Reflections on Discipleship – Just do it!

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

I love the quote from American philosopher Dallas Willard that

‘Discipleship is the conviction that Jesus knows how to live my life better than I do’.

If that’s true, it follows that obedience is just about the greatest and most helpful spiritual discipline there is. Yet in a society marked by an anti-authority mood, and a sense of my divine right to do just whatever I like, we find it so difficult just to submit and do what God tells us.

Enamel plaque Naaman BM.jpg

I was reading recently the story of Naaman, the proud but sick warlord of Aram, who heard that there might be a chance of healing if Elisha the prophet would pray for him. You can read the story in 2 Kings chapter 5. Naaman finally finds Elisha’s house, and of course expects to be treated with the respect and deference due to his exalted status as an army general. So to have a servant come and tell him to jump into the river Jordan seven times puts his back well and truly up. He goes away angry, presumably preferring the inconvenience and stigma of leprosy over the indignity of washing in a foreign river. But his servants, who are clearly devoted enough to their boss (and address him as ‘Father’), and feel able to help him to rethink, ask him if this is really a wise course of action. If the prophet had asked him to do some great heroic deed in order to get healed, would he not have jumped in with both feet? So why is the river Jordan such a problem? You never know: incredible as it sounds, it just might work. So he does, and it does, and he goes home cleansed, healed, and committed to the God of Israel.

I thank God for those servants who had a much better sense of perspective than their master. Reading the story made me ask myself about those times when I have simply gone off in a huff and refused to do what I know God is calling me to, and wondering what I might have missed out on because of my stubbornness. Thank God for people around me who have had more sense than I had, or who could retain perspective because they managed not to feel as affronted as I did.

In our Diocese we’re about to begin a major piece of work on stewardship, or ‘Generous Living’ as we’re going to call it. As an ex diocesan Stewardship Adviser I know how much hassle this is going to cause, and how resistant people are to the conviction I and many Christians have that I can live better on 90% of my income than on 100%. I know the financial gymnastics people will embark upon to tell me that we should give after income tax and not before it, or that daily newspapers and coffee in Starbucks are legitimately deductible from their tithing assessment. Disciples are those who have learnt, or are learning, that to ‘just do it’ will bring, as it did for Naaman, blessings which humanly do not seem possible.

Finance is of course only one example of our reluctance to obey, but it is one which Jesus spoke very strongly about. But if he really does know how to live my life better than I do, I’d better listen and obey. Who knows what I might lose out on if I don’t?

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Joel

Hosea and his other chums among the minor prophets are easy to date, but Joel is harder. The main story is about the nation being attacked by a locust plague so devastating that to the prophet it feels as though the apocalypse has started. You can see why, with the sun blocked out across the land, vegetation completely destroyed (and remember that this isn’t just about food now, it’s also about seeds for next year), and relentless armies still coming. What is unclear, though, is whether this was an actual physical plague or one merely seen in a vision or dream. Sadly history tells us nothing which would help us to locate this plague in a particular era, and scholarly opinion as to the dating ranges for several centuries from the 9th to the 2nd.

However, the message of Joel is not dependent on us getting the date exactly right. With prophetic insight he saw this plague of locusts as a picture of the coming judgement of God on an apostate nation, judgement which would be equally severe and all-encompassing. But he not just a messenger of doom: he suggested practical action which could avert the disaster, and he saw beyond it to future hope for a repentant people.

Swarm of Locants

The first two chapters alternate between descriptions of the tragedy and calls to penitence. The first account of the locust-storm describes its effect on the land and its produce, but ends in v 12 with a deeper interpretation: the withered land is also a picture of the withered hearts of the people. Drunkards are called to weep because there will be nothing more form them to drink, but the more serious call to action is aimed at the priests, whose responsibility is twofold: to cry to God in penitential and desperate prayer, and to summon the people to do the same. This is priestly ministry indeed, as they stand between the people and God to intercede for them, but so great is the disaster that the people too must tear open their hearts in shame and fervent prayer.

In chapter 2 there is a further description of the locusts, but now they have taken on a much more sinister and apocalyptic look, as they are painted as a great conquering army, leaving not just devastation but also fire in their wake. What is worse, it is the Lord himself who is leading them in their mission of punishment.

The solution, then, is radical and heartfelt penitence, but in somewhat agnostic fashion the prophet suggests that there might just be hope (v 14). But in 2:18 the Lord indeed responds, and promises not just physical restoration of the land and its crops, but also a spiritual harvest, in the purple passage from this book, which was seen by Peter and the others on the day of Pentecost as a prediction of the coming of the Spirit.

But Joel’s vision is even more far-reaching, and chapter 3 looks to the final judgement of all people, when those who have remained faithful as God’s people will be rewarded with a bountiful land while those who have acted against Israel will be punished and devastated.

Joel’s words are challenging on many levels, but as a priest I find his call to take the lead in intercession and penitence very significant. The problem may be, though, that as a nation on one level we have not been threatened with the level of disaster which the locusts, real or spiritual, brought with them. We shall see next week that our land is in a place much closer to that of Amos’ time, when self-satisfaction rather than fear is the predominant mood. Far be it from me to hope for a national disaster, but there is no doubt that it would certainly focus the mind, and hopefully the prayer too.

Image: By Iwoelbern (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

OT Lectionary May 31st Trinity Sunday Isaiah 6:1-8

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

Here it comes again – the Sunday preachers love to hate. How do we help people to understand the mystery of the Trinity? To be honest the OT doesn’t help, the Trinity not being much of a Jewish idea. In fact the Jews were so fiercely monotheistic, and you can see why when you look at their history and the problems false worship got them into. Much of their resistance to the infant church was the apparent belief in three different gods. Even the NT only hints at the doctrine, which was not formalised by the church until the 4th century. So the fact that Isaiah’s seraphim cried out ‘Holy’ three times does not of itself prove much, and it would be bad hermeneutics to suggest that it did.

For what it’s worth, whilst clover leaves and ice, water and steam go some way towards illustrating the Trinity, I prefer an aural rather than a visual aid – that of a musical triad. Each note of the chord is distinct, and each has a special purpose within the triad, but heard together they become much more than the sum of three individual notes. I’ll let you play around with that idea.

G Triad

I wonder, though, whether our job on this Sunday is to help people understand the doctrine of the Trinity? Hands up anyone who does understand it? Frankly it’s an impossible task, so it may be more productive instead to focus on what difference it makes in real life, to illustrate the doctrine rather than nail it down tightly for all to comprehend. If that’s the case, and as long as we understand that this is not what the passage means or is about, I believe we might find something helpful in Isaiah 6 after all, as a trinity of motifs lead to and facilitate Isaiah’s prophetic ministry.

Firstly there is a God who calls. He is a God of holiness, majesty and power, reigning from his throne but affecting the earth too. It is he who calls human beings into his service.

Then there is the seraph who comes to Isaiah as he expresses his natural reluctance and lack of qualification for such a task. He is sent by God into Isaiah’s world to deal with the problem of human sin.

Thirdly there is the burning coal, which actually affects the cleansing and makes Isaiah ready and able for service. Of course it is highly fanciful to see in this trinity a reflection of the Holy Trinity, with the Father who reigns and calls, the Son who steps down into the human world to deal with sin, and the Spirit, who comes with burning flames to cleanse and equip God’s people. Of course, as with any illustration of the Trinity, there are limitations. The Son is of course more than an angel, and the Spirit more than a lump of coal. But to think ourselves into Isaiah’s position, and to meditate on our calling and obedience (or not), our experience of sin and forgiveness, and the touch of the Holy Spirit’s fire on our lives might be a profitable thing.

Reflections on Discipleship – Disagreeing Nicely

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

Last week I returned to one of the parishes in which I had worked in the past for the funeral of our organist. While I was vicar he was on the Church Council, and I think it would be true to say that we disagreed totally about pretty much everything. He was an old-school Anglican, based around the beauty of the choral tradition. An engineer by training, he had in the back window of his Austin 1100 a sticker which proclaimed ‘Foot, pint and pound are perfectly sound. Don’t go metric’, which honestly I thought was a bit too little too late.

On the other hand I was a keen young vicar in my first incumbency, determined to drag the church kicking and screaming from the Tudor era into the glorious riches of Spring Harvest and charismatic renewal. What I lacked in people skills I made up for with single-minded determination. No wonder we saw things differently!

Austin 1100

But the fact is, it never got nasty. Ever. We listened to one another, disagreed, sparred, but always, I believe with the utmost of respect. Fundamentally we liked each other, could see where we were coming from, and always treated one another with honesty and care. I can remember returning to the church a few years earlier, for a wedding, and being shown around the new digital organ which had finally replaced the somewhat asthmatic pipe instrument which had wheezed its way through the hymns during my time there. My friend was clearly very proud of this new machine, but I was aware of what it must have cost him to make the decision to go digital, rather than continuing to spend thousands on repairing the old ‘proper’ one. But I also knew that having made the decision he would have researched carefully and thoroughly, and made sure we got the best and most appropriate deal. My respect for him increased dramatically.

Having been the victim elsewhere of church disagreement which did turn thoroughly nasty, personal and vindictive, I thank God for my friend, his honour, honesty and respect. Part of mature discipleship, it seems to me, is about how we react when we do find ourselves in situations of conflict, when we step out of glorious times of worship together into the cut and thrust of meetings and decision-making, when we reach those loggerhead impasses. Niceness of itself is not, of course, the answer, as this can serve simply to bury conflict and invite some very large elephants into the room. But neither is making our quarrels personal vendettas.

The problem is, of course, that the behaviour of others affects our behaviour, and vice versa. It wasn’t difficult to like and respect my friend, because that was exactly how he treated me. But when I am attacked I turn nasty and am tempted to give as bad as I get. I can’t control the actions of others, but I do have a duty and calling to check my own behaviour, and to act with integrity and respect. A disciple of Jesus should do no less.

Image: By Mark Brown from Hampton, New Brunswick, Canada (1967 Austin 1100  Uploaded by oxyman) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Reflections on Discipleship – The things the church normally does

My heart went out to the old gentleman. I was at one of my many visits to Church Councils, trying to sell them our Diocesan Developing Discipleship Programme, which is basically Mission Action Planning, but we’re not allowed to call it that. I’d done a reasonable job, I’d thought, but he stood up to speak with despair in his voice. He told us he was from a tiny village church, with a congregation of about three, all in their 70s, and over the years they had tried everything to get people into the church. What hope could the Diocese possibly offer them? Never mind about five-year goals: they were unlikely to be there at all in five years’ time.

He told us in particular about a mass leafleting of every house in the village to invite people to their Easter Sunday service, to which the response was one newcomer, a member of a larger church nearby, for whom the service time was more convenient on that day. My heart went out to him because I have heard his story again and again around the Diocese, from people who, like him, were at rock bottom because they had tried everything and still they were declining and dying. People out there feel alone and unsupported, and the new attempts by the Diocese to try to bring help and support seem far too little too late.

But what particularly struck me on this occasion was a phrase he used. They had tried everything, he said. They had invited people to coffee mornings, bring and buy sales: ‘all the things the church normally does’. And no-one was interested. I knew exactly how he felt, but in his dejection he did not seem to have drawn the obvious conclusion: nobody wants the things the church normally does. We need to start doing some things we don’t normally do instead.

File:Country church tower - geograph.org.uk - 773041.jpg

This thought was taken further in another parish where another elderly gentleman was telling with great enthusiasm about their attempts to do just that. Every time they held anything special, people would come. Christingles, Pet services, Remembrance Sunday, you name it and people would be queuing at the door. But their normal Sunday services continued to dwindle. So now they make sure they do something special regularly, every time there’s a fifth Sunday. I wanted to ask ‘Why keep on doing the stuff no-one likes at all?’ I know that doing something special every week robs it of its ‘specialness’, but the big question was the same in the two different parishes: why do we just keep doing things which all the evidence suggests nobody but us wants to do, the things the church normally does?

At the other end of the age spectrum my son wrote an article where he asks the same question with regard to young people. He suggests that

If young people find church boring, irrelevant or alien, then there is of course the possibility that it’s because church is boring, irrelevant and alien.

You can read the full article here, but essentially the questions are very close to each other. I know, of course, that in many places the point of no return may already have been reached, and three people in their seventies have neither the time, the energy nor the ability to do much in terms of innovation. Perhaps there needs to be some more death before new life can emerge in a very different form.

Image: Thomas Nugent [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Hosea

From the future-focussed apocalyptic of Daniel we are on safer – if equally strange – ground as we go back to the 8th century and the ministry of Hosea in the Northern Kingdom of Israel shortly before its destruction by Assyria. Like his approximate contemporary Amos his message is one of judgement for an apostate nation, but the cause of, and the response to this apostasy is very different. Hosea had the extremely uncomfortable calling to do his prophecy through the details of his own life, and his disastrous marriage gave him deep insight into the feelings in God’s heart as he prepared to see his chosen people overrun and destroyed.

 

Hosea is called by God to marry a prostitute, which can’t have been an easy task in itself, finding one who wanted to get married. The term ‘Diblaim’ in 1:3 may be her father’s actual name, but also means a couple of fig cakes. An accurate translation could be the equivalent of ‘You could have her for the price of a bag of chips’, so she may not have been a high-class escort! But Hosea used both her unfaithfulness to him and his forgiving love for her to illustrate God’s faithfulness to an apostate nation. Although there is some anger on God’s part, the feel that comes over from the book is of a rejected and broken-hearted God weeping over his people. In chapters 10 and 11 God recalls the past, and his kindness to the nation, kindness which has been thrown back in his face.

Hosea pro

Again, in contrast with Amos, the main sin of the people is not about their actions, but rather their heart. We shall see Amos condemning the injustice and oppression of his society, but Hosea goes deeper: it is the nation’s failure to love God and remain faithful to him which is the issue. Just like his own wife and her sexual partners they have gone off after other gods. But just as he keeps the door open for Gomer to return to him, so the message of the book is one of mercy and grace. The final chapter holds out a promise of a glorious future for a repentant people, but it was sadly never to be fulfilled.

 

We are in an interesting position in the church today. We’re no longer that concerned about sin at all: the highest value in our society nowadays is ‘tolerance’, and we have created a tolerant god in our own image. No doubt that is a reaction against what was perceived as a hellfire approach in the past, where an angry God was constantly looking out for whom he might smite for the smallest peccadillo. But there is a third way of thinking about sin and unfaithfulness, and Hosea epitomises it. It isn’t just that sin makes God angry, although it does. It certainly isn’t that he ‘tolerates’ it: he doesn’t, and won’t. But we seldom think of sin as breaking God’s heart, but that is how Hosea presents it to us. I am reminded of Jesus’ tears over the apostate city of Jerusalem in Luke 19 and 13:

If you had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes. How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.

 I guess it would put a whole new perspective on discipleship and holiness if we really could grasp the pain in our Father’s heart for his wayward children. Meditating on the life of Hosea might do us all good.

Image: “10.3010 Torino-nightlife.v2” by Kay Chernush for the U.S. State Department. Licensed under Attribution via Wikimedia Commons