Archive for

October, 2012


10 ways in which listening to God is like waiting for luggage

no comments

Photo: Agus Munoraharjo, reused under CC license.

1. You’re actively looking for your item of luggage. It’s not like waiting for, say, Christmas or the bus. Once you see the conveyor belt moving, your eyes will be searching for your item of luggage. In the same way, when I’m praying, I am in “expectant waiting”. I’m actively listening for God, looking out for what he has to tell me.

2. You know it’s going to come.
You are right to expect its arrival. And that changes the dynamics of waiting – it turns it from a dreadful chore into joyful and excited anticipation.
(Well, it does for prayer. Not too sure about waiting for luggage :-P)

3. You can’t increase (or decrease) the speed of the conveyor.
Ultimately, “expectant waiting” is waiting. I could tell the Holy Spirit to hurry up, mind. And that prayer might work. But in prayer, and in listening, I have to recognise that I’m not setting the agenda. That I am not praying in order to be holy and show myself up for hearing from God; and that God .

4. If you miss it the first time around, it’s no big deal. It can go round the conveyor belt again.
In the same way, it’s never too late to start praying. Or to start listening. Or to start it all again.

5. Luggage comes in different shapes and sizes – but it’s always luggage! Different people will recognise the Holy Spirit in their own way. Judging people because of the way they respond to God, or because of the  way they worship, is not only arrogant – it’s also fundamentally misguided.

6. Even though others may not recognise your luggage, you know for sure when it comes that it is yours. But, if pressed for an explanation as to how you know it’s what you were waiting for, you will find it hard to explain.
The same goes with what comes from God – there is a distinct recognisability of what comes from God in prayer.
That said, a child may not go and pick up their parents’ suitcase unless prompted to do so; and on occasion, further scrutiny is appropriate.

7. You don’t randomly look for your luggage everywhere in the airport. But if you see it sitting in an unexpected place, you still know it as your luggage.
In the same way, I’m not in contemplative prayer 24/7. And I’m (mostly) actively seeking God when in prayer. But at the same time, God may talk to me at other times, and in other ways. In those cases, I (hopefully!) will recognise God’s word and  pick up my luggage where I find it! Although it has to be said, in those cases, I would very carefully check that it was mine…

8. You have a baggage reclaim tag. You know, just in case it gets lost.
We have a promise. And a trace of that promise. That means that if things go wrong, for whatever reason, and I don’t hear from God straight away, I need not worry.

9. You didn’t get your luggage onto the conveyor belt. But you’re the one who has to pick it up.
In the same way: we have teachers whom we can trust to direct us to the right conveyor belt. We have encounters along our life story that get our faith from one place to the next. And ultimately, it’s God who sends us his messages – and not just us.
If I don’t listen, then I won’t hear God’s word. If I don’t respond to it, the transformative power of that word won’t work in my life, and I won’t grow. Just spotting my item of luggage and leaving it on the conveyor belt would be a bit stupid, wouldn’t it?

10. If you skip that part of your journey (assuming you had checked in some luggage) you won’t be able to go through your day quite as easily.
And feel quite foolish too, probably.
In the same way, contemplative prayer sustains us and helps us in our daily lives.

Judge, that you may be judged


The other week, I got assaulted on the street in France (from behind, of course). There was no discernible purpose behind the attack: nothing was stolen; I did not know the guy who did it, and was not doing anything particularly provocative. To this day, I am puzzled as to why the incident happened.

Once the shock had gone, my initial reaction was that I should forgive him. I found it quite difficult to do. There is a reason for that: forgiveness can only happen after judgement. Otherwise, the sin that we forgive is trivialised; and our behaviour becomes an open invitation for  repeated offences. And us Christians have grown, it seems, shy of judging others.

Photo: Colin Smith, reused under CC license

Judge not, that you be not judged” has become a mantra that gets brought up whenever we are tempted to rebuke someone. Yes, it is Biblical. But when we do restrain ourselves using only that verse, we:

  • are still judging; we are simply refusing to voice that judgement.
  • are distancing ourselves from our neighbour, by adding that screen of hypocritical non-judgementalism between us. We, in a way, refuse to accept our neighbour holistically, that is, as their entire person.
  • are turning a blind eye on sin, which ultimately makes it easier to turn a blind eye on our own sin.
  • are making real forgiveness impossible. And yet, we should “forgive, that we may be forgiven.”

Far, far more importantly, if we aren’t judged and convicted of our sin, we cannot experience the liberating feeling of forgiveness, from which we can grow. That’s why in other parts of the Bible, we are instructed to rebuke.

From that perspective, and with the assurance of forgiveness, I do want to be judged. If I’m “doing it wrong”; or if I have some ink on my forehead (from someone stamping it…) and I haven’t noticed it is still there, I would like someone to tell me. I would like someone to judge me.

That’s why the use of finality (for Hellenists out there, the fact ἵνα μὴ is used rather than καὶ μὴ … καὶ μὴ, as in Luke) puzzles me. Why would I want to not be judged? And Luke’s distinction between judging and condemning indicates that it isn’t just about sentencing (which would preclude forgiveness). But that very distinction also suggests that the key to that verse may be in what we mean by “judge”.

The Greek used here is κρίνω. It is associated with notions of separating (e.g., the wheat from the chaff), of arranging and ordering. This form of judgement is one that divides, and one that is objective rather than interpersonal. When criticising others, we are placing ourselves above them, and indeed forgetting that we cannot throw the first stone. But there is a different form of judgement: a form of rebuking which stems from love. That form of judgement we should not shun, because only through it can we reach forgiveness.

But if we are passing that judgement, then we should allow the process to come to its complete end, with forgiveness; rather than stopping halfway through judgement in shyness because we “should not judge”.

Judgement without forgiveness is sterile.
Forgiveness without judgement is futile. 

A calling to the obvious


Calling to “the ministry” seems fairly narrow from the outside. But think of a “vocation to teach”, for instance. Yes, it is already a specific calling, but from the inside, there is a very wide range of practices included in teaching.

For instance: what level are you called to teach? Will you teach Special Needs? What will you teach? Where? And far more importantly, why do you want to teach?

The job descriptions limit these questions in no small way. Depending on where you are employed, you will end up a maths teacher in charge of 11-12 year-old students, in a school where pastoral care is entirely the prerogative of someone else. I ended up teaching* measure theory to 3rd year undergrads. As part of this job, there is an amount of things I am required to do. It wouldn’t do to let anyone leave the room without a firm grasp on what is countable or not.

But the mistake, spelled out clearly in all books on ministry that I have read, would be to try and fit my calling into a job description. When I was teaching measure theory, I saw my mission as going further than simply getting the kids (yes, 3rd year undergrads are kids) to know how the axiom of choice leads to the existence of non-measurable sets (and, later, to Banach-Tarski paradox). Some see their mission as awakening the kids to the beauty of maths; I saw mine as allowing them to grow at their own pace, and feel at home with these beautiful concepts. And to get them through exams.

The Devil’s Staircase (I knew I could mix maths and theology somehow) – source: Wikipedia user Gargan, reused under CC license

Yet even as I write these words, I am restricting what my vocation was (in the context of undergrad teaching) to an outcome. To “doing” something. But it was far more than that, it was more than a job. It was, very much, creating ties with my students, allowing them to be themselves with me; and that was something that felt very natural (even though not every teacher is doing it).

That’s the issue I get when trying to articulate my calling to ordained ministry. I start by looking at the parts of ordained ministry that are in the job description (attending PCC meetings, giving sermons, leading and presiding worship, pastoral care, etc.). Yes, all that will be part of what I’ll be called to do; but it shouldn’t be my starting point in articulating my ministry. It should be what my calling later slots into.

Where it gets tricky, is that what I am called to is very deeply rooted in me. So much so that it feels natural, to the point that it seems wrong to spell it out. It feels wrong because, surely, everybody would agree with it, and it barely needs pointing out. So how do I identify the nature of my calling? Through conversation. Through discerning what is shared with everyone from what belongs to my calling.

Last Thursday, I engaged in conversation on whether helping the poor should include teaching them how to use the help – whether, to cut a long conversation short, financial support could be given to people without at the same time teaching them that grocery shopping should come before large screen TVs. I was passionately on the side that support should be unconditional (but that the offer to help should also include, as an option, that teaching). Because of many reasons, but mostly because I am passionate about letting people “come as they are”, and about allowing them to grow at their own pace, in an environment that welcomes them.

See, I thought that everybody would see the value in this approach. Because I thought it was self-evident, because I ended up hanging out with people who share this value.  And I thought failures to allow people  to come as they are, especially in the Christian context, were down to practical contingencies, to our fallen nature, and to limits to our own efforts. I was, clearly, wrong in that.

But talking with others about these things, on a side issue, has allowed me to identify this as a key aspect of my calling. Now I can start to reverse the discernment process from trying to see what aspects of the job fit with who I am, to seeing how these aspects of my calling (these things that feel self-evident to me) can be grown in the job descriptions; and why ordained ministry resonates with that and why I then have that calling.

Do you want to learn about measure theory? Let me know! :)

What are you called to? (we all have a calling, whether in the ministry or not!)

How do you discern your calling?

*I’m using teaching in a loose sense. I  was leading example classes/seminars.

Malicious witnesses


Mission, evangelism, outreach – three words which ultimately mean the same thing: going out and sharing the Gospel.
There are some differences, though: mission conveys the (literally apostolic!) idea of being sent, evangelism has a focus on the nature of what is being shared – the Bible – and outreach suggests the existence of a structure to go back to. The differences between these three leads to a major question: why are we doing this? What leads us to “do” mission? What do we share? And with whom?

Yes, the Great Commission instructs us to go and teach all the nations. And that’s very well. But if it is our sole motivator to go out and share the Gospel, then not only does evangelism become something we just do, but the message we share itself becomes stale. We end up needing to be right, and we end up needing to persuade others that we are.
We start to develop standard answers to deep and personal questions, for instance on creationism, eschatology, homosexuality, suffering, science, etc. – and these are answers we need to have ready, because we can’t be seen to “not have it sorted”.

Woe to us if we end up like that. If we end up reciting the same message to all, with just some tiny alterations in style. Because the fact is the Word is alive to all of us. It grows, it interacts with the people who hear it, and it changes us. The point is, it has interacted with us (and still does). It excites us, makes us passionate.

For instance, I find that I come truly alive when I share some passages that really resonate with me (for instance the story of Gideon. Or John 15.) But every time I do, it is because I explain what this meant to me. How that is relevant to me (and, I hope, it can be to those I share it with). I find that much harder to do when I’m talking to non-Christians.

I’m not sure why, but I think there are three main reasons:

  1. I feel the weight of responsibility. What if I say something wrong and shut that person off to the Gospel?
  2. I’m representing some organisation to an outsider – and personal beliefs shouldn’t come into that, surely.
  3. I need to be seen to have it all sorted. If not, my message is worthless.

And so, when I started taking part in evangelism events, it soon became an intellectual exercise – one that goes both ways, and which allows me to probe some questions myself too; but still, one that involves the mind when I’m talking, and the soul only afterward when I’m praying. I find myself pigeon holing people into categories, which stops me from truly engaging with them.

The Psalmist warns us:

Malicious witnesses rise up; they ask me of things that I do not know.

Psalm 35:11 (ESV)

Should we then stop going out to share the good news? Stop opening ourselves up to these malicious witnesses? Of course not. But we should be wary of these malicious witnesses; and of the focus they have on asking us things thatwe do not know. Rather than addressing the intellectual arguments as something we can get sorted for ourselves and explain on our own to others, and thus becoming falsely self-reliant and arrogant; we should focus on what we know.

What do we know? We know our story. We know how we got changed. We know how reading the Word excites us. How much Jesus matters to us. We know Jesus. What we do not know, is the apologetical arguments – not until we have made them our own. And even then, what we know is the story of how they became our own.
This is what we can share without risk of self-satisfaction and self-reliance. This, and this alone. The rest we must leave up to God.