Thursday, 31 May 2012

God needs energetic Christians!

One of the ways in which I play with scripture is to summarize a chapter around a key theme; then I’m more likely to engage with it, and to remember it. Here’s an effort from some years ago preached in an Oxfordshire village, and now turned into a blog from my notes!

Hebrews 13 is summed up in my mind as ‘kingdom living’ and there are five simple but hugely demanding elements to that living. I won’t cross-reference them for you, but invite you to read the chapter, read the blog and examine your conscience.

We are to love one another as brothers and sisters, that is, as family. By this the writer is calling us to love out of knowledge, just as we have to do in our own families, where nothing is hidden. This is love, warts and all, love in all its messiness, unconditional, matched and trumped by Jesus’ unconditional love for us.

Secondly, we are to be hospitable. Again, there are no limits, because we don’t know when an angel is lurking! The bit that jumps out for me, of course, is that hospitality is not just to one another but to God. We welcome strangers as if they were the presence of God. Why? Because they are the presence of God. There is a ‘supernatural’ dimension to all hospitality – ‘the unseen guest’.

This is expanded in the third point, to our care for prisoners as if we were in prison with them. Hospitality is extended in this in a missionary direction: we go out to others; waiting for them to come in is not enough. We of all people go into the hard places, especially the places that non-Christians find difficult, the place of death, of disfigurement, of gross sin.

Fourthly, we are those who live free from consumerism. We do not need to purchase to find life. In that freedom, we live lives of appreciation, thankfulness, delight and pleasure in simplicity. Our language is still embedded with this ideal of ‘the simple things of life’. In recovering them, we return the world to God the creator, living in it with light and childlike footsteps.

And finally, this kingdom living is sacrificial: strengthened by grace, we respond to the cross by receiving gratefully (so hard for us to do these days!) and by responding with grace. We are called to speak gracefully of life and about one another, to serve gracefully, and to share all that we have. Sacrificial living is never spent. There is always more of life to give, under God’s grace.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Eyes to see: God in surprising places

The classical evangelical discipline of the ‘quiet time’ of Bible reading, study and prayer has sustained many generations of Christians, and continues to do so. For many reasons, not all to do with spiritual laziness, there are some who find this pattern and discipline difficult or unhelpful.  One of the aims of the Simeon Centre for Prayer and the Spiritual Life is to encourage exploration of new patterns and ways of prayer, both because guilt does not help our Christian discipleship, but also because God is not interested in style. What matters to God is relationship.

Two years ago, the Simeon Centre held a day on Spirituality and Creativity, using a number of art forms as the stuff of prayer. On June 9, another such day will be held on ‘spirituality and photography: praying through the lens.’ The purpose of it is threefold: to help participants to engage with a theology of beauty; to find ways of new or ‘deep’ seeing that might be revelatory; and to learn a little about the playfulness that ought to be inherent in our relationship with our heavenly Father.
We are familiar now with the idea that God, who is the goodness underlying all that is good, and the truth of all truth, is glimpsed through things of beauty. That’s why Paul enjoins us in Philippians 4 to ‘think on these things’. Play, too, is much more a part of Christian spirituality today. Perhaps the hardest thing for us to learn is the central theme of the day, that when we allow the Holy Spirit to give us ‘eyes to see’, we may once again glimpse heaven, and worship. To that end, the use of a camera may well become the ‘eyes of prayer.’

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Substitionary prayer and how to do it

In 2 Corinthians 10, Paul speaks about the battles that we fight as disciples of Christ: Indeed, we live as human beings, but we do not wage war according to human standards; for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ.

There are many strongholds ‘out there’ against which we stand in the name of Christ. In this we are prayer warriors. There is a multitude of ‘arguments’ against which we speak the truth of the gospel of Christ. In this we are apologists. For every ‘proud obstacle’ raised up against the true knowledge of God, we have the name of Christ, a stone that makes them stumble and a rock that makes them fall.

Perhaps the hardest battle of all is against the strongholds within ourselves, the habits, patterns of behaviour and learned responses which remain fleshly, sometimes years after we took our first stumbling steps as Christians. Once, we sought to overcome them, but have grown tired, jaded, and almost used to their company.

What’s instructive for me in Paul’s language is that he doesn’t speak about obliterating bad thoughts or fantasies, but about taking them captive, taming them, turning wild beasts into farmyard creatures who – more or less – behave. And there are several ways in which we can do this. We can
  • catch ourselves descending into unhelpful or dangerous spirals of dark or sinful thought, and tell ourselves off there and then. ‘Stop it, you silly fool!’ I say, sometimes aloud. And the wild thought usually listens, and lopes off into the undergrowth. 
  • crowd the beasts out with beauty and blessing. Against those murderous thoughts that I have when drivers carve me up, I sign the sign of the cross over them and bless the drivers instead. (Well, to be honest, I do on a good day!) 
  • turn those crazy twisted thoughts into energetic prayers. As someone said to me recently, ‘I have learned to turn my complaints into Kingdom protests.’
It’s the last of these I’d like to illustrate by offering you a short litany of substitutionary prayer to pray, as part of your arsenal against the strongholds within:

Lord, in place of the complaints I have voiced this day, I ask you to transform those unjust situations;
For all my cheap jibes at the expense of others, I ask you to make me humble;
For the congregations and Christians I have written off, I ask for their healing and restoration;
For the discrimination I have exercised in my head, I ask you to bring me to a place of meeting with ‘the other’;
For the little wars that I have waged, defeat my aims and make me a peace-singer;
For the pollution I have spilt through my mind and heart into a needy world, I ask you to cleanse not only me, but the other hearts and minds my actions have sullied.
And all these things I ask in and through the name of Jesus Christ, who hung in our place on the cross, and dying gave us life. Amen.