On the Road Again

The thrilling saga of God’s Upgrades and My Adventures continues with this week’s excerpt, in which your hero find himself out of a job and moving into a new sphere of work …

 

It was with some trepidation that the following Monday I was rudely awakened by my alarm at 5 am. Nevertheless, as I drove the 25 minute journey to the depot I prayed, as you do, not just that God would look after me, but also for opportunities to be a good witness, and to show the love of Christ to those among whom I was to work.

The depot had been an old army barracks, and several large hangar-sized warehouses were dotted about the place. Each had half a dozen or so loading bays, each with a little set of traffic lights to tell you when it was safe to drive off without taking a forklift and its driver out for the day with you, handy as I was to discover this might have been. As I parked the car I noticed a collection of about 30 huge white trucks parked just round the corner. They must be the ones for the real drivers, I decided, people with HGV licenses. I wondered where they parked the 7.5 tonners. I couldn’t seem to see any.

I walked into the IKEA warehouse. Imagine the scene. 20 or 30 men, ranging in age from 18 to over 60, and arrayed as I was in fluorescent vests, stood around waiting for their orders for the day. Some were laughing raucously in groups; some were perusing page three of the Sun (or worse), all were swearing fluently and profusely. Most of them were built as though they could carry a bed-settee under each arm up eight flights of stairs without breaking a sweat, 40 roll-ups and two greasy breakfasts a day notwithstanding. My prayer for witness quickly turned into a prayer for survival.

Me truck

Initially and mercifully no one took much notice of me. It was no big deal; temps came and went almost daily, I discovered, and were not a great cause of excitement among the regulars. But it wasn’t very long at all before I did gain some curiosity value. The manager was working systematically down his list, and before long the inevitable happened: he got to me. When he shouted across the room for ‘The Reverend Leach!’ I realised that Agency-man had told them all about me. My reputation had gone before. In that moment I was instantly and dramatically outed. There was a vicar on the crew! I was an immediate celebrity. A strange silence filled the office, as all eyes turned in my direction. If there had been someone playing a honky-tonk piano in the corner, they would have stopped instantly. The silence was broken by a small outbreak of Gregorian chant from some wags in one corner. I smiled nervously around the room, trying to look as if I did this every day.

Initially there were a couple of misunderstandings to clear up. ‘Are you really a Reverend?’ I was asked, both then and constantly for the duration of my stay there. I told them I was, but they still thought I was having a laugh. ‘Why on earth would anyone want to pretend they were a vicar, if they weren’t really and they weren’t going to a fancy dress party?’ I asked. They could see my point.

Hays Truck

 

 

 

The other misunderstanding was more serious. One of the bosses had also come from a professional background, but had been struck off for a serious misdemeanour, and so was now working in the transport office. This was common knowledge among the staff, so of course my arrival posed a whole new question. Why should a vicar turn up for work here? There could only be one reason: he’d been at the choirboys. Either that or he’d been helping himself from the collection-plate. Which was it? they wanted to know. I reassured them that it was neither. I was just between jobs, resting.

 

God’s Upgrades … My Adventures is published by Authentic

 

 

What’s Church for? Useful and Sharp

In my penultimate (I think) gaze into my crystal ball to see what the church in 20 years’ time might look like I want to reflect on a phrase which I hear someone say many years ago. Sadly I can’t attribute it to anyone because I can’t remember, but you can have the phrase anyway: ‘A church is more likely to grow if it is perceived by the community in which it is set as “useful”’. In other words a siege mentality, or that of a ‘holy huddle’ doing really spiritual things, or indeed a deep hostility to the ‘pagans’ out there, are likely to militate against significant church growth. Like many a wise saying, it is blindingly obvious once you’ve heard it, but sheer genius on the part of whoever first articulated it.

 

I’ve already mentioned my strap-line for church ‘Communities more like heaven through people more like Jesus’, and I do detect in the church a growing understanding that our ministry is to get stuck into the life of the communities in which we are set to make them better and healthier places. A recent survey in the Diocese in which I now work has identified all kinds of community work going on in local churches, and I suspect that the dawning understanding of their role vis-à-vis the community has opened up all kinds of opportunities. However, I have a fear: in our grasping of the community dimension of our ministry, we could so easily lose our evangelistic cutting edge. Indeed I believe we often have.

 

I can’t say with any honesty that I know what this dimension will look like in 20 years’ time, but I am hoping and praying for a pendulum swing and some kind of an equilibrium in the middle. The church tradition in which I grew up was hot on powerful preaching, wonderfully experiential worship and formative discipleship, but if I’m honest a bit weak on what we would disparagingly call the ‘social gospel’. Indeed I can remember many self-affirming discussions during my youth-group years on ‘evangelism versus social concern’, as though it were a competition, or a choice to make. Our church was definitely of the ‘evangelism’ persuasion, and looked down piously on the woolly liberals who were no better than social workers and who were simply giving people a more comfortable ride to hell.

 

The pendulum has swung, and now we really do seem to have cottoned on to the fact that we are in the business of redeeming all creation, not just helping individuals give their hearts to Jesus. But in the process I can’t help but wonder how much of our cutting edge we have lost. In trying to serve people, and especially needy people, in our communities, have we lost sight of our calling to ‘save sinners’ and ‘command all people everywhere to repent’ (Ax 17:30)?

 

I do believe that the vague and broad term ‘mission’ is beginning to give way to a greater emphasis on ‘evangelism’, not as the only task of mission but certainly a central one. I have mentioned before an important paper from Steven Croft, the Bishop of Sheffield, on re-emphasising evangelism. My hope and prayer for the church of the future is that we will use our new confidence in serving the communities in which we are set to begin again to introduce people to the One in whose name we serve them.

 

OT Lectionary August 31st Trinity 11 Jeremiah 15:15-21

Deeply Counter-cultural

 

My daughter always laughs when I use this phrase: apparently it is one of my buzz-words and she tries to spot it coming when she hears me preach. I’m usually unapologetic, though, and I certainly would be if I were preaching on this section of Jeremiah.  Rembrandt. The Prophet Jeremiah Mourning  over the Destruction of Jerusalem.

Jeremiah’s calling, which became clear in the first chapter of his book, was a prophetic one which involved uprooting, tearing down, destroying and overthrowing (Jer 1:10). This calling had to be worked out in the context of a massive culture-change, as the old order of life in Israel was to be shattered and replaced by a period of exile. His job was basically to prepare the nation for the fact that everything they knew and held dear was about to come to an end. That’s what you call ‘deeply counter-cultural’.

 But what is it like to have been given such a ministry? Our passage for today gives us a bit of insight into what Jeremiah must have felt like, and it is not a pretty sight. He was the victim of persecution and reproach (v 15), of isolation (v 17), and of unending pain and incurable wounds (v 18). His attitude to the God who has set this calling on him swings wildly, even in this short passage: God remembers him and cares for him (v 15), but a few verses later he accuses God of having abandoned him and let him down (v 18).

 The prophetic calling is never an easy one, but in my experience it is far easier when the people to whom you are called know their own need of God. The unknown guy we call ‘Deutero-Isaiah’, for example, had a ministry of reassurance to those who were coming to the end of the exile, and his words are some of the most beautiful and oft-quoted in the OT. But Jeremiah, writing a few decades earlier, had an altogether more difficult task: telling those who believed that everything in the garden was rosy that in fact they were in deep deep trouble. If your favourite definition of a leader is ‘one who defines reality’, then you’ll know that when life appears to be going smoothly people are actually not very interested in reality at all, and those who have the nerve to try to define it can get themselves in a serious mess.

 So how does the God whom Jeremiah believes has messed him around so much respond to his prophet’s plight? I wonder if we might paraphrase v 19 as something like ‘You can give it all up if you like! You can go back to speaking comfortable but worthless words, and of course you won’t be speaking in my name, but that’s your choice. But there is a better way: people might turn to you, if they hear the authenticity of my words through your voice, but whatever you do don’t turn to them, don’t just feed them the platitudes they want to hear.’ This is the prophetic calling in a nutshell: never easy but only authentic if God is behind your words.

 There is also an interesting point to come out of God’s protestations of protection and salvation for his servant. V 20-21 are promises from God, but what exactly was the cash value of them to Jeremiah? God would protect him, rescue him and save him, but he was still thrown in a pit and left for dead, and persecuted and vilified throughout his life. So where were God’s protection and rescue then? I can only conclude that God’s ideas of protection and mine vary slightly: if I pray for a comfortable life and a lack of conflict, maybe what God actually protects me from is losing the plot and becoming comfortably apostate. As someone once said ‘God will never harm you. You might die, but he’ll never harm you.’

 

Agonising over Guidance

I think there are three things I’ve learnt about the vexed question of guidance. The first is that sometimes God says to us ‘What do you want to do?’ I can remember as a young Christian getting fixated on a desperate desire to get everything exactly right, in every smallest detail. I remember a friend at college who apparently used to pray each morning about what colour socks God wanted him to wear that day. Call me cynical, but I could just hear God saying back ‘D’you know? I really don’t mind. Why don’t you choose?’ This is a silly example, but it betrays a mindset whereby if we don’t obey God in every little aspect of our lives, as though there was a set path for us to walk and no room for personal choice, apocalyptic disaster is likely to hit us. Quite rightly Christians are concerned to seek God’s will and obey him, but I’m not entirely convinced that he particularly has a will for some of the things about which we agonise.

File:Signpost.jpg

 

The corollary of this is that we might sometimes get things wrong. Under the less neurotic model I’m proposing this isn’t the major disaster we might think. When I’m speaking on this I show a slide of one of those children’s maze puzzles: you know the kind of thing. Bob the Builder has lost Pilchard his cat, and there are a selection of paths which may or may not lead to him. You begin to trace one of them, but if it turns out to lead to a dead end you have no option but to go right back to the start and try another one. I make the point that with God it isn’t like this. Bob might get close to Pilchard but unable to reach him: so God simply draws another path which opens the way. Even when we get things wrong, in the economy of God, it isn’t about going right back to the beginning and starting again: it’s about looking for God’s redemption. This fact again removed the phenomenal pressure to hear God accurately and follow him exactly every step of the way. If he knows that the sincere intentions of our hearts is to follow him obediently, he is perfectly able to let us know if we’re going wrong. There’s that lovely promise in Isaiah 30:21 which reassures us that God’s voice will be heard saying ‘This is the way: walk in it’ not when things are going well, but when we are tempted to divert from the path.

 

So my first counsel would be not to let ‘guidance’ become a big issue about which to lose sleep. Dedicate your will to God, listen to your heart, and allow him to make minor corrections along the way if he needs to.

 

 

(For the other two things I’ve learnt, get hold of a copy of God’s Upgrades … My Adventures published by Authentic, from which this blog is an excerpt. I can tell you it is God’s will for you!)

 

 

What’s Church For? Freshening Up

I suggested in the last blog on this thread that the church of the future is looking as though it will be a church of prayer rather than presumption, slimmed down but more ready for action and more aware of its desperate need of God’s grace to achieve anything at all. I also noted some signs of new life, which I want to explore this time.

 The term ‘Fresh Expressions’(‘FXs’) was coined 10 years ago after the publication of the Mission-shaped Church report in 2004, and it represents the fact that official policy in the C of E is to see ourselves as having two strands, or a ‘mixed economy’ of church life, the stuff we’ve all been used to for centuries and some new things which might look very different. This thinking goes further back to the work of my old boss Robert Warren on church in ‘inherited’ and ‘emerging’ modes. So what has emerged?

 There are a significant number of FXs in the UK, some quite honestly looking fresher than others, and a huge amount of research going on into their style and effectiveness in making disciples for Jesus Christ. They have a good-looking website at http://www.freshexpressions.org.uk/home and several books and DVDs, and the Church Army’s Wilson Carlile College in Sheffield is doing sterling work in researching and documenting FXs. Alongside this mixed economy of church there is also now a mixed economy of leadership, with ordinands plumping either for traditional or ‘pioneer’ training. All this is very encouraging, and the statistics show that FXs are already having a profound impact on the life of the church.

FX logo But I want to suggest that we are not out of the woods yet, and that we have a lot lot more work to do before we can win our nation for Christ. From personal experience, while I am very excited about the rise of this new ‘movement’, I’m just not sure yet that the C of E really gets it. I bear the scars of having been bullied out of a parish where one (among several) issues was the hostility of some to an FX which we planted to reach out to new families. As FXs go it was pretty tame and trad, but it was resented by ‘the main church’, was seen as divisive, as not valid as an expression of church, and as outside the ‘control’ of the PCC. The fact that we were seeing new young families finding a spiritual home in an otherwise pretty elderly church did not seem to matter: the problem was that they were not joining in with our highly trad services, but going off to do their own strange things in the church hall. I have heard this story repeated again and again: the mixed economy tragically seems to be between those trying to do new things to win currently excluded groups to Christ, and those who simply don’t get it. At best some FXs are looked on with suspicion by Christians: at worst they can be actively persecuted.

 

 The same is true of pioneer training. One such ordinand has told me that while some of what he is getting is great, and very helpful to him, the way he is misunderstood by the trad ordinands with whom he is rubbing shoulders betrays a gross ignorance and deep suspicion of this new strand. And he feels misunderstood by the ‘system’ as a whole: fresh expressions of church require fresh expressions of leaders to pioneer them, but they also require fresh expressions of DDOs (those who help ordinands through the vocation and selection procedures), and fresh expressions of BAPs (a residential where the fate of hopeful ordinands is sealed). While our establishment mind-set is still about selecting traditional clergy who are going to end up as normal parish priests we still have a very long way to go. Something far more radical is needed, and twenty years may or may not do it.

OT Lectionary 24th August Trinity 10 Isaiah 51:1-6

(I’ve chosen not to go for St Bartholomew, as you probably will be less interested in the OT if you’re going to celebrate him this Sunday. I should transfer him to Monday if I were you: I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.)

 

As with last week there seems to be some unnecessary filleting by the lectionary-makers, and v 7-8 are also clearly a part of this passage. (By the way, it is OK to read more than the lectionary tells you to!) but unlike last week there has been no return from exile yet, and the people are still far from home struggling with questions of identity and purpose. The prophet encourages them to look: indeed this passage is full of looking. Clearly they are people looking for God in the geographical and theological disorientation they feel during the exile: ‘Listen to me … you who seek the Lord.’ (v 1) So where is he to be found?

 

First, says the prophet, look back. Look to Sarah and Abraham, those founders of our once great nation, your ancestors from whom you are descended. God called them, and as a result of his power you exist today. You are no accident, no unwanted mistake. The unusual term ‘quarry’ (v 1) means in Hebrew an empty hole: perhaps there is an allusion here to Sarah’s empty womb, and a reminder that emptiness is not the last word. But you can look even further back than that if you want more reassurance: right back to Eden (v 3). There is another promise here of restoration and joy to replace barrenness and aridity.

 Then, continues the prophet, you might like to look forwards. God’s justice and restoration is coming – you only have to lift up your eyes and look for it (v 6). We ‘look forward’ to a birthday or holiday because we believe it really is coming: in the same way the prophet encourages Israel to eager expectation instead of drowning in the drudgery of the here-and-now.

 Take a look at the created world, urges the prophet (v 6). All that you see around you is nothing more than a temporary place for you to live, rather as Babylon is. When you look to the future you’ll see all this lot vanish (v 6), and along with it you’ll also see a disappearing act from all those who are currently oppressing you (v 8).

 But then, crucially, they are to take a look around. It is a major theme of Isaiah to remind the people of the original calling given to Abraham, to be blessed and to bless. Again and again Israel has grasped at the first part but forgotten the second and become narrow and exclusive, so even as he tells them to prepare for freedom, he reminds them of this calling, which makes them God’s chosen people: it is the nations who will be enlightened by God’s instruction, and the nations and islands who will be liberated along with Israel if only they will do what they are supposed to be doing. When God’s people stop looking inward and realise that the good things of God are for those currently outside, there is blessing in abundance for all who will come to him.

 

 

God’s Upgrades – Toronto in SW7

We had been invited to a ‘dedication service’ for a new baby in South London, and I had managed to get a rare Sunday off, so we got up early and drove off from Coventry. As a liturgist I can’t help but evaluate acts of worship: I try just to concentrate on God and just worship, in spite of how I’m being led from the front, but I just can’t do it. I have to say this particular one was a disaster! I sat there feeling more and more miserable at the bad theology, dreadful music and inept leadership. Above all I felt cheated out of a Sunday off, a chance to be led in worship rather than being up front myself.

As we were driving home that evening through central London, we talked about how sad we felt, and how we wished we could go to a good church. That was when we had the idea of going to the evening service at Holy Trinity Brompton in Kensington.  We diverted from our homeward route, and arrived in plenty of time in the Brompton Road. It wasn’t easy to find somewhere to park: there seemed to be a lot more cars around that I’d experienced there before, but eventually we tucked in and walked to the church, only to find huge queues waiting to get in. I knew it was a famous church, but this was just silly!

Finally we got some seats on the balcony, and the service began. The vicar greeted us, and told us that ‘We are living in times of an extraordinary outpouring of God’s Spirit!’ Oh dear. More charismatic hype. 

He then went on to tell us about the visit of a member of his team to a Vineyard Church near Toronto Airport. Apparently they were experiencing some incredible manifestations of the Holy Spirit. She had come back and spoken at a staff meeting about what had been going on, at which point the Spirit began to do exactly the same things to the assembled company. That had been ten days ago, and so significant was this move of the Spirit felt to be that it had taken over the agenda of the church. The rest is history, and whatever you think of the so-called ‘Toronto Blessing’ we were there, completely by ‘chance’ from right at the start of it.

One of the features of churches touched by this move seemed to be continual meetings, and so my church in Coventry put on a fortnight of evening sessions, where, in true Vineyard style, we would worship (by which we meant singing songs), hear some biblical teaching, and then invite the Spirit to come and do what he wanted to do. I remember these times as times of great blessing, but above all of tremendous fun. And I remember particularly our children and teenagers being involved up to the hilt, playing or singing in the worship band, ministering and being ministered to. Virtually all of the youngsters who were involved with us at that stage have stayed faithful to God, and I can’t help but believe that seeing God in action so powerfully is a major factor in avoiding the drop-off of teenagers from the church which has become almost expected in many circles.

Much evaluation of the so-called ‘Toronto Blessing’ has flowed under the bridge since the halcyon days of the mid-90s. Some have regarded it as a hysterical outpouring of human emotion which has nothing whatsoever to do with the Holy Spirit, while others have pointed to the fruit in terms of social outreach programmes, intercession, healing and empowering. Some have tried to prove from Scripture that these kinds of manifestations are only to be expected, while others have used the same Scriptures to demonstrate that the whole thing was a Satanic plot to corrupt the church. Twenty years on all I can say is that this period of my life was the most fun, the most exciting and the most fulfilling. I can point to changed lives and changed churches, and I cannot but believe that God was doing something especially powerful during those days. The fruit in my life from this period remains valuable.

 

For the rest of the story see God’s Upgrades … My Adventures published by Authentic.