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August, 2012


My greatest fear

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My greatest fear is that I end up doing church.

Photo: jcookfisher, under CC license.

Regardless of the number of activities I partake in on weekdays, of how involved I can get in church life, the risk is still there: that I consider church, small groups, Bible studies, etc. to be something that I do. Because there’s a fine line between that and those things being what I do. But also because it is much easier to constrain specific actions to specific settings. And finally because it can lead to dissatisfaction with myself and others, as there is always more that I, or they, could do.

And none of these are desirable prospects. What I want is for my faith and my belonging to the local and global church to be part of my identity. For these things to seep through everything that I do and that I am, but not to be the object of my actions. It may sound like a pedantic difference to make, but it is important to make it, because church is more than the sum of its parts: it is more than all that we do there.

That can be used as an excusenot to go on the rota. But it shouldn’t, because that in turn could lead to a reluctance to get involved – and the death of the excitement felt at first.

Rather than avoiding doing stuff for church, rather than simply trying to be church, here’s the key: remember that what you do is about, for, with and from God:

  • when you read the Bible for the congregation, don’t simply “do the reading”, thinking you have to get it done for the rest of the service to go on. Remember what it is you’re reading (it is from God). Remember why you’re reading the Bible (to tell the congregation about God). And with the help of the Holy Spirit, proclaim boldly the Word and make it alive. Take the time that is needed, because it is for God.
  • when you’re leading worship, don’t let the technicalities of keeping rhythm, etc. (I have very little clue what I’m talking about here!) overwhelm you. Remember who you’re singing about. Whom you’re praising. Where the songs come from. And that the worship is, again, with the help of the Spirit.
  • when you’re serving tea, remember what hospitality is about and whom we’re trying to emulate. Remember where the love you’re showing comes from (that, and the goodness of tea). Seek the presence of God and let it shine through you.
  • when you go out of church – keep on reminding yourself of that throughout the week, in all that you do. That way, what you do will never be about what you do.

When I remind myself of God’s hand in what I do, the words of Philippians 4 come alive:

the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, guards my heart and my mind in Christ Jesus.

10 reasons I don’t wash (or go to church)

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YOUCAT recently made this video, in German:

It’s quite good, so for those who don’t speak German, here’s a translation!

  1. When I was a kid, I would be forced to wash.
  2. People who keep washing themselves are just hypocrites who want to show that they are cleaner than everyone else.
  3. There’s just so many types of soap! How am I to know which one’s right for me?
  4. The water companies are just after our money.
  5. I tried washing once. But it was always boring and just the same stuff over and over again.
  6. In the bathroom it’s always so cold and sanitised.
  7. Oh, but I do wash. At Christmas and Easter. Surely that’s enough!
  8. None of my friends think washing is necessary.
  9. Right now, I just really don’t have the time to wash.
  10. Maybe I’ll try washing someday, when I’m older.

Sounds familiar?

Singing lies is OK


There’s a very powerful and popular quote by A.W. Tozer (referenced, for instance, here) that goes like this:

“Christians don’t tell lies – they just go to church and sing them.”

Provocative, not politically correct, that much is certain. Whether it reflects reality is a different question.

Are we singing lies?

Yes, many of us will have sung “Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I’ve come“, without knowing what an Ebenezer is. I sure did. (by the way, Ebenezer means “stone of help”, as in 1 Sam 7) – but is that a lie?

Let’s go one step further. I used to have my own personal doubts about “Better is one day in your courts” – because it felt like rejecting our life here on earth. After talking to friends about it, I realise I wasn’t understanding it properly and was more over-theologising than anything else. I still find it hard to sing “Break my heart for what breaks yours” – because I have some (limited) experience of that, and I’m not exactly looking forward to it. (Seriously, do you really want your heart broken?)

Whether because we don’t understand it, or don’t agree with it on theological or personal grounds, there are many reasons we can disagree with worship songs. Does it means I’m lying when I’m singing them?

It comes back to the nature of worship as an attitude. Worshipping Jesus means turning to him in humility and in love. Worship is both a direction and an attitude of humility. I’d say it’s more of a lie, then, to pretend to be worshipping when all you’re doing is picking and choosing theological statements, than to sing a line you don’t quite understand.

Here’s a few questions:

  • would you be quite so picky about singing Psalms? And if not, why not? *
  • do you think the Psalmist went back to his composition and made sure it was conforming to dogma?

Now I’m not saying we should undiscriminately accept all worship songs, or that there is no reflection to be done about them. However, when we are approaching our worship from the perspective of someone who is in control of what they sing… well, that’s turning the whole worship process on its head. And it’s missing the whole corporate aspect of worship. So even if you don’t really believe or understand what you’re singing, go back to it – talk to your pastor about it, inspect it in the light of the Gospel, do all of that. But do it after worship: don’t approach worship with a suspicious mind which controls what it takes and rejects from what’s on offer.

In more fancy words, dogma stems from doxology – not the other way around.

* Okay, I’m not saying the latest Hillsong album should be included in the canon. But unless you’re being very cynical about the production of worship songs, you will generally admit these songs may have been written with the help of the Spirit.

Twelve pounds fifty

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The other day, I was walking past someone sat under a bridge reading a book. He was frustrated, he told me, as he had come “this close” to getting off the streets. True enough, what he needed was ridiculous: £12.50 to get somewhere (which he was told he would get reimbursed later!), and meet a landlord who had agreed to rent out a place to him. That situation taught, or refreshed a few things for me:

Twelve pounds fifty

1. One life can be changed by something ridiculously small.
Without these £12.50, he would have stayed on the streets, probably despondent.
With these £12.50, there was a chance he could find a home, get off the streets and get a fresh start.
Every penny helps” is something we hear a lot from charities – and I tend to admit that in an “it all adds up” kind of way. But it’s so much more than that – a small amount can be crucial on its own.

2. It is easier than you’d think to give up close to the end, because of a setback.
The amount of stuff this guy seemed to have fought for – finding a landlord willing to take him without much money, getting the promise of being reimbursed some of his way off the street, etc. – is a testimony that he really tried hard to turn his life around.
But when I met him, he had given up. There was no way he could get the sufficient amount in time. His frustration from it was visible – nearly tangible, but he wasn’t asking for help.
Sure, it is important to start – and I’ve tried to explain this before – but it is just as important to see things through. Setbacks will come along the way, but they are no reason to give up trying.

3. Hope is fragile, but can sometimes be rekindled easily.
He had all but given up. The money got him to get up and run to the station. All of a sudden, it became possible again. As it turns out, I bumped into him again the next day – where he was in a hurry to go and try again (seemingly, there had been a setback the day before). The change was great – from static and seated to standing and running.
He had hope again – and that was rekindled very easily.

4. Different responses are appropriate at different times.
Lecturing him about contents insurance (which would be quite cheeky from someone who does not have contents insurance anyway), or assuring him of God’s love for him there and then, would probably not have gotten through to him. Worse, they could have been damaging. There is no set formula to rekindle hope in someone. Sometimes, all that is needed is a few words, sometimes it’s action. It’s important to discern where to use each.

5. Sometimes, you have to actively look for where to give.
Just because he didn’t ask, doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be given. Of course, it is easier to give when asked – but many reasons stop people from coming to you to ask: pride, despondency, etc. So be on the look out for people who need your input, whatever the shape. Be ready.

6. Giving takes many shapes.
There’s monetary gifts. There’s giving your time, or your attention. There’s the trust the landlord gave him when he decided to let him in without guarantees. There’s prayer. That means that there is always something you and I can give.

7. Giving never happens in a vacuum.
Those £12.50 were only what was left of what was needed. There had been, presumably, people before me who had given this guy their money and their trust (the total amount was in the £60 region, I think). There will be more people too.
Celebrating this is key to building a community of people who share in the humility of service, rather than in the boastfulness of achievement.

8. Giving is best in a relationship, but giving can start a relationship.
I wanted to know he made it. I wanted to let him know I cared, too. But I didn’t know him, and had no way of chasing it all up. A relationship allows for so much more than momentary giving. But it has to be a healthy relationship between equals – not one of dependance. And the balance is hard to strike when giving is at the core of the relationship – I’ve messed it up twice so far and have yet to get it right, but I’m getting better at it.

9. Sometimes, giving doesn’t lead to what you planned.
I wanted my input to get him off the streets. As I mentioned earlier, it didn’t work out on the night, as he told me when I bumped into him the next day. Control stops the moment you give the money, and that’s something to accept as and when you give. Then, when it doesn’t work out, it’s no reason to stop giving altogether.

10. It’s alright not to know.
There is a small chance that this was a scam. I don’t believe it was, but it is possible. Not knowing what my money ended up doing is fine – not pleasant, but fine. Because it stopped being my money the moment I gave it. The only valid reason to chase up the result of my giving, is in order to keep on helping, if and when necessary.
At the same time, it is nice to know we were useful. So if you’re on the receiving end, do tell your helpers that they have been useful.

10. Tomorrows aren’t safe.
Like this guy’s, your house may burn and you may lose all your possessions. There are a few things that are beyond sudden damage: God, and, hopefully, friends. Know to place your trust in them and to nurture your relationships with both.

11. The damages of the culture of entitlement and all the criteria for entitlement that come with it are staggering. If that guy were in more dire need – if he were on drugs, for instance – he would have had access to a shelter. And he was aware of that. I totally get why these people should get more help; but in a culture of consequences, drugs can appear as an easy way out.
The same culture stops us from realising what life can be like when you stop getting NHS – because, after all, everyone is entitled to NHS support… but for some reason (involving missing paperwork), this guy didn’t.

12. “Refunding” is not always enough.
Sure, at the end of the day, you will end up (roughly) the same. And better a system where a refund is possible than a system with no aid at all. But this system only works for those who have the cash to advance; and was not enough in this case. What’s free after all is taken into account is not free at the point of use and this should be kept in mind.

12 ½. You can’t always play it safe.
This ties in with the above. Refunding means getting the receipt, and means being sure that the money was used in the way you intended to be used. But trust is vital in giving. And that trust, I would argue, should not have to be earned.

The nature of (my) calling


A calling is a hard thing to articulate. It’s extremely personal, hard to describe, hard to explain – but harder still to dismiss.

Photo: floeschie, reused under CC license

And yet it is crucial to be able to do so; because if your calling is to the ministry, you will find people coming to you with a drive to test their own calling. Because you will want to explain to friends what you’re living. Because it will puzzle others. Because, ultimately, it is an awesome thing to share.

But the truth of it is, there appears to be no formula for callings; there is no constant in there. Which makes it incredibly hard to know in our minds as well as in our hearts that we are called; because there is no pattern to test our calling against.

Some callings are of an extraordinary, precise and unmistakable nature. S/Paul, on the road to Damascus, had a great and life-changing experience. Gideon was called out of a quiet life by an angel.
Some are more subtle. Samuel got called three times before recognising the Lord and his calling. Some, but not all, are made through people – Saul, Elisha are examples; and to an extent Gideon’s calling.
A lot of callings lead to massive changes in the lives of the called (both Sauls, Gideon, Elisha, etc.) but some happen to people who are already in the temple (Samuel).

The only constant is that once the nature of the calling was established and accepted, there was no doubting it. There was a strong resolve to do whatever needed doing to serve.

This is encouraging and daunting at the same time. Encouraging, because it means that if I commit to the ministry for life, it will be a deeply satisfying decision. Daunting, because it feels like there’s no getting out. A relief too, because there’s nothing I can do about it.

My calling wasn’t spectacular. It started out as a feeling last September – a series of tiny nudges in the direction of ministry; combined with a series of advertised opportunities to grow in that direction. When I reached the stage where I took it seriously, and prayed about it, that feeling was fed and grew. When I started going for the opportunities given to me, I felt a deep sense of satisfaction. My prayer turned from “Is this real?” to something akin to Samuel’s “speak, Lord, for your servant is listening”. And I’ve taken things one at a time since. I’ve shared this with close friends, and with my own Elis. At this stage, I’m serene and trusting that, if this is God’s calling for me, it will lead to the ministry. Like many, however, I still sometimes momentarily doubt whether I’ve not just made a massive mistake; but quickly realise that these are just insecurities about my own abilities, and am quickly brought back to the confidence in my calling.

If you’re in ministry or planning to go into the ministry, what was your calling like?

What would your advice for people who are feeling called (including me) be?