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Friday, 27 September 2013

Connections and Calling

This is a really tough one. I think it lies at the heart both of our own personal growth and the functioning of an effective, growing church community. How do you figure out when and/or whether to disconnect in order to follow what you believe is a God-given calling? Which comes first - connection or calling? Should we ever sacrifice our calling in order to hold on to our connections? Or do we sacrifice connections in order to pursue a calling?

This is such a biggy! I have seen examples of people becoming frustrated and unfulfilled in their callings in order to maintain a connection that they should have moved on from. There were others who have missed out on callings because they didn't value connections that were part of God's means of helping them fulfill their calling, but they got impatient with the process. And I have seen the emphasis on 'covenant' connections used as a way of locking people out of their calling. And I've seen communities made dysfunctional by people focusing only on their own calling, and failing to value their connections.

This is such a minefield, and I still have not worked out a way through it in my own understanding (though I submit that it is better to be honest about this than to think you have it all worked out and then brazenly set out across the minefield). But let me suggest a few tentative steps from things I've learned from observation and experience, as someone who has been involved in Christian community for nearly 30 years and as a leader for 20 of those years. Hopefully I won't set off any explosions:

  1. Even when we have a strong sense of personal call (not all do), we must start by recognising that the mission of God involves us in building relationships and communities so we have got to make this connection thing work!
  2. We can also therefore believe that if we stay sensitive to the Spirit, there will be for each of us a place where we have vital connections and flourish in our calling. Ultimately both are necessary and available; we should not have to sacrifice one for the other.
  3. But there is a journey to that place that may involve disconnections along the way; so we must stay sensitive to the Spirit's leading, listen to his voice and learn his ways. 
  4. We must always pursue our calling but put great value on our connections so we do not leave them lightly.
  5. We should recognise that the pain and frustration that sometimes arises from following a calling in the context of connections and community is often part of the process the Spirit uses to form us and shape us. Sometimes the desire to disconnect is carnal. Sometimes it is the stirrings of the Spirit. We have to stay close and open to Him to know which it is.
  6. Let's not use the Holy Spirit as a cover for our own independence.
  7. Let's talk openly and honestly with those we are connected with about our calling and what we think the Spirit is doing in the process. Let people challenge our thinking but don't be intimidated away from the Spirit's call. 
There are more things that could be said about each of these points; and more points that could be made.But that's enough to think about. Feel free to suggest some of your own.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Connections and Continuity

I still can't stop thinking about connections. And I have recently had a number of significant conversations with people about this; so I have a few more posts on this subject to come over the next few days. I have suggested that the re-configuring of relationships and partnerships in the Church right now has meant disconnection for some. Where this has meant being honest when an historical connection has come to an end and recognising that God has new and fresh life-links for us on the next stage of our journey, that's a healthy thing even if it involves pain in the process. Some pain is healthy. Such disconnections have resulted in the formation of new groups, partnerships, ministries, networks etc and this also can be a good thing. But I have one word of warning to set alongside these observations.

On our recent travels, especially in the States, two things stood out for me: the first I blogged about here - my world has been too small. The other is that there are a lot of really good churches and ministries around the world that have built something of substance and significance over the long-haul. And it made me realise that I do not want to be part of something that is continually fragmenting and splintering into smaller and smaller pieces - that is not healthy. I value vital connections but I also value continuity. Discovering vital connections may involve disconnection at some stages of life, but we must really value those connections when we have them and work at maintaining and strengthening them. If the reconfiguring degenerates into constant disconnecting and an under-valuing of enduring relationships, I believe we will have misunderstood the Spirit's intention. Many of us have appreciated the ministries flowing out of Bethel Church in Redding, CA - what is interesting to note is how long some of those guys have walked together in friendship and ministry over the years. There is continuity. And an important lesson they have learned and passed on is to value relationship above agreement. If connection depends on agreement, get ready for a lot more fragmentation.

Some readers may see only contradiction between disconnection and continuity. I think both are important. And I hope by setting the two together I will help readers who are experiencing the present re-configuration to still really value continuity as well as vital connections.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Dealing with Disconnection

I have said that I think God is doing something in terms of realigning parts of his Body in the UK for his purposes in our generation. I don't pretend to understand all that's happening, but people are finding each other again, some are discovering new significant relationships for the future, and yet others are also finding a deepening and strengthening of old connections with a surge of fresh life and commitment in them. It's all good!

But for some of us, it has also involved disconnection and that has been difficult at times. By disconnection I mean the leaving of a denomination or network, the ending of a working partnership with certain people, churches, ministries etc.who have been significant in your journey so far. It is vital to understand that such disconnection does not necessarily indicate that anything is wrong or bad about the people we are disconnecting from; it is simply responding to what we perceive is the Spirit's rearranging of things (though you probably won't fully realise what is happening at the time). Disconnection should never be about criticising past relationships.

New connections mean the Spirit-led forming of new relationships - not necessarily the joining of a new denomination or network (maybe this new thing God is doing will challenge such an idea of 'joining' a 'something' and be focused far more on relationship, friendship and mutual honouring) - but with a sense that this is for purpose even though you may not fully know what, or how it's going to unfold.

The kind of disconnection I am talking about will usually mean an end to a close working partnership, but it need not lead to an end in relationship. I think we are in a new season where people can disconnect but still honour one another, maintain relationship, seek advice and input from one another as appropriate etc. - to a much greater degree than I have ever seen in the past anyway. There are dangers involved in this so for what it's worth, let me give some advice from my own observations:
  1. Don't use dis-connection as an excuse for avoiding the challenges of relationship and community life. 
  2. Recognize that disagreement is compatible with relationship (and perhaps evidence of its health) so does not always (or usually) necessitate disconnection.
  3. If it is clear that it is right to disconnect,do so with grace and peace, and always honour those you leave. 
  4. Try to maintain relationship with those you disconnect from, even when not in active partnership in ministry and church building. . 
Hope that's helpful to some of you out there.  

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

New Connections and Re-connections

One of the joys of the journey in recent years has been the new connections and re-connections I have
made. The re-connections were with people who I had journeyed with years ago but who I had become disconnected from. Sometimes that was just down to the way our lives and callings developed, in terms of geography apart from anything else. But in many cases it was also because there was a culture, for whatever reason, in which disagreement and divergence seemed to require disconnection. Or that an end to a working partnership in ministry meant an end to relationship. And sometimes because my friend's 'enemy' was my 'enemy' (why enemies?!). Many of you know what I mean. I remember listening to a good friend and a mature, seasoned servant of God being asked a couple of years back what his greatest regret was over his 40 year involvement in the restoration movement. His answer was about the number of good friends and relationships he had lost; he said that he wished he'd realised earlier that 'not everyone who left me was my enemy!' Friends, this should never have been.

So I have really enjoyed re-connecting with old friends. In one case, it involved asking forgiveness of a friend who I had criticised for the pathway his journey had taken him, because I realised I had never taken the time to understand the pathway he was on; I just criticised it from a distance.

I have also really valued discovering new connections with other leaders, co-workers and many members of the Body who have become/are becoming new friends. It has been so good to realise how big and diverse the Body of Christ is. All of this, I am sure is just a small part of what God is doing as he rearranges things in his Body at the same time as showing just how wonderfully expansive is this kingdom we are part of.

In my next post,I want to say a little about the challenge of disconnection and the importance of maintaining connection, and of knowing when connections need to be loosened and when they need to be strengthened.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Connections on the Journey.

A couple of posts back I suggested that part of the nature of pilgrimage is that it is unsettling. It requires we break out of the familiar and the safe and this is so our security rests only in the divine Presence. Still true! But it's worth saying that it also helps to make it less scary when you have other people who are on the journey with you. We are meant to be a community of pilgrims, not a bunch of isolated wanderers; church is a family on a journey, and we are not meant to travel alone.

Having said that, new journeys - or perhaps better to say, new stages of the journey - may involve disconnecting with some people (Abraham had to leave his people and his father's house - Gen.12:1), as well as continuing with others and discovering new connections and re-connections with still others. This is part of the 'relational journey' that I mentioned in my last post. Just over two years ago, quite out of the blue, I felt that the Holy Spirit dropped into my heart and mind (with a clarity and simplicity that is not typical of the way I hear God!) that this was going to be a season of new connections and re-connections for me. Little did I realise what this was going to mean! I am now convinced from my own observations and from talking with other leaders in the country that the Body of Christ in the UK is going through a major reconfiguration and realignment, with some connections loosening and others being discovered and others deepened.

While relationship, community and shared pilgrimage is great, the processes of dis-connection, re-connection and discovering new connections, the loosening of some and the deepening of other connections can be confusing, bewildering and painful. Disconnection can be especially painful and destructive if handled badly and so I want to share some thoughts on this whole subject in posts this week, and hope you'll find them helpful. Please feel free to join in the conversation of pilgrims too as I can only offer my perspective and that is inevitably limited. That's one of the reasons we need each other.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Different Kinds of Journey.

All this talk of journey - but what exactly is the journey I, and maybe we (I don't want to assume for you, dear reader) are on. In fact, I think I'm on a number of journeys at once, or probably different aspects of the one journey: the journey home (see here), to the place that our hearts know we really belong, to the place of his continual Presence. But right now the practical outworking of that for me has been four-fold, I think (constant travel messes my mind so can't count properly) and will indicate some of the kind of things I hope to blog on. Here goes:
  1. A Relational Journey: the journey has meant disconnecting from people I have walked with many years, leaving a spiritual house and then both re-connecting and connecting with new people in the Body. This is painful and unsettling and opens you up to misunderstanding by some. It does not mean being critical or ungrateful towards past connections, though some may see it that way. But I do believe God is doing some serious re-configuring in his Body right now, and for good and significant purpose. I'll probably blog more on this soon. 
  2. A Devotional Journey: growing in my experience of and understanding of God, seeking to go deeper in encounter and relationship with Father, Son and Spirit; valuing and living by Presence and intimacy, no matter the cost and wherever it leads. It involves being open to fresh experiences and expressions of the spiritual life, but keeping it authentic, not getting swept up in pretence or peer-pressured into super-spirituality. Most of all, it means experiencing more of his transforming and revolutionary love that changes everything!
  3. A Theological Journey: theology is not for the egg-heads. Whenever we talk or think about God we are doing theology. And going on a journey in relationship with God must involve a journey in what we think about him as well as what we experience of him - and each affects the other. So I am very much on a theological journey and this has involved shifts and changes in what I believe. That's a problem for some, and so can open you up to serious misunderstanding. I will blog about this quite a lot in the coming months. 
  4. A Restorative Journey: this has been the most challenging and surprising. Challenging, because it has meant having to face up to some of my internal mess, and brokenness in ways I have not been able to before. Surprising, because I was always a little suspicious of what we saw as 'inner healing'. There is much that I still do not understand and I am still a little wary at times. But I am open to allowing God's trinitarian, incarnational love to heal me. If you've read The Shack, you'll have an idea of what I mean by that. I will blog only a little on this to explain - but I'm not yet up for online soul-exposure! Make no mistake, though: the healing journey is vitally important.  
This has been longer than I had intended. I'll work at making posts shorter but more frequent in future, and hope they help and encourage readers on this beautiful adventure we are all on. 

Friday, 13 September 2013

Keeping the Dream Alive When Stuff Just Happens

It's been awhile. Too long! I am still settling into patterns and rhythms of my 'new job.' But still thinking of journey. And I have been reading and thinking about the journeys of some of the patriarchs and especially Abraham's. Keeping it really simple, I just noted that his journey began with a call from God but then took so many twists and turns, including setbacks and wanderings, but that it was punctuated by occasional and sometimes startling encounters with and revelations from God that kept the dream and the call alive.

Between the encounters, stuff happened! Some of the stuff wasn't good, and some of the bad stuff was his own fault. So his journey was full of stuff like almost getting his wife taken advantage of through his own cowardice, running off in the wrong direction instead of trusting God, producing an Ishmael by faltering in his faith. And then there was stuff that just happened, circumstances and other people - an ungrateful and foolish nephew, a war, a famine, arguing over a well, his wife's death. And sometimes he managed moments of outstanding faith and courage - think of his first response to the call, his selfless love of Lot, his intercession for Sodom, his outstanding trust when asked to sacrifice his own son - and beneath it all, including the mistakes and the mess, there was an underlying trust in the one who called him. Between times, God just turned up and awakened the dream - sometimes in strange ways he would reaffirm Abraham's call and vision: a deep sleep and a bloody sacrifice, circumcision (oh, please!), sacrifice your son.... And sometimes in beautiful ways - look at the stars, think of the sand, over a meal with strangers, with words that lifted him up to see beyond the stuff.

I wonder if, like me, you can relate to this. From the moment of the call, a lot of stuff happens, including our many mistakes, and occasional better moments. It is not just one smooth road ascending to greater spiritual heights, in continual awareness of his presence. But we keep going in the middle of the stuff, basically trusting God even when our faith does not seem so big. And then there are the precious moments when we get surprised by hope, amazed by grace, overwhelmed by love, touched by presence; and the dream and the call is found to be still flickering with life. It really is all about His grace and goodness!

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Between the past and the promise

The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father' family, and go to the land that I will show you.
(Gen 12:1)

A journey begins with a departure. We leave something. And often what we leave may be familiar, comfortable, safe. We may be fond of it and secure in it. The journey many of us have been on (and are still on), has meant leaving what was familiar and safe. And frankly you do not know how everything is going to work out. It’s a risk. Another word for it - adventure. We could have stayed right where we were and minimised the risk. But our place of security would have become our cemetery - as it did for Abram's father, Terah (Gen.11:31-32). The journey may be scary and challenging, we face uncertainty and challenge, detours and disappointments, - but at least we're alive! And learning and changing.  And moving forward. Because as well as a departure, Abram had a destination. He had a divine promise - the land. The challenge of pilgrimage is that it's the journey that lies between leaving the past and entering the promise. But he had something else - in the promise of land was the implicit promise of the divine presence, because it was land that He would show him. God was coming along as his guide! So the gap between departure and promise can actually be filled with Presence. Between leaving the familiar past and entering the future promise, there is only Presence. Pilgrimage, then, is all about where we place our security - in the familiar place or in the  divine presence. And where you place your security is a matter of life and death.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Why Journey?

In my last post I addressed the issue of how the Bible presents the journey motif; but I feel I also need to say something about why it is so central. It's because we're not home yet.

We were created to live continually at home in the presence of God. His purpose has always been to have a home among us - the people he created to enjoy a loving, intimate relationship with him. We became estranged from God on the inside when we went our own way and lost our life connection with him; and the beautiful world he created to inhabit became a broken world. One day God is going to have his dream home among us in a new heaven and a new earth, a new home (Rev.21:3; 2 Pet.3:13). As Christians we get to anticipate something of this when we enjoy God's presence and live in increasing intimacy with him now. But this broken world we live in is not our home. We can live in it either as restless wanderers like Cain, or as responsive pilgrims, like Abraham - who follow the call to pursue the presence of God, ultimately knowing that we can never build our home in this present age/broken world, because we are looking to the home/city/renewed world where God dwells among people.
And even when he reached the land God promised him, he lived there by faith—for he was like a foreigner, living in tents. And so did Isaac and Jacob, who inherited the same promise. Abraham was confidently looking forward to a city with eternal foundations, a city designed and built by God. (Heb.11:9-10)
Like Abraham, then, we can only live 'in tents' in this world because we are aliens and strangers here; we belong somewhere else, in the place of intimate connection with God. So we set our hearts on pilgrimage, to be pursuers of his presence.

But I suggest there is another journey going on. God is not just waiting at home for us to arrive; He is always pursuing us - even into our brokenness, pain and mess - in order to draw us back into the intimacy of his presence, to take us home to be with him.

Tomorrow, I'll get on with what the journey is actually like -and how it strikes at the vital issue of where our security lies.

Monday, 2 September 2013

The Journey in the Bible

There are a few dominant motifs in the Bible [A motif is a recurring element in a story, an image, or narrative pattern or event that has some evocative significance]. There is one of the Garden, or Land of presence and plenty; there is that of Building - related usually to the Temple, God's Dwelling Place; or those related to the Battle, to warfare, to overcoming enemies; and then that of the Lover, of Marriage, of the Bride and Groom. There are others but these are major ones (any other suggestions?) and the motif of the Journey or Pilgrimage is up there with the big ones, and one that I especially connect with. A really rewarding way to read/study the Bible is to trace some of these motifs through the various parts of the Bible, the different stages of its unfolding Story, and discover the rich, significant and surprising insights that help to convey God's ultimate purpose. I want to just draw attention to the motif of the Journey by way of background to the journey I/we are on at the moment that I intend to reflect on in the next few posts [I am discovering the importance of placing our own journeys/stories against the backdrop of the bigger Story of Scripture, to rightly understand them - I must post more on that some time soon].

Scripture itself is best seen as a Big Story told through many stories, and a story always involves a journey - in the case of the Bible's story, it is the journey from creation to new creation. Then, the story of God's rescue and restoration plan after humanity's rebellion begins with a man - Abraham - on a life-changing and history-changing journey, and others of the patriarchs have significant journeys. Two major journeys loom large in the OT - the Exodus and the Return from Exile - and in fact they are re-imagined and reworked by NT writers to convey something about the spiritual life and our present journey as the church. Many other stories in the OT involve journeys for key characters - think of David, or of Ruth, for example. And consider how the psalmists compared the spiritual life to following the right path or way. In the NT, Jesus seemed to be always travelling, most significantly to Jerusalem; and how many of his parables involved journeys or travel? Jesus is of course the Way, as well as truth and life (John 14:6). Then there are the missionary journeys in the book of Acts, which form the backdrop for the letters. And those early Christians, like us, were aliens and strangers in this world (1 Peter 2:11), having no 'abiding city' (Heb.13:14), and so committed to a life of pilgrimage in this world. One of  my favourite journeys in the NT is the one where the risen Jesus drew alongside the despondent disciples on the Emmaus Road, and restores their hope (Luke 24). And of course Jesus is able to do that because of the journey he has made from the Father's side to the Cross and through death to Resurrection, to new creation life, blazing a trail for us to follow, and then preparing to make another journey at his Return when he comes to make all things new. Wow! So Journey lies at the heart of our faith - that is why it was originally called the Way (Acts 9:2). This has significance for us now - let's consider it over the next few days. Most posts won't be as long as this one!