Sunday, 29 November 2015

Letters to a shipwrecked minister

Before I had this blog I had another one. A pseudonymous one. It was called The View Beyond the End. I have decided to repost a piece from it - I think I am ready now, but it has taken a while. This piece explains something of the name of the blog, and how I came to write it. 


This blog is called what it is because I used to have a life in Christian ministry, and then it came to an end. It came to an end because, over a long period of time, I became cool toward God, professionalised in my work, and neglectful of my marriage. In the end I ended up committing adultery and losing my wife, my career, my reputation and, for a long period of time, all semblance of relationship with God. 

That I have come back I owe to so many factors – above all the preserving grace and infinite mercy of God, but, by way of instrumentality, the prayers of many, many people, and the loving support of my children and their spouses, and of many friends, including from the woman who is now my wife. 

A key instrument that God used in my return was communication by letter, and I wanted to write with thankfulness about the many letters I have received over the last years. You may not be in a position to meet up with a person going through what I was, but you may be able to send a traditional letter or write an email or Facebook message. These all had an impact on me. I stress the word "all", as some may seem to have been viewed very negatively. Indeed, at one level they were, and are, but they still formed part of the whole network of ways that God used in his sovereign grace to bring me back. 

I could categorise the communications in a number of ways 

1)   The aggressive and harsh

2)   The harsh and stern 

3)   The stern and loving

4)   The loving and spiritual 

5)   The spiritual and indirect 

1) The aggressive and harsh. 

I received a small number of letters whose tone was extremely unpleasant. In all cases they were from women; in all cases I knew that what drove the tone had more to do with experiences that the writer had been through themselves than specifically with me. 

In one case the writer assumed that I would not know who she was (in relation to other members of her family who I knew far better and who she quoted, unnamed, in her letter); on realising that I knew who she was she replied that she would never have written if she had thought I could identify her. She said that she would ask her daughter's forgiveness for quoting her; to the best of my knowledge she never has. 

Others were less underhanded, but almost as unpleasant. Adultery and betrayal, unhappy marriages and frustration – these things are all around us, and make for very vitriolic correspondents. 

I should say that one friend subsequently wrote to me with sincere apologies for her manner in writing her first letter. Reconciliation was very sweet. 

And the big point is that ALL these letters, although they made me sad and angry at the time, were part of the way God dealt with me to bring me back. Truth spoken viciously is still truth, and it struck home. The viciousness may say a lot about the author's state of mind and heart; the truth can be carried into the conscience.

2) The harsh and stern

I received a far larger number of letters, mainly from men, that could be described as harsh and stern. No personal venom, but a definite cold feel.  Sometimes they came from people I didn't know closely, but some were from people who had been close friends. 

 On one occasion the woman I was seeing saw one of these letters.  Her reaction, "THAT is from a FRIEND?" Notwithstanding her ignorance of Christian standards and expectations, she had a point. 

Yet every one of these letters had a real impact on me. Although sometimes my initial reaction was to be confirmed in my rebellion, deep down I knew differently, and over the long haul my conscience was challenged, time and time again. 

3) The stern and loving 

Then again, I received many letters and messages that were deeply serious but extraordinarily loving. These were often from former colleagues in Christian ministry – men I had known well or less well, who wrote to warn me of my spiritual peril. The letters did not pull punches – they told me plainly that if I continued on my present course I would be lost for ever, that I would go to hell – but they did so in a way that ached with pain and affection towards a wandering brother. 

These men were true shepherds. If tone could be described by way of action, while some letters yelled an order at a lost sheep, these letters came and offered to carry me home. 

And whereas others often fired off one missive and were done, these brothers sometimes made repeated, non-naggy, contact. 

Such letters never made me feel confirmed in my rebellion. They made me miss the love of these guys. They made me want to come home. 

4) The loving and spiritual 

The people who wrote most regularly were a handful of older ladies who never rebuked me at all. Whereas most of the stern letters were one-offs, a few people sent brief notes many times, sometimes with bits of news, a text that had spoken to them last Sunday, or a brief word of encouragement. Above all, I was reassured time and time again that they were praying for me. 

It would be a high-handed rebel indeed who could maintain steady anger towards such people. Some were like my mothers in the faith. Indeed, the most regular writer was directly connected to my conversion; it was after a meeting in her house nearly forty years ago that I had gone home to pray and seek God. 

These letters, too, really made me want to come home. 

5) The spiritual and indirect

This last category encompasses more than letters. It was more about contact. People who knew God, knew where I was at, knew what the score was, but without direct rebuking or nagging, simply interacted with me. Sometimes they asked questions about where I was at, in a way that took my spiritual state seriously, but with more serious empathy than direct condemnation. More often they just talked about other stuff. Life stuff. Being friends.

Facebook interaction was the general method – a comment on a photo here, a thoughtful political comment there, an appreciation for a YouTube music video or for a particular ale – these contacts from Christians who spoke naturally-and-yet-as-Christians broke down the illusion that I was living a brave new life, having all the fun. These people were human, and had warm and interesting and fulfilling lives, AND loved Christ, and let me know it without much direct speech.

They didn't just make me want to come home: they made me feel the pointlessness of not coming home.  That was a very big victory. 

   *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *  

In conclusion

I am grateful for ALL the above categories of correspondence. God used them all. My pastor through all of this was faithful in contact, and if meeting him could be put in terms of the categories of letters, he was both 3 and 5. 

I would say, if you know someone who has wandered:

·       Make contact. The most aggressive of the above types of letters were less painful and less of a stumbling block to my recovery than the massive roar of silence from the bulk of my Christian friends. Men in ministry who I had regarded as friends and colleagues for years made no attempt to contact me at all. To be honest, horrid contact is better than no contact.

·       Be real. Talk to the person where they are. Share your feelings of disappointment and betrayal if you have them. Be honest, so that genuine love may be seen and felt. But interact on a wider range of subjects than simply the sin. Be a friend.

·       Be open. Write in such a way as to encourage dialogue, more correspondence. Don't just fire off a missive (missile?) to salve your conscience as a "watchman"; plant a seed that may grow, starting an interaction that could save a wanderer. 

·      Talk about Jesus. When I was far away, I missed him. Every letter that made me miss him more was a nail in the coffin of rebellion. 

Thank you, all, for helping me come home. 

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Word between Worlds

We were studying the ministry of John the Baptist in Mark 1 this week. I was struck again by the eschatological nature of preaching. John’s proclamation, just as the preaching of Jesus a few verses later, is not merely a flat call to repentance, to make a new start, to change simply because life might be better that way, or because it is the right thing to do. It is a call to repent in the light of the imminent action of God in judgement (Malachi's prophecy) and salvation (Isaiah). 
That action of God was, of course, in and through the arrival of Jesus himself. He came, also calling for repentance and faith, and pulling those two prophetic threads together in his own person. He brought salvation by bearing judgement. Believe it!
John’s ministry looked back (as did all the OT prophets) to the standards of the covenant that God had made with his people, but, more than any other prophet, he looked forward, because the Day of God was now arriving. Our ministry is no less eschatological, but we look back to God’s past work in the person of Jesus, and look forward, announcing his second coming and final judgement. He bore judgement, bringing salvation; he will return, bringing judgement and salvation that will define eternity for all of us. 

Our tendency is to lose that eschatological driving force in our preaching. Desperate for “relevance” we preach how Jesus transforms life now – which he does – but all too easily flatten out the proclamation into a mere moral appeal, which ultimately degenerates into what is little better than a self-help exhortation.

When the word of Christ is ministered, in whatever context, setting or style, our minds and hearts are brought into sharp confrontation with three “moments”.  As we proclaim Christ, we take people back to the moment of God's mighty working in the coming of his Son, and especially the complex of cross-resurrection-ascension-Pentecost which form the focus of that work. We take people forward to the return of this same man Jesus: history is not wandering aimlessly, but is moving, or is being moved, inexorably towards that moment, the End. There will be glory, ultimate justice, complete resolution to the whole story – and to your story and mine. 

And in between those Moments, we have the moment in which the word is being ministered. The preacher is conscious of his or her position in the Now, this moment that hangs suspended in the vast universe of space and time, held by invisible threads between the Victory and the Coming. The preacher’s job is to bring those who hear into consciousness of those other Moments and their bearing on the present; it is to make clear that this moment called Now is the time to act, to repent and believe in the light of the only two other Moments that really matter. This day when we preach has an official name - it is called Today, and is the day God has appointed for all of us, preachers included, to repent and believe the Good News.  

... by any means possible...
All preaching, in one way or another, needs to occur in the consciousness of those three Moments, and to bring hearers into that consciousness. Preaching that disconnects from Christ’s Past and Christ’s Future ceases to be preaching. Preaching is, in fact, eschatological activity in and of itself. It is the most important thing happening in the world today. When Christ word is preached, we hear the voice that said “Father forgive them” from the cross, and we hear the voice that will divide sheep and goats on the last day.

To preach Christ’s word is terrifying; not to preach is far worse.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Why I wear the poppy

Every country that has ever fought a war needs a regular reminder of the cost of war.

Every country that has never fought a war needs a regular reminder of the cost of war. 

It is right to remember those who died fighting for their country in wars that needed to be fought, where some essential point of justice, of saving lives, of protecting the world, was at issue. 

It is right to remember those who died fighting for their country in wars that did not need to be fought, wars that were misconceived, foolish and only damaging.

Those who were maimed in body or mind fighting in wars on behalf of their fellow countrymen should have the support and help of their country, both where the conflicts that brought them injury were wisely entered upon, or a foolish disaster. 

Those who have lost their mates, their comrades in arms, while fighting for their country, should feel the solidarity and support of their countrymen in that loss, even when we question the justice or wisdom of the conflicts into which they were sent. 

I do not wear the poppy because I think my country always gets it right. I do not wear the poppy because I hate any other country. I wear the poppy as much with horror and shame as with pride, but wanting to say to those who have gone into situations where I have never gone, wearing uniforms and bearing arms and firing ammunition that my taxes have paid for, "Now you are back you are not unthought of or uncared for."

If the poppy is finally subsumed by the "my country, right or wrong" brigade, the "we hate Moslems" brigade, the "darkies/pakis/refugees/cockroaches go home" brigade or even simply the "if you don't wear a poppy you're not a patriot" brigade, I will no longer wear it. But for the moment, it is for remembrance. And it is worn with conscious gratitude to servicemen and women, some of whom fought on my behalf in conflicts that I believe we had no business to enter and where, tragically, our involvement was stupid from the very start. 

Monday, 2 November 2015

The not so mysterious case of the disappearing Jesus

The other morning we listened to a testimony in bed. I have to say that this isn't a daily occurrence... but we did then because someone Sarah knew from the Salvation Army had told their story in a well-known London church and the recording was now available online.

It wasn't short, though it wasn't always very detailed either. But what struck us both was the fact that throughout, the testimony was about coming to rely more and more on God with no mention of Jesus at all. God wasn't described further either - not Father, nor any other name or title - just the rather vague, generic, "God". 

I think this is part of a pattern. Fewer and fewer people seem to focus on Jesus when they tell the story of their spiritual journey. "God" is not identified, and sometimes seems almost impersonal. You might think that "Knowing God" was less a matter of a love relationship and more a question of "Use the force, Luke." 

Why is this? 

I don't think the answer is too difficult. Two things. 

Jesus has disappeared because we don't sing about him. For British Christians - certainly for all Protestants outside the Anglican scene - our hymn book was our liturgy. We have abandoned the hymn book in favour of the projector, and, perhaps oddly, one effect of this has been a massive reduction in the range of songs sung. Critics often focus on problems with particular songs, the "me-focussed-ness", the doctrinal howlers etc. What is not so often noted is how whole meetings can now occur with no sung mention of the name of Jesus. It is frequent these days for times of "worship" to not mention Jesus by name at all, let alone focus on his cross-work or the person of the Son within the Trinity. If our worship has degenerated into "I trust in you because you are so amazing" it isn't surprising that our testimonies are similarly vague and me-centred. 

And Jesus has disappeared because we no longer talk about him. Good sermons in the gospels are rare. Many talks in church are moralistic rather than kerygmatic - they tell people what to do rather than announcing the good news of what God has done. Preaching is no longer placarding Jesus before the people. 

For some Christians, including a substantial number in the Salvation Army, the Bible is no longer seen as one "Word of God" anyway; it is not a unified book with a divine author, but a collection of human writings. A love letter from our wronged Creator has been replaced in the mindset by a fundamentally incoherent, self-contradictory bundle of stories of personal journeys. Of course, the Bible is not less than the account of the faith-journeys of a number of more or less flawed people, but we lose at our peril the notion that it is the one book of God.  Above all we lose out when the idea of the Bible as the word of Christ is effectively abandoned. 

And I think it is that abandonment that is evidenced by the disappearance of Jesus from testimonies. If we preach Christ at all, it is more as "one of us", with his own faith and fragility to the fore (and those elements I am not denying) than it is as the Mighty to Save of whom all the scriptures speak. As a result, who runs to him? And who tells the story of how he saved them? 

I'm praying for a revival - a revival of Jesus in our stories because he is there in our worship and, at its heart, in the ministry of the word.