What’s Church For? Dying of Encouragement


It’s amazing how a change gives new perspective. Having escaped from a situation of abuse and bullying I’m now getting my feet under the table as a Diocesan Officer, a role I enjoyed ten years ago in Wales. As I get to know my new Diocese two phrases come back into my mind: ‘Morale is very low around here’ and ‘The first task of a leader is to define reality’.


I do understand the importance of encouragement; I really do. I know it gets the best out of people, makes them feel less useless etc etc. I just don’t find it easy, because my natural instinct is to define reality, and when it comes to the Church the reality is far more often than not anything but encouraging.


Recently I had to wade through a pile of forms returned by the parishes of our Diocese. One of the questions was ‘What Christian initiative is making the biggest impact in your area?’ When I saw more than one church answering ‘Bingo’ to that question, I have to confess I didn’t feel encouraged, although I suppose even that was preferable to the many forms which simply said ‘None’. But, of course, morale is very low round here, so you are only allowed to be encouraging. 

Call me a nasty heretic, but I have a theory. My theory is that the main reason why morale is low is that church leaders are so busy trying to feel encouraged that they never get around to stopping, looking around, and saying ‘This is just dire!’ We’re so busy dying of encouragement that we seldom reach the point of despair, the kind of despair which drives us to our knees to cry out to God that this stuff just isn’t working and that we desperately need something new. We sometimes might weep for ourselves, but rarely do we weep for the Church, and for the nation which is going to hell in a handcart under our ineffectual noses. But at the end of the day, playing ‘Let’s pretend’ doesn’t fool anyone, and trying to keep up the pretence is exhausting.


I’m currently planning a roadshow to take around the Diocese to launch a discipleship initiative, and what I would really love to see is our Bishop breaking down in tears, throwing himself onto the floor and screaming out to God for his mercy, his forgiveness, his renewal of his Church. What we’ll probably do is a nice Anglican prayer with a little response after each paragraph, because that’s what we do in our dignified, understated way, and we’ll probably go away feeling a little bit more encouraged at the end of the evening. You can’t win ‘em all.


But there is a real tension here, between reality and encouragement. Personally I have found nothing encourages me more than coming face to face with my utter uselessness, my total dependence on God, my desperate, gut-wrenching need of his Spirit, and my complete inability to build anything at all of value without him. As a Diocesan Officer I’m not supposed to go around the place telling churches they’re useless: that really would be bad form, even if it was the reality. But if only a few churches could come to that realisation by themselves, and if only we could create a culture where fervent and tearful intercession was allowed, we might start to be more encouraged that we’d ever dreamed.


OT Lectionary Aug 3rd Trinity 7 Is 55:1-5

File:Derby Cathedral - June 2008.jpg 

When we lived in Derby I loved going to the Easter Eve extravaganza at the Cathedral, a truly splendid feast of liturgical excellence and celebratory joy. But the highlight for me was to process out at the end of the service, at around midnight, into the thumping heart of Derby’s Nightclub district, for the ‘Proclamation of the Easter Gospel’. It was really powerful to hear the words ringing through the air: ‘The one you are looking for is not here: he is risen!’ I don’t actually know how much impact this actually had on the passing clubbers, but I found it a moving and memorable occasion.


This passage from the prophecy of Isaiah has something of this feel to it. At a first reading it looks as though God is calling the exiles, those who for decades have lived displaced and hard lives, to come back to him and receive, through his grace, the good things which are freely available to them. Indeed it may have this meaning. But there is another theme which brings this interpretation into question. The ‘summoning of the nations’ motif, which is common in Isaiah, comes in in verse 5. The OT is full of reminders that the calling of God’s chosen people is not merely to their own nation: they are to be messengers of God’s grace to the nations. So might the be a passage which hops about between being addressed to Israel and to the pagan nations for whose blessing Israel exists? And might the appeal of verses 1 to 3 to ‘come, buy, eat’ be addressed not only to Israel but also to those currently outside the covenant? Is the prophet saying, in effect, ‘What you’re looking for is not to be found where you’re looking!’? This would also make sense of the following verses.


It is a sad reflection that God’s people, whether in Israel or in the Church, need to be called back to him, and reminded that it’s all free, paid for by grace alone. We should already know that, and be living in that truth. But it’s a real challenge for us to think that others, outside our faith, might be attracted to God when they see our splendour (v5).


No doubt there is a link here. The almost total lack of people coming running to the church might have something to do with our lack of splendour. I can remember a preacher long ago wishing for the time when the Prime Minister would ring up the Archbishop of Canterbury and say ‘Help me, man of God! What can I do about unemployment, or the economy, or whatever. I need God’s wisdom!’ As far as I’m aware this dream does not often become reality in British politics, but Isaiah hold before us the hope that I might, or indeed will. When the church can convincingly say to the world ‘What you’re looking for is not to be found where you’re looking!’ we might see some more people come running. But before we can do that we need God’s splendour, a splendour which can only come when we ourselves learn more and more what it is to seek God’s grace, and, abandoning all the stuff which this world tells us will bring fulfilment, live wholeheartedly for him. While we continue as weak and compromised as we so often are, nobody else will have any interest in us.


The God who Speaks

An excerpt from chapter three of God’s Upgrades … My Adventures, published by Authentic and available from all taxationally ethical bookshops.


‘You really do need to buck your ideas up!’ my university Tutor told me. ‘If you fail your Part 1s, you’re out.’ I decided to face reality. ‘Statistically speaking, how many people who fail their prelims do get themselves together and carry on successfully?’ I asked. ‘Hardly any at all,’ he replied encouragingly. I asked if I could go away and think about it. For the next six weeks I did no work at all, went to no lectures or practicals, until eventually the admin office chased me up to see what I had decided to do. By then the decision had been made for me: I was irretrievably behind, and would have no option but to drop out. I still occasionally wake up with nightmares about this period, and am so relieved when I come to and realise that was all 43 years ago and I’m OK now.

So faced with the twin sorrows of leaving my friends (and my new girlfriend) behind and facing the wrath of my parents, I plunged into depression. What on earth was I going to do with my life now? I had decided years ago that teaching was for me, and chemistry had been my favourite subject at school, but now all that was gone. What was I for now? It was into this mood that for the first time I heard God speak to me.

On the campus at York was a Henry Moore sculpture, one of those family groups with holes through their middles. One afternoon I was standing looking at it (I’m not sure why) when I heard God. Not an audible voice, but inside my head the words were as clear as day. I heard him say ‘I know you’ve given up on me, but I haven’t given up on you. I still have a plan for your life.’ That’s it, and it took about as long to happen as it just took you to read those words. Then it was all over, but that brief moment of download gave me just about the greatest upgrade I’d ever had.

First of all, it was a brand new experience to hear God speak at all. Of course there had been lots of sermons about how prayer is meant to be a two-way conversation, and we had to listen as well as present our shopping lists, but no-one had ever modelled it to me or taught me in real terms what that meant. The only prayer I’d ever experienced was strictly a one-way street. So a God who actually communicated was a stunning novelty. Yet I could no more deny what I’d heard than fly to the moon. It was that real.

Then there was what he said. It was so unlike the God I’d been brought up to fear. If he had anything to say to me it would be to tell me to get my act together, stop doing all those naughty student sins and go back to church, or else I’d find myself in the eternal frying pan. But instead I heard the voice of one who still wanted me, who was sad that I’d neglected him but who still wanted, in the words of Mr Robinson, to show me his will so that I could get on with it. And, although I didn’t understand it at the time, was secretly sharpening and polishing me for a purpose even greater than I could have imagined. Nothing could have prepared me for a God of such grace and love. I was completely blown away in the few seconds that encounter took, and my life was literally turned around. I began to seek God afresh, not because I was frightened of his vengeance, but because I was genuinely excited about the possibilities he was holding out before me. I had no idea what they might be, but I still wanted to go with it. This really was the start of an adventure.

OT Lectionary 27th July Trinity 6 1 Kings 3:5-12


‘Ask for whatever you want me to give you’ – now there’s a challenge! What would you ask for?

A few years ago I was preaching on the National Lottery in a series on big issues. Is it OK for Christians to buy tickets? Is it just a bit of harmless fun? Is it a way to give to charity? In spite of having been brought up in a family where gambling was second only to genocide on the league table of sins, I decided that purely for research purposes I ought to buy a ticket before I spoke on the subject.

national lottery photo: National Lottery 20-ThoughtsOnTheLottery.jpg

I spent the week running up to my sermon knowing in my head that statistically I had no chance of winning anything, yet spending time fantasising about what I would do if I did. After all, someone has got to win! I mentally spent my £7 million several times over, and it was almost a relief when the draw happened and I had, as expected, thrown £1 down the drain. I could stop dreaming and get on with real life.

But what if God were to appear and offer us anything we wanted, guaranteed? Like Solomon, we’d be faced with a fundamental choice: wish stuff for ourselves or for others? Ask for something which I feel would make my life better, or something which would bless others? This reflects a choice we make, actually, most days. We make it in small ways: should I just drop my litter on the pavement because it’s convenient, or walk all the way over there to the bin because it would make town nicer for others if there were no rubbish all over the place? And we make it in big ways: do I vote at the General Election for the party I believe will make my life better, of the one which will benefit society at large (assuming of course that I can find one like that). And of course churches as well as individuals can make this decision. I’m reminded of the Welsh-speaking chapel which became swallowed up in the Cardiff conurbation, and saw an influx of non-Welsh speakers, but chose to continue to hold Welsh-language service because that’s the way they liked it. Needless to say they were dead within a generation, and you won’t need me to develop the other implications of this parable any further.

Note also that this decision comes for Solomon as a new phase of his life begins: he’s brand new to the job of being king, and pretty nervous about it. New starts give us opportunities to ask ourselves again ‘What do we really want?’ And are we more interested in blessing, or being blessed?

What we pray for reflects our heart. And of course the choices we make have implications. However, many would testify to the goodness of God who, when we make right choices, often gives us the other stuff as well.


Early Years

What did I learnFront only about God in my early years? This is going to be difficult for me to write about, because I can easily give you the wrong impression, about my church in particular and the denomination of which it was a part. So I do need to say that these were basically happy years, and the church was full of good, well-meaning, committed Christian disciples, and led by godly and wise men (and it was men!). But I can only report what I, as a child and then a teenager, picked up and understood. Sadly the God whom I believed in and sought to follow was basically not very nice.

First of all he didn’t like us doing anything, and especially not on Sundays. Fun was banned, as were things like ice-cream. We weren’t allowed to do anything which remotely involved shopping, not that there was much opportunity a) because shops didn’t open in those days, and b) because there would have been no time anyway, as we spent most of the day at church. As children we had to be quiet, because Sunday was a day of rest, and I’ve already told you about the shellfish, although I don’t think to be honest that that had much to do with God. But it all added to the general unpleasantness of the day.

Then there were the other sins. People who smoked, drank, swore or gambled were beyond the pale, and were severely looked down upon by us good Christians. The job of parents was to protect their children from any encounter with such activities. I can remember during my Beatles phase leaving the sheet music for Sexy Sadie on the piano. When it was discovered there was a major row, and the offending music had to be removed from the house lest it polluted us all with the S-word. We also had to be protected from the harsher realities of church life. I can remember our organist resigning and leaving the church, accompanied by many sage looks and shaking of heads. Only many years later did I discover that this was over some crisis of faith, but it clearly wasn’t something to the shared with the youngsters. It could have done us real harm.


Don’t get the wrong idea: my family were basically loving and committed to God, and genuinely wanted the best for us. Most of the time we got along fine. But with hindsight the God whom we sought to follow was fundamentally a God who didn’t want us to do things. I developed the belief (and please understand me that I now realise that this is not official Baptist doctrine) that your eternal destiny, heaven or hell, depended entirely on what you happened to be doing at the moment of Jesus’ return. As you can imagine this led to a somewhat insecure faith, although the upside was that I did learn to sin very quickly and get it over with. But the clear message was that you pleased God by not doing stuff.


This is another excerpt from God’s Upgrades … My Adventures Published by Authentic at £7.99.


More next week!

OT Lectionary July 20th Trinity 5 Genesis 28:10-19a

First of all – I’m back! I didn’t drop off the edge of the world – I moved house, then it took me three weeks to get online (Thanks Talktalk! – great service – even worse than last time I moved house) and then the day after I got connected we went off on holiday. Anyway, here I am, new job is great, and blogging is recommenced.

So – Jacob’s dream. I can remember a church which obviously in the past knew only the Authorised Version bearing proudly across the top of the doorway the verse ‘How dreadful is this place!’ They obviously believed themselves to be the gate of heaven, but in Jacob’s thought the gate of heaven was not located in a parish in London: it was the portal or bottleneck through which all intercourse between heaven and earth had to be channelled. The ‘ladder’, or better ‘ramp’ was not the means by which our prayers ascended, but rather how god’s messengers descended, to guide and give instructions to the people on earth. So the Satan, in Job 1, returns to the heavenly court from ‘going about to and fro on the earth’: he would have returned through what we would now call a ‘thin place’.

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The spirituality of places is an inportant yet rarely explored issue: I guess many people will have places which are spiritually significant to them, and there has always been a significant industry of ‘pilgrimage’ to holy sites around the world. indeed, the primary reason for the telling of this story may well have been aetiological: in other words, it was a bit like a ‘Just So’ story: when your kids asked you why Bethel was such a special place, you could tell them this story to explain. but even within this there are a few significant details worthy of our attention.

Note first the totally unexpected nature of the encounter, which came totally from God’s initiative. Jacob is neither a seeking pilgrim nor a penitent sinner: he is on the run, but God chooses to meet him. Then notice how he meets him – not with a telling-off, but simply with reassurance about his security in the future, and safe passage to get there. Jacob wakes up and realises that he happens to have bedded down for the night right near the ‘gate of heaven’, and in response he carries out a simply liturgical action which has the effect of marking and dedicating this special place, which was to become a significant, though not always wholesome, spiritual site.

We live in a time where, as John 1:51 suggests, access to the heavenly realms is not through a bottleneck but through Jesus himself (the Greek construction suggests that the Son of Man is the ladder, not the one descended upon). No doubt there do exist ‘thin places’ of particular holiness, but thank God that access to him is not limited to them. We live in a time where God still supernaturally meets people, and not always holy people, with his grace. A good test of whether a so-called spiritual experience in genuinely from God is to see whether he communicates grace or condemnation: the pattern here is grace and blessing through and through. Should we pray for such encounters with God? I don’t think it hurts, as long as we focus not on experiences but on the God who sometimes graciously gives them.

God’s Upgrades – Intro

My new Friday blog is for excerpts, tantalisingly chosen, from my new book God’s Upgrades … My Adventures. Here’s your starter:

  Front only

I have a philosophy of life. It says that everyone you know, however briefly, leaves you with something which makes your life richer. It might be quite an insignificant thing: we still use the recipe for leek and potato soup which a parishioner in my first job put in the parish magazine. My ex-brother-in-law was the first person to play me Paul Simon’s Graceland album. Another guy I met at a conference taught me how to do video editing, which I now use all the time. Another unknown star was the first person to introduce me to the music of jazz bass virtuoso Brian Bromberg. Little things, but I’d be so much poorer without them.

Sometimes it’s not what you’d expect which lasts. For a while we went to a church Homegroup, where our leaders faithfully led us in prayer and Bible study week by week. But the really important thing they gave me was cheese. I grew up in a family where my Dad just couldn’t stand cheese, so there was never any in the house. On the odd occasions I did manage to try any, I had to agree with him: it was gross. But as I grew up and began to realise that there was more to cheese than yellow-orange cuboids of hard cheddar I became fascinated at all the different shapes, sizes, textures and smells available. I began wistfully to wish that I did like the stuff. I’m like that with tomatoes too: I wish I liked them but I just don’t. I spent one Greek holiday with the deliberate aim of getting to like them. I’d heard that if you eat something for long enough you get to enjoy it, and all those Greek salads would give me ample opportunity. But I discovered that the only way I could manage to eat the things was to smother them in tomato ketchup, which made them just about bearable, and also speaks volumes about the relationship between ketchup and real tomato. The net result was that I still hate them, and I spoilt my holiday into the bargain.

Anyway, our Homegroup leaders invited us round for a meal, and out came the cheeseboard at the end. I confessed my sad inability to eat the stuff, but my wish that I could, and with the infinite care and patience which only good Homegroup leaders can muster, they suggested I might try a little bit of this one, as it didn’t really taste much like cheese. So I tried my first ever crumb of that Austrian smoked stuff, which looks like a little brown plastic sausage, and much to my delight it wasn’t half bad. That moment was a turning point for me, and I began to explore, and eventually get to love, the rich variety of cheesy comestibles which in his bounty God has put into our world. Peter and Elizabeth: you changed my life!

But this book is about something bigger than music or cheese. If individuals, and some of them like ships passing in the night, can leave me with so much, weaving into my life things which have left me different and for which I remain profoundly grateful, how much more have I seen God weave into my life? And how much greater is the possibility of change and newness when God meets us and puts into our lives things for which we remain profoundly grateful?


God’s Upgrades … My Adventures was published in May 2014 by Authentic Media and is available online or from Christian Bookshops.