Reflections on Discipleship – Praying with the Psalms

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 know those moments when you get a sudden flash of insight, when you get for the first time something which you then realise is blindingly obvious? I had one of those moments when a visiting preacher came to the church of which I was vicar. It was this time of year, in the gap between Ascension and Pentecost, and our diocese was encouraging us to use what is called the ‘Novena’ or nine days to pray for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit to renew and revive the church. In a throwaway comment our preacher told us that of course the disciples gathered for that period in the upper room would have been praying the Psalms. That was how Jews prayed.

Duccio di Buoninsegna. Maestà (back, crowning panel) The Descent of the Holy Spirit.

Now I’d never really thought about it but I realised that the unconscious picture in the back of my mind was nine days of a kind of evangelical prayer-meeting, or a 24-7 prayer week. But since that insight I’ve found myself viewing the Psalms in a whole new light. We all know that they contain pretty much the full range of human situations and emotions, and they can give us words to express just about anything we’re feeling and wanting to say to God. I know that during a period of my life when I was under intense persecution and bullying those psalms about smashing my enemies to bits became very real and heartfelt. They certainly gave me permission to feel what I was feeling! The fact is that we read and pray the psalms through the filter of what we’re going through or thinking about at the time. So to read them during the novena, as prayers for the renewal and revival of God’s church, can be a very helpful and powerful thing.

Of course some psalms are more applicable than others to any given situation, but I think the dynamic is that the bits which speak to us come out of the page and thump us in the face, while the other bits slip quietly by until another occasion when because of a new situation they will speak to us.

So how about thinking yourself into the situation of those first disciples, gathered with both fear and expectation, not knowing quite what to expect but hopeful of something new and powerful? Link that to your situation now, admitting how you feel about the state of the church and your hopes for it. Then start reading some psalms, either from the beginning, or using the passages set in the lectionary. At the end of each psalm, or when something leaps out and hits you, ask yourself the question ‘How does this text make me want to pray for the church?’ My expectation is that prayer will come alive, and my hope is that like those first disciples we will know the powerful presence of the Spirit among us as we pray.

Image from

OT Lectionary May 17th Sunday after Ascension Ezekiel 36:24-28

The days between the Ascension and Pentecost are increasingly being marked in the Anglican church as a novena, or nine days, of prayer for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Better late than never, I suppose, but as we seek to reflect and live out that period of prayer to which the first believers devoted themselves I sometimes wonder what we are expecting to happen. How will we know when the Holy Spirit has come? I reckon that when tongues of fire and strange languages broke out among them on the day of Pentecost it wasn’t just the onlookers who were amazed and perplexed. I’m sure the believers got more than they were bargaining for.

Grão Vasco, Pentecostes, da capela da portaria do mosteiro de Santa Cruz de Coimbra, 1534-35, assinada Velasco.jpg

So we seek to sanitise the Holy Spirit. I can remember being part of a team planning a children’s Pentecost celebration in our cathedral, at which it was suggested that we might cut out thousands of little red, yellow and orange bits of sparkly paper and drop them from the roof onto the children gathered below, and set up some huge fans to blow everyone around. Having just written a book on how children can receive the Spirit and his gifts as well as adults can, I suggested that we might just pray for the children to be filled with the Spirit, a suggestion which went down like air con in an igloo. Symbolism is much safer if it protects us from the real thing. We want the Spirit, but we don’t want to be charismatic, for goodness’ sake!

So apart from tongues, what might praying for the coming of the Spirit result in? Ezekiel has a slightly different take, although one which potentially might be equally disturbing. This text is aimed at those languishing in Babylonian exile as a result of their idolatry, and as God puts his Spirit in them they can expect a radical turnaround. The ‘before’ picture is one of scattered people, far from home, with hard hearts, filthy from their rubbing up against detestable idols, the sort, for example, to which you sacrifice your own children. But the gift of the Spirit will bring homecoming, cleansing, a heart transplant, and a restoration of their relationship with God. So radical will this U turn be that people will even want to keep God’s laws, rather than regarding them as a bit of a killjoy nuisance.

Ezekiel’s vision of the work of the Spirit is essentially a moral one, after which polluted and compromised people will not only behave themselves but will even want to behave themselves. The naughty delight in sin will lose its appeal for them, and they will be 100% devoted to God.

So for what do we think we’re praying as we seek a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit on God’s church? Spectacular gifts? More position and power in today’s society? The ability better to serve the needs of our communities? More bums on seats? Ezekiel would tell us that God has different priorities, although none of the above is a bad thing for which to pray. Essentially, says Ezekiel, the Holy Spirit is in the business of bringing holiness. If you’re the kind of Christian who sort of enjoys a bit of sin now and again, and believes that God isn’t that bothered, be careful what you pray!

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.

Surprised by the F-word

Here’s the latest excerpt from God’s Upgrades … My Adventures published by Authentic.


Being by now an old hand at IKEA, I had become friends with most of the guys, and I had even had some positive contact with the constant stream of temps who came and went. But there was one person who still struck fear into my heart. Tom Hollick was over sixty, grizzled and cynical, the most foul-mouthed person in the room (and that took some doing), humourless and always moaning about life, the universe and everything. He seemed to regard work and the management with all the bitterness of someone trapped in a dead-end job for far too long. He looked not unlike Van Gogh’s picture of his friend Dr Gachet but with a much bigger moustache. In fact his moustache was even bigger than mine, which really does take some doing, and considerably more tatty and tobacco-stained. I so hated him!

 Then came the inevitable evening when I returned to the depot to find my name with his on the board for the next day. This was not going to be fun. I didn’t sleep well that night.

 ‘You’re the vicar, aren’t you?’ he asked as we were driving through the yard to the gatehouse. I braced myself and admitted that indeed I was. ‘I’ve been wanting to talk to you.’

 Now what was I in for? If he hated the church and all it stood for anywhere near as much as he appeared to hate everyone and everything else, I was going to spend the day getting a really severe ear-bashing. However, I was in for even more of a shock than I had worried about in my worst nightmares.

 ‘I did that “Alpha” course last year’ Tom admitted with as much of a coy grin as he could manage. It looked as if it was costing him a considerable amount of effort. In spite of the grin, I felt I was in for an in-depth critique of the whole process. Perhaps I was the first person he had been able to share his insights with, and I was going to get the full spiteful vitriol of his totally negative experience. Oh well, in for a penny …

 ‘What did you think of it?’ I asked, on the basis that if he was going to hit me it would be better before we got onto the motorway.

 ‘It was absolutely f****** brilliant!’ I wasn’t quite expecting that, and I pondered just for a moment exactly what Nicky Gumbel would have made of this accolade.Front only

 ‘Tell me more’ I prompted, and for the next twenty minutes I got a blow-by-blow, liberally peppered with words designed to illustrate clearly just how much he had enjoyed the whole experience. I listened open-mouthed as he told me how much he’d enjoyed both the material and the discussion, what a friendly crowd they were, what a turnaround it had brought in his life, and how he and his wife now went to church each Sunday. But even that wasn’t the end of his excitement.

 ‘We’ve got this woman who does that “singing in tongues” in the church’ he confided. ‘It’s bloody beautiful!’ I was able to be enthusiastic and share in his wonder at this wonderful gift, and to admit that I could do that too, although nobody had as yet described my singing as beautiful, an admission which filled him with even more awe for this strange vicar who had suddenly dropped into his life. Tom showed me the Bible he brought to work each day to read in his tacho-breaks, and told me how he didn’t always find it easy to understand and what did I think about such-and-such a passage? It would have been such a help to have someone else at work he could ask. Finally, with great wistfulness, he said ‘I really wish I didn’t swear so much, but I just can’t help it.’

 During the day he told me, almost with tears in his eyes, about a heart-breaking situation in his family and a huge decision he had to make. ‘Will you pray for me about it?’ he asked.

 Tom and I never again found ourselves paired up, but we kept in touch in the depot and I was able to ask him sensitively how things were going as we bumped into one another from time to time. I still remember to pray for him now and again, for his witness in a very difficult environment, and for the growth of his sanctification!


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.


Free Nelson Mandela

tribute with every five gallons of the other tripe I spew forth each week.

Thought I’d join in with the tributes to this great statesman and leader, but let me begin not in Johannesburg but in Belfast. A couple of years ago my son visited the city for the first time, and was amazed to see what a great place it was, with so much going for it. He later confessed to me that he remembered growing up in the church where I was vicar and hearing week in week out in the intercessions ‘We pray for Northern Ireland’, and thinking ‘What’s the point? We go through the same old prayers every week, but nothing ever changes.’ But seeing the place as it is now, he came to realise that tremendous change is possible. It’s not perfect, but so much has been achieved, and who is to say how much the faithful prayers of Christians for decades aided that process?

File:Nelson Mandela-2008 (edit).jpg

There’s a lot of Nelson Mandela hagiography going on at the moment, and rightly so. As far as I can tell no-one is making great claims about a Christian faith, but he does appear to have achieved near-sainthood, if you use the word in its ‘secular’ sense to mean a very good person, rather than its New Testament sense. However, whatever his own personal faith he has set the rest of us a stunning example of Christlikeness which puts many believing Christians to shame.

First there is his ability to forgive. In his excellent obituary of his friend, Desmond Tutu ( claims that

The 27 years [in prison] were absolutely crucial in his spiritual development. The suffering was the crucible that removed considerable dross, giving him empathy for his opponents. It helped to ennoble him, imbuing him with magnanimity difficult to gain in other ways. It gave him an authority and credibility that otherwise would have been difficult to attain. No one could challenge his credentials. He had proved his commitment and selflessness through what he had undergone. He had the authority and attractiveness that accompany vicarious suffering on behalf of others.

I can’t begin to imagine that degree of forgiveness, which he has since shown to many of those who helped make his life hell. But that is exactly the kind of forgiveness to which Christ calls his followers.

But even more significant is his ability to believe, in the face of all the evidence, that things can change. Last Sunday in a stunningly good sermon in Canterbury Cathedral Nick Papodopulos used the picture of the root of Jesse causing damage to the well-established structures of society just as tree roots can damage even the strongest buildings today. I’m pretty sure Isaiah didn’t have this picture in mind when he wrote, but it is a striking image. Whether you were a Jewish peasant in exile, or a privileged Pharisee at the time of Jesus, it must have seemed that the way society was was a given, just as apartheid seemed so deeply entrenched in South Africa. Love it or hate it, it was there to stay, both for privileged whites and downtrodden blacks. Yet through patience, forgiveness and work towards reconciliation that bastion fell, and again, who knows how much the faithful, enduring prayers of God’s people world-wide helped in that process?

I note three things from this. I promised you a blog on ‘What is church for?’, and although it felt right to interrupt my plans to pay tribute to Madiba, actually I do have one answer: the church is there to pray. It is there to pray, to go on praying, to keep praying, to carry on praying, even when the systems it is praying against seem to be built so solidly that any hope of change is futile.

Secondly, from great pain can come great strength, which is something I’ve been trying to say in my #godingrimtimes thread. It’s not easy to see our suffering as the crucible in which God is refining us. And of course we always have a choice: just imagine how 27 years of imprisonment could have gone the other way, and produced an angry and bitter old man. Something in Mandela must have been receptive to God’s transforming grace, or he would have gone down in history as just another forgotten victim of a corrupt system.  Like the forgiveness theme, this really challenges me in my little tribulations.

The third thing is very simple: God takes his time. Both Northern Ireland and South Africa show us that change is possible, but that it rarely happens overnight. I don’t know how many times whilst on Robben Island Madiba felt like just giving up. But he hung on in there. That’s our calling too.

Nelson Mandela – I hope you’re resting in peace. btw – loved your shirts!