I did something quite unusual for me at the weekend. I was deliberately belligerent and ignored what I was being told by people I was meant to be working with! I want to reassure you that usually I go out of my way to accommodate the wishes of others. But on this occasion, I think sticking to my plan was absolutely the right course of action!
I was to have a space on a stall at the Surbiton Festival to promote a course I will be running on meditation. However the day before, I was informed that there just would not be enough room for me. So when I arrived on Saturday morning I just plonked myself down in front of the stand with my camping table and stools and began to give free spiritual readings as originally planned. This is because for a number of years, I have been obedient and ended up stuck at the end of the street with very little contact with the majority of the public who are visiting stalls in the main part of the fair. The other reason I chose to ignore the protestations of the stallholders was that I had just spent two days at Kingston University’s Freshers Fair doing Ruach card readings (www.ruachcards.co.uk) and had been blown away by the demand from not yet Christians. While other churchgoers on my team were unsure of using cards to reveal God’s word to people who do not yet know Him, once they saw the positive response from the students and their willingness, having received their reading, to be prayed for ‘in the name of Jesus’, their fears were dispelled. So even while I could hear the complaints about my actions going on around me, I continued to focus on and bless those who wanted a word of encouragement and came to sit beside me. Sure enough the critical voices began to quieten as they saw the reactions of those I engaged with and some volunteers on the stand could see I was actually attracting ‘punters’ to the stall rather than getting in the way and putting them off.
I am sure not everyone was convinced, but I am beginning to grasp that sometimes the best way of communicating what it is you are trying to do is just to get on with it. I have wasted a lot of time and expended a lot of energy trying to win over my critics when actually the most powerful argument is to show them. Or maybe it’s not that others are actively against my plans, they just can’t really get their head round what it is I am attempting to articulate. Yet when the vision becomes reality, suddenly it becomes clear. And as I was reading about Jesus’ encounter with the demonised man this morning, I was struck how easy it is to lack the courage of our convictions and hide behind the criticisms of others, the walls of a church or the stall of an organisation. Luke 8:38 says, “The man who had been demon-possessed begged Jesus to let him stay with him. But he sent him away. ‘Go back to your home’, he said, ‘and tell them what God has done for you.’ And he went off round every town, declaring what Jesus had done for him.” Tom Wright in ‘Luke for Everyone’ draws the following conclusion, “The man, quite understandably, wants to stay with Jesus. Not only is he now bonded with him by the astonishing rescue he has experienced; he may well assume that things would not be easy back in his home territory…He would have to stand up and take responsibility for himself; he couldn’t rely on being able, as it were, to hide behind Jesus…Having experienced the good news in action, he must now tell it himself (p. 101-2).”
While I have had the courage to be able to reveal something of the good news over the last week at Kingston University and in Surbiton High Street, I am still apprehensive about stepping out into new territory with the meditation course that begins on Sunday. No-one might come. I might fall flat on my face. I might have built expectations that will be disappointed by what I deliver. But you know what? I am not going to hide behind anyone or anything else. I will take responsibility for what I have prepared, feel the fear and do it anyway! And actually, I think that is all that God requires.
Leaving a legacy
I’m embarrassed that I have got to part 6 of my series on being a pioneer and am only now referring to the dictionary definition. The Oxford Compact English Dictionary defines the word ‘pioneer’ thus, “(noun) – 1 an initiator of a new enterprise etc. 2 an explorer or settler 3 Mil – a member of an infantry group preparing terrain etc. for the main body of troops.” It is this last aspect in particular that has really struck me this week. Pioneers start something but their success can only really be measured by the lasting impact of those that follow.
I have been thinking about the issue of prophets seeing differently for the breakout conference of pioneers that will take place on Wednesday 21st-Friday 23rd September 2011. I talked of this attribute in an earlier blog, but to recap, pioneers, like prophets, see where God is at work in unexpected places. They then partner with him to create opportunities to reveal His presence and Kingdom way of doing things for the benefit of all creation. However, while looking at a passage from 2 Kings, chapter 6, verse 8, I was struck that not only did the prophet Elisha see what was going on from a spiritual perspective but was able to open the eyes of the others so that they might see too. I also touched on this in another blog about envisioning others. However, if we apply the dictionary definition above, I am not sure that what I said previously goes nearly far enough.
Pioneers make a new path that others will walk in. It is not just about starting something new, for it to be genuinely pioneering what is created will have longevity and change forever the environment and way things have always previously been done. Wow this is quite a challenge and on this basis I am not sure I have the presumption to call myself a pioneer! But, I feel excited that I am part of a movement that I believe will have this kind of enduring legacy. The momentum such a movement has to really change how we see church and do mission is, I think, due largely to true pioneers such as George Lings and Bob and Mary Hopkins. They have diligently plugged away planting fresh expressions of church before the term had been invented and teaching and empowering others with the wisdom they have gleaned from their invaluable experience. I think it is no coincidence that much of what is really innovative and inspiring is happening in Sheffield or somewhere has its roots in their ministry.
I think the danger is that now pioneering is recognised and in fashion, we are quick to label anything vaguely different in these terms. We also forget that many of us might actually be the next wave of troops benefitting from the privations of the real pioneers who are the unsung heroes in our midst. They were pioneers when it was not trendy to be one. I just hope they can enjoy our successes and celebrate with us the fruit of the sea change they were instrumental in affecting. And maybe we will be labelled as pioneers but only in retrospect, when our lasting legacy can be truly judged and appreciated.
Throughout my life there has been a consistent feature. I have gone to church every Sunday morning since I can remember. My earliest memories are of the otherworldliness of church. The coloured puddles of light on the cold, grey, stone floors as sunlight streamed through the stained glass windows, the richness of the decoration and the beautiful images conjured up in my mind as we sang hymns that spoke of, “the songs of the sinless sweeping across the crystal sea”. I even believed that those in robes at the front were angels who came down from heaven to administer to us mortals for the duration of the service. It came as quite a shock when I saw the altar boys having a fight in the graveyard one Sunday morning!
Fortunately my fledgling faith survived this set back and my next experience of church was serving. I was literally a server in that I assisted the vicar at Communion. I also sang in the choir, played in the worship band and even wrote and performed sketches with my youth group. I began to appreciate the rhythm and unending cycle of the liturgical year. I especially loved Holy Week. We had the procession out of the church on Palm Sunday while we sang a hymn which seemed to go on forever. I particularly enjoyed how at different points along the procession we were all on different verses. At last we had escaped the tyranny of the organ that kept us uniformly in time! On Maunday Thursday we stripped the church bare of all its fabrics and furnishings. There was nowhere to hide from the sufferings that we would hear recounted on Good Friday. But then on Easter Sunday morning, the church was at its best – dressed in all its finery, filled with the smell of fresh flowers and there would always be a basket of crème eggs in an alcove by the side of the altar which would be distributed at the end of the service.
When I went through my rebellious teenage years and was dragged out of bed and forced to go to church, I became aware that while I entered church in a foul mood, I always left strangely upbeat and optimistic as we were sent out, “to love and serve the Lord” at the end of the service. I began to consider that God was doing something deep and mysterious in me as I met with Him on a Sunday morning and that it required a life-long response. I still had huge questions and wrestled with ideals in the Bible that definitely did not match up with who I was and my experience of life and faith. I began to see that much of what I appreciated about church actually seemed to be a barrier to others coming into a knowledge and love of Christ. So eventually I ditched the liturgy, the aesthetics and the pattern of the established church for a model that seemed to care much more about making a difference to the lived experience of those outside the community of faith and got really excited about having a relationship with a personal Saviour!
Every Sunday I thanked God for the church he had provided me with. I loved these people and they saw a leadership potential in me which was developed and carefully shaped around my identity. Things have moved on since then and currently I feel a good deal of hurt and disappointment towards church. However, I don’t want to stop believing in it altogether. It is precisely because I see it as so foundational to my own journey that I can no longer stand to just go through the motions. But there must be a way to take all that has been good and true and formative and repackage it for a different generation? I really hope so because I don’t think God has stopped believing in church either!
Another key ability for a pioneer is to envision others that hopes and dreams can become a reality. But this is more than just being an effective communicator. I think it is also about living what you believe and modelling the way that godly expectations are met i.e. through hard work, trial and error, tenacity and partnering with God and others to exploit the opportunities He brings to make a positive impact. I was so thrilled last week as I had a real life example of just what I am talking about. I have a friend who I have walked closely with since she became a Christian about 4 years ago. Having been a spiritual seeker, it has been a difficult road to learn to trust God for all her needs and get some stability and security in her life. However, she has come a long way and is an amazingly loving, wise and creative person who has blessed and encouraged me hugely.
Now that she is a Mum and stuck in the house for a lot of the time, she plays an interactive game on the internet. Through this she has been able to share her faith in unexpected ways! One guy was a policeman in the US who had lots of questions about Christianity but was unable to ask them because the only Christians he knew just wanted to ram their beliefs down his throat! He said it was a refreshing change to have a dialogue with someone who genuinely wanted to listen and answer as honestly as they could. Someone else was being freaked out by demonic activity actually taking place in his house while he was on-line. He had a pentagon around his neck and was trying all kinds of incantations in an attempt to get it to stop. My friend told him how she used to be into all that stuff and now all she had to do was pray in the name of Jesus and she was completely free of any manifestation of the devil in her life. She offered to pray for him there and then and he agreed. He said that immediately the darkness left and peace was restored to his house. He then wanted to know more about how she came to have a faith in Christ.
As well as modelling a ministry to spiritual seekers, I have also seen those in my missional community released into other callings that seek to extend God’s Kingdom. One friend has set up her own business as an image consultant and life coach. She passionately believes in people making the most of all their God-given talents and attributes. She finds her fulfilment in helping them see themselves as their father God sees them and being released into the fullness of who He has created them to be. Another member of our community is using her years of experience as a social worker, as well as her recent studies in pastoral theology, to help set up a community chaplaincy service in our locality. She is doing this in partnership with a prominent member of the local Mosque and representatives from the Borough Council and Health Authority. It is being designed to take the hospital chaplaincy model to those cared for in the community and will endeavour to address peoples spiritual needs alongside their physical and emotional ones.
I am sure there must be hundreds, if not thousands of Christians who are not living out their faith as God intended them to and are missing out on the abundant life he promised because of it. I really want to believe that pioneers demonstrate what is possible and empower the body of Christ to re-engage with mission and so transform the lives of individuals, people groups in different sub-cultures and the nation as a whole. Another way I am seeking to do this is with a conference to gather together and envision all the creative folk we have in our churches. They may not have an opportunity to use their gifts in a worship context but possibilities can be created where art, music, textiles, poetry etc. can be used to start a thought process or conversation with not yet Christians in our wider communities. It is exciting to explore what is possible and even more gratifying when people are blessed and God is glorified through our plans turned into action!