Reflections on Discipleship – The Signs of the Times

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 … First of all apologies to addicts for my disappearance for the last couple of weeks. Back from holidays and raring to go. (Yes, I know you can schedule. OK, I was just too busy!)

“You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” Matthew 16:3

‘That was the most exciting General Election I’ve ever known!’ I overheard someone saying recently, someone who had clearly seen quite a few. May 7th 2015 will go down in history as a momentous day for Britain, one way or another, and those who, like me, stayed up most of the night watching the results come in will never forget the mounting sense of disbelief as Scotland turned solidly yellow, as three key party leaders fell on their swords, and as one of the most unpopular governments I have ever known was re-elected with an increased majority. There was one piece of good news, as reported on Facebook by Boogie in the Morning: Britain now looks like Maggie Simpson.

Election Maggie

Now I am neither a political commentator nor a Late Great Planet Earth apocalypticist, but I am a Christian disciple, and as such I am called by Jesus to try to read the signs of the times. Somewhere in my huge collection of cassette tapes with sermons on which I will probably never listen to again, I have one by Bible teacher David Pawson called something like ‘Prophetic Insights into the 1979 General Election’, at which Margaret Thatcher swept into power. I can’t remember much about what David’s prophetic insights were, but I love the idea that from time to time we stop and try to ask the question ‘God, what exactly is going on here?’ I certainly felt like that when I put on the telly on Friday morning after two hours sleep to see Britain changed beyond recognition.

Most of the comment I have seen from Christians has consisted of doom and gloom about how much more awful Britain is going to become with the Tories back in power, calls for the end of the first past the post electoral system (so that, paradoxically, it will be much easier for UKIP to come to power), and sermons on how it proves what we’ve known all along – we’re all basically selfish. But I have seen little which has tried to explore the astounding results from a spiritual rather than a purely political point of view.

I’m afraid I don’t have any great insights to share either, but I find myself much in prayer and asking God what is really going on here. I am also pondering the extent to which I seriously believe in a God who is not just involved in our world but even active in it. Am I a closet Deist, believing that God has set us going but it’s now up to us, and the only reason we get surprising Tory victories is because more people voted for them? Or do I believe, as the author of Job seemed to, that above and beyond what we can see there is a whole nother realm which interplays with the merely human one? Could God somehow have voted tactically?

So how do we live in the light of this election? Should we take to the streets, as some did over the weekend? I believe of course that there is a place for civil disobedience: I’m a liturgist, and I know that’s the only way we came to be allowed not to preach from the lectionary, at least for part of the year. But whoever is in power our call remains the same as it was for the early Christians under a regime determined to wipe them out: prayer, respect, and obedience unless that means disobeying God.

Reflections on Discipleship – Swallowed up

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 …

 

Two conversations this week got me thinking about death. My Mum, who is 92, was asked by the doctor in her residential home if she wanted to be resuscitated if she was to have a heart attack, and she wanted to talk it over. And another friend, as part of an emergency response team in the diocese, was invited into a local school after the tragic death of a young and well-loved teacher. He found that a dog-collar really did give him a status and a role within the shocked and grieving community.

 Gravestone

This got me thinking about why it is that the church is welcomed (at least most of the time) when death comes close. I can remember Robert Runcie, when he was Archbishop of Canterbury, being interviewed on the telly, and being asked in a somewhat hostile manner why the church would insist on poking its nose into funerals. His answer was that in 95% of cases during his ministry Christian ministers were actively welcomed and invited, and that people genuinely did want to be able to talk about death and dying. Whilst this figure may have decreased over the years, specifically atheist funerals are still almost insignificant in their numbers. So what is it about Christians and death?

 

I think that we are one of the few groups in society comfortable with thinking about it. Clergy encounter it on a weekly, if not daily basis, and we all did those exercises while we were training when we were forced to confront the feelings and fears we had about our own death. But more than that, the gospel and our discipleship refuse to let us collude with the embarrassed silence of much of society, and speak of death comfortably. I can remember my boss, the former Bishop of Monmouth, saying when facing a quadruple heart by-pass that ‘there are a lot worse things can happen to Christians than death’. And wise clergy will, as part of their teaching ministry, have helped their congregation members to look death square in the face so that it loses some of its terror.

 

So with that background I was struck by a verse from my daily Bible reading this week. 2 Corinthians 5 is headed in my Bible ‘Awaiting the new body’, and verse 4 tells us that while mortal life is about groaning and being burdened, all this will one day be ‘swallowed up by life’. This phrase is a fascinating reversal of usual language where it is death, or the grave, which ‘swallow up’ life. But for Paul the opposite is true: the miserable half-life we now exist in will one day be swallowed up by real life, life lived to the full, life free from groaning. Furthermore, says Paul, this new real life is the very purpose of our existence, and the Holy Spirit is the deposit which guarantees the full payment to come.

 

While disciples of Jesus are not those who despise and hate the things of this world in favour of the next, they do have a better sense of perspective than those for whom this life is all there is. Apparently an atheist’s gravestone bore the inscription ‘All dressed up and nowhere to go’. Disciples know exactly where they’re going, and it is a matter of great anticipation and joy.

“Lyne Kirk gravestone” by Jonathan Oldenbuck – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lyne_Kirk_gravestone.JPG#/media/File:Lyne_Kirk_gravestone.JPG

 

Reflections on Discipleship – Highs and Lows

Reflections on Discipleship – Highs and Lows

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 have three traditions about what I do on Good Friday. Under the general heading of trying to feel miserable I have baked beans on toast at some point in the day (a tradition which dates back several centuries to my incumbency in Coventry where a friend always looked after our kids during the three hours meditation service and fed them the aforementioned delicacy), I listen to at least some of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, which is a great antidote if I have experienced a service earlier with jaunty songs about lighthouses carrying me home, and I end the day by reading my very fave poem ever, the aptly titled Good Friday Evening by Margaret Louisa Woods. I’m am inevitably in tears at this point, so I go to bed, spend Holy Saturday doing nothing in particular (which is exactly how it should be spent) and then get ready to celebrate on Easter Morning.

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One of the things I love about being an Anglican is the liturgical calendar, a new discovery for me as one nurtured in the Baptist denomination. I love the highs and lows, the austerity followed by celebration, the way we’re usually so good at rhythm and ‘occasion’; I love it that we feel OK about a stripped back, austere approach in worship without feeling that every week has to be more Spirit-filled and celebratory than the week before, and I love ‘Ordinary Time’, those long swathes of the year when nothing special happens and we just get on with it. It distresses me when I am expected to be jolly on Good Friday, and in particular when the church seems to believe that to engage with children we need to be upbeat and lively.

In other words, churches which take liturgy and the calendar seriously are reflecting real life, with its highs and lows, its moments of grief and wonder, and the endless slog of a spirituality for the long haul. It concerns me that some of those which don’t are subtly giving us messages about our discipleship, our walk with Jesus, which are ultimately destructive. Jesus himself warned those who were thinking about following him that it would not be a picnic. He never promised an easy life, and those of his disciples who ended up as martyrs could certainly not sue him under the Trades Descriptions Act (not least because they were dead, but you know what I mean). If the way we choose to construct our worship as local churches appears to promise that following Jesus is all about walking in faith and victory, we set disciples up for a crash sooner or later. So much better to let our worship contain all the ups and downs of real life and real life discipleship.

Reflections on Discipleship – Taking up our Cross

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 …

 

‘If you want to be my disciple’, Jesus told his followers, ‘you have to deny yourselves, take up your cross, and follow me’. What better day than Good Friday to think about discipleship in these terms? If you have watched the controversial Passion of the Christ you will have seen one person’s suggestions about the extreme nature of the suffering Jesus went through for love of the human race. It does not make comfortable viewing, and it challenges the sanitised ideas we have about crucifixion. Of course we know it must have hurt, but we prefer not to think about just how much. So why did Jesus use the picture of a cross to describe discipleship? Is it really meant to be that awful following him?

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First let’s clear up one misunderstanding. In common parlance our ‘cross to bear’ means some unfortunate circumstance with which we feel our life to have been blighted, anything from a bad back to a nasty mother-in-law. This is manifestly not what Jesus is talking about. We ‘take up’ our cross, not have it bonked down upon us by fate or circumstance. A cross is something we choose, not something we’re stuck with. Martin Luther King chose, at great personal cost, to speak up for persecuted black people in the USA. It led him to vilification, attack and finally martyrdom. Countless others throughout history have deliberately chosen to go down the more difficult path, knowing it could, and often would, lead to their death. At any moment they could presumably have chosen to lay down the cross and walk away to safety, but they didn’t. They walked that path to the end. And that is discipleship. It’s our choice.

Of course, while discipleship often has been so extreme as to lead to death, it needn’t. It might be small things. I once worked in a warehouse where the lads would greet visiting drivers, take them off to the canteen and get them a cup of tea while the rest of the gang ransacked the back of the truck looking for anything worth nicking. They didn’t kill me because I refused to join in, but I wasn’t flavour of the month. Maybe we make a stand in our community against some injustice, whistle-blow at work, enforce Christian standards among our kids, sign a petition saying that gay marriage is not just what our country needs right now, or refuse to fiddle our expenses. But we do what we do because we believe in something worth fighting for. Or alternatively we keep quiet, merge into the crowd, and save our reputations. It’s up to us what, if anything, we feel strongly about.

That’s the thing about following Jesus – he always gives us space. He makes the highest of demands, but understands if we don’t choose to rise to the challenge, and keeps the door open until we decide to go his way. Like so many others he paid the ultimate price for his obedience to the Father, but as the forerunner of others he showed that even discipleship to the point of death isn’t terminal.

“Madero de Tormento” by Rubén Betanzo S. – Mi PC. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Madero_de_Tormento.jpg#/media/File:Madero_de_Tormento.jpg

Reflections on Discipleship – Surprised by Generosity

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 …

Is it just me, or do you sometimes get a bit despairing about Church as a whole? On a really bad day as my mind wanders I look around from my office desk and see thousands of ancient and often crumbling buildings populated by a handful of people in their 70s, whose only hope is for survival and whose only vision is for keeping the show on the road somehow? I see clergy worn out by the demands of up to a dozen, often fiercely independent parishes, each with its individual set of PCCs and other committee meetings. I see worship which often lacks the most basic of resources, and can feel flat and uninspiring. What on earth do I think I’m doing? I sometimes ask myself. What’s the point? As my Dad used to say ‘I don’t think church will ever catch on!’

But then I get up from my desk and get out and about around the Diocese. At the moment we’re in the middle of a set of roadshows around the Diocese, running study days around discipleship themes, and based around what it means today to live out Acts 2:42-47. You might think that actually to go out and meet all this deadness face to face would be a depressing experience. But to my surprise my perambulations have had exactly the opposite effect, as, to my shock and shame, I have encountered many real life disciples who really do get it.

Of course it is true that diocesan roadshows are a bit self-selecting, and you would expect the keen people to rock up for a day of study and learning. But I have been so encouraged by what I have seen and heard, and I have come to realise that, as he did in the time of Elijah, God still has those who really are his and remain faithful to him and hungry for him. It is a bit sad that for some people their discipleship is being lived out in the context of a church and under leadership who seem bent on doing all they can to prevent it, but I have been pleasantly surprised and excited to know that faithful followers of Jesus are still going for it.

People, it appears, genuinely do want to learn how to pray, how to serve, how to understand the Bible better, and so on. One lovely story came from a man I met at one of the roadshows who had been in a pretty well-paid job and who, in response to prayer and a call from his diocesan bishop years ago, had got into the habit of regular proportional giving. When he took early retirement and had to live on his pension his immediate plan was to continue the same proportion of giving but at the new significantly lower rate. But as he was praying he felt challenged by God to maintain his giving at the old rate. He decided to try this for a month or two, but expected that he would have to reduce it before too long. But, he told me with excitement in his eyes, we’re still managing fine, and happily giving on what his salary had been.

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I love this story because it isn’t just about giving, good thermometer of our spirituality though that is. It’s actually a story of commitment, of prayer, of listening to God and obeying, and above all of the discovery of the joy which comes from full commitment to Jesus.

So with people like him around, I’m optimistic. And I’ve learnt that we see better from in among the people than we do from a desk.

Reflections on Discipleship – Bold Holy Prayer

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 …

 

Yesterday I had to celebrate Communion in our local cathedral, and the passage set by the lectionary was from Matthew 7, the bit where Jesus tells us that if we ask, seek and knock we’ll get what we want. There are actually quite a few passages like this in the gospels: I know, because I once had to do an seminar at Spring Harvest about them, and why they are manifestly not true. I don’t know about you, but I’ve prayed for loads of stuff and not got it, even with a mustard seed’s worth of faith. Neither have I ever thrown a mountain into the sea (although to be honest I’ve never tried). So what are we to make of these passages?

 

As always, we gain comprehension of biblical passages if we take the trouble to understand what the original readers would have understood. There was a strong tradition in Judiasm of the ‘bold holy pray-er’, someone who dared to ask God for the outrageous and because of his boldness got his prayer answered. The archetypal person in this tradition was Elijah, who brought drought and rain at his words, parted a river, and even called down fire from heaven. In the tradition his power came from a life dedicated to God, a life of sacrificial service, and a selfless commitment to God’s will. So when Jesus is commending to us the power of prayer, all this is in the background. It isn’t so much an invitation to getting whatever we want out of God as though he were a slot machine as a calling to Elijah-sized commitment. Then we’ll pray the kind of prayers which change nations, rather than ‘God bless my family and please can I win the lottery?’ prayers.

 

Neither is there any timescale ever given in these passages, although we tend to read them as meaning ‘immediately’. I have no doubt that Elijah’s bold holy prayers were prayed for years at a time. Recently my son visited Belfast for the first time, a place where his wife had studied at university. He came home having fallen in love with the city, which, although still scarred by the Troubles, has regenerated itself into a buzzing metropolis. He confessed to me that growing up in churches where I was the vicar he had got fed up with intercessions week after week for Northern Ireland, with no discernible results. But now he was able to see that those long-term faithful prayers had indeed been answered.

 

A friend had a similar experience when Desmond Tutu addressed the clergy of his diocese. ‘Your prayers changed South Africa’ Tutu shouted at them ‘but you don’t believe it! You have no faith!’ Disciples may not be those who go around planting mulberry trees in the sea, but they should be bold holy pray-ers, whose persistent and committed intercession can move metaphorical mountains, if not physical ones. And those prayers should be prayed out of lives of outrageous commitment to God’s world and his will.

Reflections on Discipleship – Not Joining In

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 …

You have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do – living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry.  They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. (1 Peter 4:3-4)

Really? As we enter the penitential season of Lent this reading invited me to reflect on my own lifestyle, and my blog challenges you to do the same. My first reflection  is to ask myself just what it is that I don’t join in with that my pagan friends abuse me for. Um … not a lot, if I’m honest. It isn’t that I do join in with my chums’ wild drug-fuelled orgies, drive-by shooting sprees or credit card fraud. I just don’t have those sorts of friends. And, if I’m brutally honest, I don’t think I have spent enough time in the past being naughty in the kinds of ways Peter says I have. On a really bad day I think not nearly enough.

This passage highlights the difference between becoming a Christian out of a godless and pagan culture in the first century and being brought up as one in a nice twentieth century middle-class stable family. Of course our culture is every bit as godless and sensual as the first century Greek one is portrayed as being in the pages of Scripture, but much of the time we do tend to be godless and sensual nicely. Many in the church today simply have not had much spectacular sin in our backgrounds, so coming to Christ and following him as a disciple didn’t, if we’re honest, make that much of the radical difference it might make to an ex-addict or a serial killer who has seen the light.

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That’s all good, of course. I’m not suggesting that a bit of serious debauchery lurking somewhere in our backgrounds makes us better Christians. But I think it does mean that we have to work a bit harder at seeing just what following Jesus as his disciples means, or what a radical difference it should be making. I’m aware that only around 35% of us have ‘Damascus Road’ conversion experiences nowadays, but I can’t help but wonder whether this is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy as the church has stopped expecting people to make a radical decision and change of lifestyle and so has stopped preaching it. The message of Jesus and of Lent that we begin this journey with repentance has got a bit lost over the years: instead we expect people to slip gently and painlessly into the kingdom. So it is not surprising that it isn’t always easy to see how we’re that different as a result.

So I wonder whether a good Lenten meditation for us might be to look harder and discover some of those things with which we don’t join  in, because there will be some. Call me a dinosaur, but my family still refuses flatly to go shopping on a Sunday. My kids never did their homework either: Sunday was a day where we were set free from the concerns of the rest of the week to enjoy ourselves. I try not to do office gossip or politics – not always an easy job. I try to praise people behind their backs instead of slagging them off. Little things, but as I think about them I’m encouraged to realise that I might just, after all, be a little bit different.

Reflections on Discipleship – Purify my Heart

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’ve been reading 1 Peter recently, and I was struck by the logic of the few verses overlapping chapters 1 and 2, which I think give the lie to a lot of thinking about discipleship. Many Christians have picked up the idea that it is all about hard work, trying, striving to be more holy, and so on, and I honestly think this puts some people off even trying to think about being better disciples. Peter (or whoever) is clearly writing to newish Christians – elsewhere the NT urges people to leave off the milk and get onto meat instead, but here it is milk which is commended – but his starting point isn’t about how they should try harder. He begins by telling them an objective fact about their status in Christ: ‘you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth’.

They have become Christians: ‘You have been born again’ he tells them in the next verse. The quote from Isaiah 40 demonstrates that they have stepped out of the merely human cycle of birth, life and death because the Word in which they have put their trust is an eternal Word. They will almost certainly ‘go the way of all flesh’ sooner or later, but for them that won’t be the end, but rather a new beginning. So he clearly establishes the fact that they have crossed the line and have become disciples of Jesus Christ.

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Then comes that fateful word ‘Therefore’ in 2:1, a word so often used in the Epistles as a transition from what is true, what has happened, and what they must now do about it. It’s a little word, but it has vital implications. What the author is saying is basically ‘You have changed your status before God – now learn to live that out’. You have been ‘born again’: now get rid of the baggage that you don’t need any more. It’s a similar argument to that used in Hebrews 12 about throwing off the sin which so easily entangles us. The picture there is of a Roman soldier getting rid of his voluminous cloak ready for action. Stuff like malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy and slander simply don’t belong to the changed life you now live, so fling them off, as you would a restricting garment. This can , of course, be hard work, since old habits die hard. But what he doesn’t say, and this is where we get it oh so wrong, is that you have to behave differently in order to live in a new relationship with Christ. So we get back to that age-old heresy of salvation by works: I live the right way in order to get right with God, not because I am right with God. I’ve been purified, so now impurities are simply no longer appropriate in my life.

When we really know who we are in Christ we are filled with the desire to live up to that calling: when we believe that we have to work that hard so that Christ will accept us, it’s easy to see how we can believe we’re onto a loser from the start and stop bothering. After all, being a mere ‘churchgoer’ feels like a lot less hard work.

Reflections on Discipleship – I want to break free!

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 …

In a couple of weeks I’m leading a seminar for engageworship.org at our ‘Slow Down’ day in Luton on ‘Spiritual Disciplines for Beginners’. Being pretty undisciplined myself, I started rereading Richard Foster’s classic Celebration of Discipline, which I probably haven’t opened in over 25 years. As is so often the case I started reading as a different person, sadder and hopefully wiser, because of all that has been going on in those 25 years. And of course something completely new struck me, something which must have still been printed on the pages all those years ago, but which I somehow missed entirely. In a nutshell it is this: spiritual disciplines, and indeed discipleship as a whole, are about freedom. Foster explains how each of the twelve classical spiritual disciplines he deals with, stuff like meditation, fasting, submission and solitude, are actually about breaking free from some of the things which capture us, cripple us and enslave us. For example, we’re all desperately lonely deep inside, he suggests, so deliberately to cultivate periods of solitude can set us free from the fear of being alone, as we choose it and learn to feel safe there.

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Many people regard discipleship as hard work, which of course it is, but it is the kind of hard work which brings its rewards and joys, like that of running for gold, to use one biblical picture. Personally I’ve never won anything at all in the world of sporting prowess, and that has saved me a lot of hard work and discipline. When Jessica Ennis-Hill sends me pictures on Facebook of herself in training, I feel quite pleased to be a couch potato. But then I’ll never know the thrill and joy of standing on an Olympic podium and being cheered by the world. I guess it’s swings and roundabouts.

So as a follower of Jesus am I content to watch from the sidelines, or curled up on the sofa with a takeaway, or am I committed to the effort of going for gold? The former may seem an easier option, but while I choose it I’m still not free from all the things which spiritual discipline is designed to deal with. St Paul provides us with a great example, using the athletics metaphor, when in 1 Corinthians 9 he writes:

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last for ever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

There’s the paradox: breaking free isn’t easy, but until we do we’ll only ever be half-hearted leisure-time spectators in the great adventure of following Jesus.

Reflections on Discipleship – Horse Whispering

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 …

Do not be like the horse or the mule,     which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle     or they will not come to you. (Psalm 32:9)

Paul’s use of the terms ‘spiritual’ and ‘worldly’ in 1 Corinthians 3 allow us to believe that there are two kinds of Christians: those who really have got it, who are sold out on living wholeheartedly for Christ, who have as their highest value being disciples, and those who have not yet reached that stage and are trying to keep one foot in the world, treating their faith as an add-on to their lives and not the be-all-and-end-all. It isn’t a salvation issue, Paul explains in v 15: if you’re a Christian you will be saved, even though for some it will be with the smell of Hell in their nostrils. But it is a commitment issue, a discipleship issue. And whilst of course sanctification, or becoming more like Jesus, is a life-long journey, for many of us there does need to be a second conversion experience where we finally realise that love so amazing, so divine, really does demand my soul, my life, my all.

In my preaching in the past I have often referred to this point as ‘brokenness’. I try to keep as far away from real horses as I possibly can, but from my watching of cowboy films I believed that a wild horse had to be broken, a violent process whereby the master would basically ride the horse into submission, until it would do what he wanted it to. I’ve no idea whether real cowboys do this to real horses, but it looks great on the cinema screen. I know that in my experience I had to reach a point where I stopped trying to live my faith as an add-on and commit myself totally to my Lord. Of course this is a matter of will and choice, with actual behaviour lagging some way behind, but it is, I think, about our basic orientation towards God. It felt a great relief to stop fighting, submit, and dedicate my life wholly to God.

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But talking to a friend about this recently gave me a different outlook, when he asked instead of bucking broncos what was the role of the ‘Horse Whisperer’? Is God really the kind of rider who will sit on us, come what may, until we’re too broken and exhausted to resist any longer? Or does he come alongside us, whisper words of love and woo us until we want nothing more than to obey him in every way? To change the animal, does the ‘Hound of Heaven’ pursue us in the somewhat scary way Francis Thompson’s poem suggests, or does he wait quietly until we come to him?

I guess the answer is ‘both and’. God of course deals with us all as individuals, and some of us will respond better to one approach than to another. But that is secondary: the real point is that as disciples of Jesus Christ we come to that point of surrender, commitment, brokenness, whatever you want to call it. Recently in my diocese we committed ourselves to a year of discipleship using the words of the Methodist Covenant prayer. Powerful words indeed, and not for the faint-hearted or the compromised.

Lord, if you need to fight me, fight. If you need to whisper, then whisper. But whatever it takes, turn my heart and will completely to you.