‘He guided me back and forth amongst them and I saw a huge number of bones lying on the ground in the valley – very dry bones indeed. He asked me: “Son of man, is it possible for these bones to be alive?” I answered: “Yahweh Almighty, only you know”.’ (Ezekiel 37:2-3)
Take a really good look – Ezekiel is there in the valley and Yahweh leads him about amongst the bones. This is not just a casual look, it’s a really thorough examination of the situation. Notice how Ezekiel is guided back and forth, this is not ‘Go and look and I’ll wait here’ on Yahweh’s part. It’s an intimate togetherness in which they both go, we can almost imagine Ezekiel as a child hand-in-hand with a parent. I should warn you that the rest of this article might seem very gloomy. But please remember, this is a low point in a deep valley and things get better – much better!
For Ezekiel this is all about Israel in captivity under Babylon. For us it should also speak about the church in captivity under the thinking and dictates of the world. We can no more shake ourselves free from the influence of the world than Israel could have shaken herself free from Babylon. Yet we need to be free.
Because we are in the world it is very, very natural to apply processes like planning, teaching, organising and structuring, hierarchies, and leadership. We emphasise great presentation and engagement. There is nothing wrong with these methods in themselves, but they do have the sneaky potential to intrude on an intimate walk with Papa day by day. Methods alone are death, Jesus alone is life. Where would you rather be? If you choose both, be aware there may be some conflict – tread carefully!
We can learn from Ezekiel’s thorough examination of the bones. We really do need to be ‘guided back and forth’ amongst the remains of church. How can we encourage abundant church if we don’t first understand the nature of the problem? It’s time to examine the situation very, very carefully and thoroughly. A casual glance is not going to be enough. Father’s guidance is essential, not optional. The good news is that there are people being guided back and forth today; I am aware of some of them but I’m certain there are many more. This is not something we initiate, it’s something Father is initiating, guiding us by the Spirit of Christ to become aware of our situation. A study of church history can open our eyes to the sorts of error we may be tempted to make.
Consider, for example, some of the great movements of the past – the Reformation, the Celtic monastic movement, John Wesley and the beginnings of Methodism, the Welsh Revival, Azusa Street. The pattern is clear; it begins with revelation and fresh ideas, these are widely adopted, there’s a period of stagnation, then fossilisation, then there’s fresh revelation and the pattern repeats. Do we think that our generation is different? Is church today in its final and perfect form? Are we now the pure and unblemished Bride of Christ? Or are we, in our turn, waiting for fresh revelation?
Dry as a bone – Ezekiel sees that there are huge numbers of these bones, but he also notices that they are very dry indeed. This is significant. These are not the remains of something that was recently alive. Think about the process of decay – the muscle and other soft tissue is the first to go, skin and hair takes much longer, sinew and cartilage require even longer, and to get to the stage where the bones are disarticulated and scattered and powder dry takes a very long time indeed.
This is true of the church too. Please don’t miss the point – I’m not saying that individual believers are dead or dry, this is about how we are fitted together and active together – church. What should be a mighty army is dead, dry and scattered; church has been in that state for a long, long time.
So here is Ezekiel, arm in arm with the Almighty Power behind the universe, checking over the state of the remains. And Yahweh looks at Ezekiel and asks: ‘Can these bones live?’ Only a wise person would answer this correctly. Reason tells us dry, scattered bones cannot live – ever. They have already had their chance. But Ezekiel says: ‘You tell me, Lord!’
If only we would stop talking to one another and begin listening to Father together instead. If only!
Death is in the world but life is in Christ. If careful inspection shows dry bones then we need to know that Jesus is our only hope. Every time we have come off the church rails it’s because we’ve turned away from Christ and trusted instead in mission, or training, or… fill in the blanks. We do not need a new programme, we need a new vision of Christ!
When we examine the state of the church and how it needs to change, are we walking arm-in-arm with the King or are we going on our own, for our own ends, in our own wisdom and strength?
Watching ‘The Shack’ was an emotional experience, it had me on the edge of tears a number of times.
Paul Young’s extraordinary book, The Shack, came out in 2007. I read it at the time and was so impressed that I shared it widely amongst my friends and family. A film based on the book was released in March in the USA, but here in the UK we had to wait until June.
Donna and I went to see it in Cheltenham on 10th and thought it was very true to the book. In some ways it’s better than the book! Watching ‘The Shack’ was an emotional experience, it had me on the edge of tears a number of times, and I mentioned the book and the film on Thursday when I met with some friends from Cirencester Baptist Church. One of the people in that meeting, Miriam, told us about an online video she had seen in which the author is interviewed by Nicky Gumbel. This is just one of many interviews out there, my three particular favourites are below, Paul Young has collected others on his own website, and Google will find more with the author, and with the actors in the film,
Whatever your views on faith, discipleship, mission, community or the nature of church, this book will encourage you to fresh thinking.
Ten years ago a significant book was written by a guy called Alan Hirsch. He titled it ‘The Forgotten Ways’ and in it he laid out his thinking about a new paradigm to explain the rapid flourishing of movements such as the early church.
A few days ago a new edition appeared with significant changes following ten further years of thinking about explosive missional movements. Alan has refined the book by adding new examples, making some changes to the terms he uses, and making even more persuasive arguments.
The new version is a great book; read it! Whatever your views on faith, discipleship, mission, community or the nature of church, this book will encourage you to fresh thinking. It will take you down some rarely travelled roads, through unexplored countryside, and it will open new vistas and opportunities.
There are a few links below, you might explore these if you are new to Alan’s thinking. And if you’re familiar with the first edition you’ll certainly want to read the new one.
The twenty-first century is turning out to be a highly complex phenomenon where terrorism, disruptive technological innovation, environmental crisis, rampant consumerism, discontinuous change, and perilous ideologies confront us at every point. In the face of this upheaval, even the most confident among us would have to admit, in our more honest moments, that the church as we know it faces a very significant adaptive challenge.
He’s absolutely right! But what can we do about it? A very plausible answer will unfold as you read this book.
‘If you love me you will do what I say’. It doesn’t come a whole lot clearer than that!
Donna and I drove to Peterborough last night to visit Faith Camp 2016 and listen to Colin Urquhart’s opening message for the week. Donna likes to get along to some of these large meetings from time to time, and Colin always has good things to say – often about discipleship in one way or another.
This time he spoke about whether we truly love Jesus. We say that we do, but are we willing to obey him? Jesus told his disciples, ‘If you love me you will do what I say’. It doesn’t come a whole lot clearer than that!
Personally, I don’t favour using structure and hierarchy alongside the fundamental family nature of church. But that doesn’t mean I don’t value the good teaching that can be found wherever and however Jesus’ people gather. And Colin’s teaching was certainly good. Here are a few highlights.
Jesus didn’t talk about love, he just did it. Love breeds love over time. All his disciples loved him.
We’re not called to examine our own sinful hearts (we can’t see very clearly and are likely to miss a great deal). We are to ask him to search our hearts and show us what we cannot see.
If we don’t know ourselves, we can’t do what he wants us to do. We have to deny ourselves daily or we cannot be his disciples.
Don’t lose what you have discovered [about discipeship] in this part of the guide. Spend time praying about how you should respond (Matthew 6:6-8); listen to the Holy Spirit (John 14:26). Write down what you hear from him and record any significant thoughts, ideas or plans you have. And spread the benefits; if you found this session useful, encourage others to try it too.
As with every section of this guide, there’s a real need to put what you are learning into practice. It needs to move from being head knowledge to being something you do. In fact, it will work much better the other way round; begin with some doing and the head knowledge will gradually crystallise.
So don’t spend too much time theorising and planning. Make some simple choices and get started. There are some ideas in the notes [in JDMC], but often, the most relevant ideas may be those you think up for yourselves.
Discuss – Is anything holding you back? If so identify it and deal with it. If not, go and make a start on the activities you decided on!
Further thoughts – Overthinking can be a real sticking point. I know because I do this myself all the time. If you do something simple but practical to go deeper as a disciple and to start others on the discipleship journey, you will feel encouraged and empowered to do more. If you just think about it today, you’ll just think about it again tomorrow, and the day after; you’ll become discouraged and less likely to make a start.
The essence of discipleship is to become, little by little, more like Jesus. A disciple is a person in the process of being conformed into the image of Christ. This is a challenge, but it’s an exciting challenge. It’s a journey towards a goal and it’s a journey with a purpose. If I am becoming more Christlike, I am helping the people I interact with every day grasp something of his nature. And engaging people in that way opens many opportunities for conversation and mission. Isn’t that exactly how Jesus reached and touched people?
We have been lost sheep, our shepherds have led us astray, our shepherds caused us to … wander, to forget our own resting place
What do you think of when you read the words ‘bad shepherds’? Perhaps you imagine a man with a crook lying asleep in the shade while the sheep wander off. Or you might think of a man with a dog, hitting the sheep with a long stick to make them go in the right direction.
Bad shepherds are mentioned in Jeremiah 50 beginning at verse 6. Yahweh, the mighty Lord of Israel is speaking to the prophet Jeremiah and he says,
My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray and caused them to roam on the mountains. They wandered over mountain and hill and forgot their own resting place. Whoever found them devoured them; their enemies said, ‘We are not guilty, for they sinned against Yahweh, their verdant pasture, Yahweh, the hope of their ancestors’.
The people had been in captivity in Babylon when Jeremiah heard this message, and out of that terrible situation they would cry tearfully to Yahweh; and these verses were part of his response. Israel had begun very much in Yahweh’s presence, they were his chosen people. But they had done so much wrong that he had expelled them from the land and sent them into captivity. When Paul wrote in Colossians 1:27, ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ (and it’s a plural ‘you’), he was repurposing a Jewish prayer. The Jews of his day were praying for the Shekinah glory of the Presence of Yahweh to return to the Holy place in the Jerusalem Temple. This was ‘the hope of glory’ that Paul refers to. But the glory would no longer rest in the Holy place in the Temple, from now on it would rest in the ekklesia, the church.
The church began really well and will end well, she is the wife, the Bride of the Lamb (Revelation 21:1-4). She is chosen, not just as individuals but as a body, all of us together. Do you think the church has also been sent into captivity? What is our ‘Babylon’? Just think, what began as a joyful, exuberant, free, living expression of new life in Christ has so often become solemn, restrained, enslaved to ritual and tradition and seemingly dry and dead. We have become fractured into many denominations so are no longer ‘one body’.
The solution for the church today is the same as the solution for Israel in Jeremiah’s day. We must ‘go in tears to seek’ Jesus our Lord and King (Jeremiah 50:4). We must ask the way back and turn our faces towards it; we must come and renew the bond we have to him and not forget (verse 5).
We have been lost sheep, our shepherds have led us astray, our shepherds caused us to roam on the mountains, to wander, to forget our own resting place (verse 6). It’s time to turn back to Jesus alone, to follow him, to hear his voice and do his bidding. There is a reason that he said, ‘I am the good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I know my sheep and my sheep know me’ (John 10:11, 14).
But please don’t hear what I am not saying. I am not saying there is no place in church for leaders, just that there is no place for bad shepherds. And I’m not saying that that we should fill in the structural cracks of denominationalism in our own strength, instead we should all make sure we’re connected with the Head so that through him we will all be part of one network. He has a plan for the church that will work, I don’t and neither do you. He said, ‘I will build my church’; and he will!
Get stuck right in with the business of making disciples and growing in discipleship. (Acts 14:21-22) Don’t wait. Be active right from the start. Then reflect together, pray together and celebrate what Jesus is doing amongst you and around you. What went well? What might have been done better? What can you learn?
Keep going around this loop – action, reflection – action, reflection – do and grow. This can be very helpful, giving people a chance to experiment and learn about strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Coaching can steer you through the process. It’s much like sports coaching. Coaches should aim to empower, equip and energise Christ-like growth. You might need help to find or train suitable coaches, but it will be worthwhile.
Discuss – Do you see the value of reflecting on your successes and failures? Have you started doing this yet?
Further thoughts – Sometimes making disciples may be a one-to-one affair, sometimes it might be part of a journey with a group of people. You are likely to find that opportunities will present themselves and it’s just a matter of recognising them and taking a step in faith. As you encourage others to walk this path with Jesus, you will find yourself growing too.
The sticking point for many is likely to be right at the beginning – making a start.
If the Universe was brought into being by a deliberate creative act, then the nature of of the Creator will have left its stamp on what he made.
There’s a big question out there, and it’s a question many are afraid to ask. Is scientific knowledge subject to faith, or is faith subject to knowledge? I put the question that way because not everyone seems to think they are compatible, let alone complementary.
Putting faith ahead of knowledge results in claims that evolution is false because it runs counter to the teaching of the Bible. And we can replace ‘evolution’ in that statement with ‘cosmology’, ‘geology’ and other scientific disciplines. But starting with scientific knowledge also results in difficulties, some scientists claim that atheism is an essential conclusion and there is no need to think in terms of a Creator.
Instead, let’s accept that there are organisations like the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion in Cambridge, England that represent the views of many scientists who are also Christians. The two need not be in opposition at all. What follows is my own, personal view and perhaps a way forward.
The Universe tells us about the Creator – Let’s begin by considering that if the Universe was brought into being by a deliberate creative act, then the nature of of the Creator will have left its stamp on what he made. It’s easy to see this is true for creative people. Whether we consider prose, poetry, painting, film directing, musical composition, musical performance, photography, architecture or design of physical products, we can often identify the person behind the work because their personality and style are there for all to see. Most of us could look at three paintings, one by Renoir, one by Constable and one by Picasso, and immediately say which artist created which work. A skilled and experienced art critic could make far finer judgements, not only about an artist’s identity but probably his approximate age at the time the work was produced.
In the same way, Papa’s hand and style are very much present in what he has made. For example, the Universe contains many events that are random and unpredictable. Given twenty atoms of a radioactive isotope, nobody can tell in advance the sequence in which those atoms will decay. But the Universe also follows patterns or rules. If we know which isotope we are dealing with we can predict roughly how long it will take for ten to decay, and that it will be about the same amount of time again until there are only five remaining. The Universe is full of unpredictability on the one hand and predictability on the other. It has rules, yet chance events play an important role as well.
Science is the best way we have of discovering the rules that govern our Universe. Maths and science also allow us to understand the uncertainties it contains.So people who believe in a Creator (as I do) can conclude that he uses both randomness and rules to build the natural world and either finds them useful features or perhaps even essential. So surely we should use science to better understand the nature of the One who is behind everything. Alongside all of this, the Bible brings information about his spiritual nature – that he is holy, invisible, powerful, omnipresent. And above all, the Bible tells us that he is defined primarily by his love.
Faith and knowledge – I hope you will agree that if we are to fully appreciate and understand the Almighty, we must draw from both faith and knowledge. Our understanding of the Universe does not depend on the Bible, it depends on what we see all around us. And our understanding of the Bible doesn’t depend on our understanding of the Universe, but on a hard-to-define spiritual awareness that is available to everyone who will search for it.
There are two potential errors here for the unwary; both are serious and both are common.
We should not try to predetermine what the Universe will tell us by studying the Bible.
We should not limit the spiritual truth of the Bible by invoking science.
For the fullest understanding of the nature of the the Almighty (and of ourselves), we must draw from the Bible for spiritual truth and from science for physical truth.
Essential kenosis – A recent book by Thomas Jay Oord explores the Creator’s nature in depth and is well-argued and very readable. If you want to go deeper with this topic I heartily recommend his work, ‘The Uncontrolling Love of God‘. He argues strongly for what he calls ‘essential kenosis’, and the idea that love is Papa’s most fundamental characteristic while his power comes second. And this explains a lot about pain and suffering, evil, and Father’s apparent inability or unwillingness to prevent bad things happening.