Category Archives: Spiritual Formation
It’s the question no man should ever ask! But the season of Advent just sidles up and drops the question shamelessly. Sacred agents, are you expecting?
Me: What? Who? Me? No. Of course not.
Gabriel: Why not?
Me: How did you get into this conversation, Gabriel?
Gabriel: I get around. Now tell me again about how you’re not expecting. God has big plans, you know. Don’t you want to be part of them?
Me: You know I do.
Gabriel: Well then, it’s time to get moving. Your relative Elizabeth is already … oh, hang on, hang on, wrong script. Your brothers and sisters around the world are already busy with kingdom work. So let me ask you again – are you expecting?
Mary: Yes, are you expecting rulers and thrones to be brought down and the humble lifted up? The hungry filled with good things and the rich sent away empty?
Gabriel: Are you expecting empires to crumble while the kingdom keeps growing? Nations and cities to be transformed? Are you expecting churches to thrive? Are you expecting your neighbours, family and friends to be powerfully changed as Christ is birthed and formed in them? Are you expecting King Jesus himself to return in triumph and glory and justice and vindication?
Me: Wow, well … truth be told? I’m not expecting, I’m just a little overweight….
It’s the question everyone’s asking. They’re asking it about cars, but I’m asking it about churches. The world’s been talking about autonomy for the last few years. We Baptists have been talking about it for over 400!
The Autonomy of the Local Church is one of the key ideas in the Baptist genius. It keeps us as a grass-roots movement rather than a top-down empire. It allows for flexibility and contextualisation instead of each church being a McFranchise. It provides the Body of Christ with something of an immune system: Bad ideas don’t automatically spread across the system, but can be challenged in each location. And there’s another huge one I’ll get to in a minute.
But the word Autonomy always sits awkwardly, doesn’t it? The idea of ‘completely ruling ourselves’ should always raise Christian eyebrows. Isn’t Jesus Lord? Imagine a vehicle that was truly autonomous and just drove wherever it felt like! Hardly useful.
So sometimes we say Independent, but similarly we must qualify it by affirming that the Body of Christ is actually interdependent. Imagine a vehicle that drove you from A to B without reference to all the other vehicles. Highly dangerous!
Another alternative we reach for is Competent. But can each church be pronounced competent to organise itself in one sweeping statement? Does every car run like a beauty? Are there really no lemons?
It surprises me, then, that we don’t just say Responsible. Instead of affirming that each congregation has ‘the right’ to do whatever it feels like doing, it would seem far preferable to affirm that each church has ‘the responsibility’ to discern how best to serve and represent Christ locally.
And this is the huge benefit I hinted at. It’s more efficient to simply receive the right answers and the right orders from some sort of HQ – but that leaves us as children. Having to do the work of discernment together, weighing up what’s wise and what’s dangerous, what’s Gospel and what’s fad, what’s fruitful and what’s a waste of time – these challenges form us and grow us up into responsible adults. At least they should. To represent Christ well, we don’t just need answers and instructions like robots. We need wisdom and grace.
When we affirm that all believers are priests, we are speaking not of a right to disregard others, but of the duty to live out the holy ministry that the Lord has entrusted into our hands. We can’t do what we like with it. Or let it run into disrepair. Each church needs to responsibly convey Christ’s kingdom to those to whom we’re sent. Sacred agents indeed.
We should measure spirituality by flow, not volume. It’s not “How much of the Holy Spirit do you have?” but rather “How much of you does He have?” Scripture speaks of God’s Spirit blowing like the wind, or pouring like water. He moves, he flows, he doesn’t merely inhabit. When Jesus invites the thirsty to come to him and drink, he immediately says that from those who do, ‘streams of living water will flow.’Jn7
So the question is not merely how much are we receiving, but how much are we giving? God’s ideal is for free flow: ‘Freely you have received, freely give.’Mt10 The servant put in charge of feeding other servants is in trouble if he considers himself rich rather than responsible.Mt24 The servant who receives mercy is in trouble if he doesn’t in turn pass it on.Mt18
So what happens when the flow stops? In the Great Depression of the 1930s a fascinating and awful spiral occurred. People stopped spending. Those with work greatly feared losing their jobs, and so instead of spending their income they saved as much as possible, living as frugally as they could. This meant that sales plummeted and firms making and selling things went out of business, and indeed people did lose their jobs, creating more fear, more self-preservation mentality, and round and round the spiral went. The flow of money stopped, poverty bit hard, and instead of a trusting, trading society it was each person for themselves.
If only people knew that they were going to be OK! If only the fear was overcome, the spiral could begin to reverse. Indeed the new US President Roosevelt famously told his nation “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
The only way to reverse such a fearful spiral was for someone, somewhere to begin spending money with optimism they didn’t feel – in faith. It ended up being the US government, with a scheme called “The New Deal”. It borrowed enormous amounts to guarantee citizens paid work on massive infrastructure projects and bring hope and certainty.
How does that speak to sacred agents? I believe that fearfulness about the prospects of Christians and churches in our society is giving us a defensive and survivalist mindset. There is a narrative of Christianity in decline which is simply not true but widely believed nonetheless. Churches fear closing. We’re reluctant to take risks like adding staff, planting a church or commissioning members to service elsewhere. Even as individuals, when we privatise our faith and begin drawing on God ‘just to get through the week’ rather than to bless others abundantly – we’re continuing a negative spiral in contrast to God’s will.
How do we reverse this? It takes some courageous sacred agents to give more than they can afford to. (I’m not primarily talking about money – but not excluding it). When we give more than we can afford, it leaves us in deficit. But we then call on others to flow blessing to us. And on the Father himself to measure to us with the generous measure that we have used. Do we not know that we are going to be OK? Should we not be the most confident and least fearful of all people? Let us gospel ourselves once more. When we call on the Lord to “open the floodgates of heaven and pour out his blessing” – do we not realise that we ourselves are those gates, and that he is seeking to once again open us?
I’m a fan of the 19th Century missionary William Carey – to the extent that we named our son after him. (I now realise that was a step beyond getting a tattoo of him – but the boy is such a fan of wicketkeeper Alex Carey that he doesn’t mind.)
Carey (the misho) was a doer. Not one one to swallow the “Only God can do things and it’s kind of an insult to try to do things that only God can do” pop-theology that is still too prevalent today. He got that God wants to work through us and not just around us and invites us to step up and get in the game. His famous motto was “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” If I was the tattooing type…
But if you carry that idea not merely on your skin, but deeper, you find yourself in a certain stance. The stance of a sacred agent. Looking both to receive a lot and to give a lot. It’s good. The down-side, though, is that in the looking for ‘great things’ to get and to do, you miss the little things. And God so often does big things through the little things.
So for a while I’m trying out a variation of the motto. Instead of “Expect much, attempt much”, how’s this: “Expect often, attempt often”?
This is the sacred agent’s discipline of being faithful with small things. It reminds me to expect our generous Father to be giving me things-for-others often, more than daily. In fact, for the grace of Christ and the power of the Spirit to be at work in and through me continually.
From time to time there may be a grand epiphany or an exciting project. But a simple word of kindness; glass to the thirsty; invitation to church, or lunch, or both; a quick encouraging text – am I ready for that kind of ministry? Are we?
Lord, how can I be of service today? is a great morning prayer. I’m sure it was Carey’s too, and for a lot of mundane mornings.
…Speaking of a great number of things, this is the 100th Sacred Agents post. Many thanks to all who have followed, commented, made suggestions, and taken the bad with the good!<AT>
They must have been difficult words for the Messiah to hear: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” They imply, “We thought you were The Answer To All Our Problems – but now we have more. We thought you’d blow away our enemies – but they still have it over us. We thought… frankly we thought you’d be more impressive.” The words must have hurt all the more coming from John the Baptist, one of the very first to point Jesus out as the Christ.
But John is stuck in prison, and he won’t be coming out in one piece. So a fair question, maybe? We’re familiar with Jesus’ reply: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” But his last sentence has always rocked me: “Blessed is anyone who does not fall away on account of me.”
Think about that: Blessed are those who don’t fall away because of Jesus. Because he is not enough for them. Because he is beneath them.
When Paul wrote to the Romans “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” he wasn’t merely saying that he wasn’t afraid to speak up publicly. The gospel was causing a lot of problems for the Roman church, bringing together ‘those Jews’ and ‘those Gentiles’ and all sorts of ‘those people’ – the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dying, the poor. That in turn meant layers of difficulty and tension. It certainly didn’t make life easy. Paul knew as well as anyone that Jesus can mess your life up. But he also knew this was the way God’s power works. It would bring salvation, upend an empire, change the world and lead to ultimate glory.
So I try to remember this when church is hard work, when ‘those people’ are frustrating, when progress seems slow and when God’s enemies seem to be winning. I hear Jesus saying “Blessed is anyone who does not fall away on account of me.” If those people and that path are not beneath him, they mustn’t be beneath me. Let’s keep learning not to look down on Jesus but to trust him and his way instead.
I love a good roster. There, I’ve said it.
I know many Christians disagree, seeing them as a necessary evil, a secret shame. “Rosters seem so artificial. Why have some people ‘on duty’ and others ‘off duty’ at a gathering? Shouldn’t it be more natural and organic? Can’t we all just follow the inner voice of the Spirit and be prompted into ministry in the moment? Isn’t ‘organised religion’ what puts people off the most, and what Jesus himself fought against?”
If you think organised religion is ugly, have a look at disorganised religion. Everyone simply following the ‘inner voice’ of the Spirit sounds great but fails on two fronts: Firstly, we’re not good at distinguishing between the inner voice of the Spirit and the inner voice of ourselves. We can find ourselves only drawn to ministries and situations that we enjoy the most. We can confuse the way of Christ with the path of least resistance. Secondly, the Spirit also has an ‘outer voice’ – when He speaks to us through others. This is a massive way in which God works, but time and again we miss it because we think it’s just Helen asking us to help out.
A good roster helps us to be the body of Christ – all different parts, well co-ordinated under the Head. It reminds us to work together in harmony, to submit to one another, to take turns stepping up or resting while the whole body moves on. All of this can itself be a witness – by this will everyone know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
So a good roster requires a lot of love, and not just from the coordinator. It’s a spiritual discipline to communicate promptly, clearly and humbly with the poor soul putting it together. Signalling flexibility, willingness for others to have turns at your favourite roles, and willingness to fill in other roles if needed; are just as important as making clear when you’re unavailable and the limits of your sustainable service.
Jesus wasn’t fighting against organisation and coordination, so that everyone might be free to simply be themselves and do whatever they want. That’s not the Spirit of Jesus, that’s the spirit of the age. One of the most radical things a sacredagent can do is to commit to a local Christian community and ask “What needs doing? How can I help?”
For discussion: (1) What was Jesus fighting against? (2) When some says they don’t like organised religion, what might they really be saying?