a chapter from my new book which might be called ‘The Sandwich’.
Yes, I took August off, and a bit of September, which is the advantage of writing a blog called ‘slowmission.’ As a new(ish) born grandad of a two-year-old and a five-month-old I had things to do in August, mostly involving lying still in a dark room.
I used the lockdown to write two little books. One has been brewed from all the blog articles I’ve done and I hope to say more about that soon. The other I want to share over the coming weeks. This title might end up being The Sandwich, because it explores the way Christian believers are sandwiched between the promises of God and the world we all know, where you stub your toe, lose your keys, and worry.
The Sandwich, if indeed we end up calling it that, started life as a series of columns I wrote for a magazine in Singapore. This magazine was aimed at the many young adults who were finding faith in God for the first time. Here’s a chapter.
You just can’t get the heroes these days. In previous eras of church history, the world seemed to be full of clean-limbed individuals who lived hard-working and praiseworthy lives while preaching the gospel, shutting the mouths of lions and being sawn in two, often all at once.
Today we live in a world where even the best of us are seen as badly flawed. And even those squeaky-clean saints of former years have been re-graded. No decent biography or obituary is complete these days without a listing, tactful or otherwise, of a few of the subject’s faults and misdemeanours.
Like a photo culled from the web and then enlarged, heroes don’t seem to have that fine-grained resolution that means their lives look good on billboards.
To take just one example, the pioneering founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth, fearless fighter for the poor and needy, once got so mad with his children that he took a gun and shot the family dog. When he realized how upset they were, he had it stuffed and brought back into the house. Then he got mad again because they didn’t thank him. He was one of many leaders down to the present time who were perhaps better pioneers than they were parents. How many children of Christian heroes could tell stories of tyranny? Plenty.
It was also said of Booth that orders he gave were to be obeyed without question. However, if anyone tried to give orders to him, he was free to ignore them because he must obey God and not men. This is a handy tip for team-working that I expect you to file for later use.
It’s better this way
Yet even in this cynical age, we Christians can still fall into the beguiling trap of hero worship. This is how it seems to work. We go along in the Christian life like Goldilocks, finding some things too hot for us, and other things too cold; some things too wild, other things too tame. Then we stumble upon someone who just seems to have everything just right. We like what they say or write. Or we like their churches, or their leadership. It’s such a relief to find them. These people seem to embody just what we aspire to in Christian living. What heroes they are. We start collecting recordings of their talks and buying their books.
The apostle Paul found plenty of hero-worship when he listened to a report about the church he planted in Corinth. Some people thought he, Paul, was everything you could wish for in an apostle. Others preferred the eloquent and powerful speaker Apollos. Still others spoke fondly of Peter, who of course had worked with Jesus for three years, was presumably a fund of colourful stories, and of whom Jesus had said, ‘on this rock I will build my church.’
Paul wouldn’t have any of it. I think he found hero-worship, at its root, a sign of not-being-properly-grown-up. He told the Corinthians, we are all your servants.
So two things: your hero isn’t perfect, and he will let you down. And those other guys who you already know aren’t perfect, and who you think don’t quite get it right, maybe they have things to say into your life after all. By extension this is true of denominations and movements too. All kinds of Christian writers on the bookshelf can bless you. Bible-Presbyterians and charismatics can both feed your soul. In my view.
You’re the ones in charge of your lives, concludes Paul. Don’t follow people or movements blindly or totally. Weigh things. Take responsibility. Be your own person before God.
That’s a sample of what Paul was always saying to new Christians, of course: don’t be faddish, don’t be blown off course, don’t be a slave to the latest trends, be deeply rooted in God for yourself.
Remember their faith
There is another side to this, though. Let’s not be hero-worshippers. But let’s not cut everyone and everything down to our puny size either.
When the writer of the letter to the Hebrews wanted to stiffen the spines of the people he was writing to he reminded them of the saints of the past. He didn’t claim they were perfect, or that we should model our lives on theirs exactly. He didn’t set them forth as an example of how it should be done, in the good old days, when saints were real saints. But he did say, ‘consider their faith’.
They weren’t perfect, but they stuck it out. They failed, their hearts failed sometimes, it was difficult – the Bible is full of their failings — but they stuck it out.
Paul says the same to Timothy, almost his last written words: ‘You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings …’ (2 Tim 3: 10-11)
And then he says,
‘Continue in what you have learned.’ Stick it out like I did. Do better than me, learn from my mistakes, do things differently, but stick it out. Keep the faith.
It comes to this
In summary, then, how do we treat Christian heroes? Well, don’t build your life on them. Take what they have to give. And remember their faith.
You wouldn’t want to do things exactly the way William Booth did. He got a lot wrong. But the poor lined the streets for his funeral. His children followed him into ministry. The organization he founded still bears fruit generations later. He kept the faith. A (flawed) hero. Just like you.
Still slightly obsessing about the so-called ‘Lord’s prayer’; so fascinating that the first half of it is big global things and the second half is local, personal things, sky-wide things and fingertip things.
The prayer for daily bread, that kicks off the second half, is intriguing. There’s a one-off appearance of a word: ἐπιούσιος (epiousios). This word only appears in the two references to the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6 and Luke 11), and nowhere else in the New Testament, and nowhere else in Greek literature anywhere. Ever. At all. Rowan Williams, who was an archbishop once, and who lives in our city, says the exact meaming has remained ‘elusive’. Indeed. Guesses include the word ‘needful’. ‘Give us each day our needful bread.’
It may also be related to the verb ἐπιοῦσα (epiousa) which seems to mean, ‘to come later.’ Williams suggests ‘bread of tomorrow’ I think, and that makes sense since it follows from the lines about ‘your kingdom come’ and ‘your will be done’. Give us each day a foretaste of tomorrow, as it were. Alternatively, it might mean, give us what we will need today for what will come later today.
Either way, it’s the ‘daily’ I like. It is interesting how much prayer in practice and in my observation is conveniently shuffled into the future. Now at one level this is fair enough: the answer may happen in the future. But Jesus teaches us to pray about today, pray about what you need today, today, today. Give me the needful bread today. Give me a taste of the future today. Give me it today. Not necessarily everything I’m going to need, but everything I’m going to need today.
I’ve seen prayer for healing done so badly. I’ve watched churches pray for people with cancer. Heal them sometime, in the future, please, at some point, ideally before they peg out. Pray this way if you want but it is not what Jesus taught us to do. Give us what we need for today, today.