Nothing to lose

 

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Preparing to worship at New Wine

The New Wine festival is taking place in Somerset this week and next. I can’t be there but reading tweets from those who are, and listening into some of the sessions being streamed live on the internet, has reminded me what a key moment my last trip to the festival turned out to be on my journey towards ordination training.

Many from the church I joined as a single man in his twenties go to New Wine, providing a microcosm of the church community within the wider corporate worship and fellowship such a large gathering of people provides. So for several years I followed my church family down to the Royal Bath & West Showground to be inspired, equipped and reenergised by the talks, the teaching and the fellowship.

Going as an introverted person content, but not that content, with being on the fringes of life and groups New Wine was as challenging as it was comfortable. It was a place where I could be myself, lost and anonymous in the crowds. I was able to soak up the worship and presence of God, and to think over all that I was hearing. But merging as a single person from my two-man tent into the group of married couples and families became increasingly difficult, and so it was that I gradually found myself reluctant to go.

That reluctance was broken when, two years ago, I was gifted a week at New Wine. In the intervening time I had married and had children, becoming a family like those I had found difficult to be amongst before. I was also lost and hurting: I had been turned down for ordination training and was in a state of confusion and depression. The depression had reached similar dark depths that I had found myself in once before, a similar time of searching when Jesus had rescued me before I could try and fast-track my way into heaven. The combined memories and emotions produced a heart for those on the edges that found it difficult to be amongst so many in apparent joyful fellowship with friends and family.

But I was okay, I didn’t need healing, I just needed some answers. At least that was what I told myself.

The talks were inspiring and thought provoking as before. The worship was still the warm bath of God’s presence to rest within. But it was seeing the delight on my children’s faces that began to break down the barriers I had erected. Whilst the communication lines between myself and God were not working I could them working fine between God and my children. They were not just having fun but consciously asking deep questions of life and faith without any pre-formed agenda. They wanted to go back to New Wine even before they left.

A moment that provided more confusion rather than clarity turned out to be a turning point in my journey of discernment. Just as I was ready to give in and give up on exploring whether I was being called by God to be ordained the Mid-day prayer within The Sanctuary space fired me up: I felt like I should be walking towards the church not away from it. But this ‘feeling’ couldn’t be reconciled with the facts before me: I had been examined and found not suitable for ordination a year before. Confusion reigned and fuelled my depression.

Even though I have been touched by God’s healing power on a few occasions, I struggle with apparent miraculous healing, especially in front of large crowds. It comes from a cynicism borne out of my own longing to be healed: was God healing or were the people I witness creating a sense of God healing them out of hope that He was? I had been there and done that.

It was an attitude of having nothing to lose that had led to me a faith in Jesus, and it was a similar attitude that took me forward to the front of the main arena when Christy Wimber sensed God wanted to heal people within the crowd from depression. Was it God speaking through Christy or Christy hoping God was speaking? Staying in my seat would have proved nothing and I had nothing to lose by leaving it to find out.

The resistant and reserved cynic was still present within me as a member of the Prayer Ministry Team laid hands on me and began to pray. My self-consciousness was raised and rather than relaxing to let God in I was focused on those praying and watching around me. Although I tried to keep them at bay I found some groans of pain come out of me. I started to shake too and when I sensed, or feared, that it was encouraging those praying for and watching me I tried to resit shaking any more – I was, and am, the archetypal reserved and embarrassed Brit. But then something snapped inside me and I gave in. I had decided that the cynics could remain cynical, the skeptics could remain skeptical; people could think what they want, I didn’t care any more. Whatever was happening could have free reign, I was just going to ride it out.

Something had happened.

There was no elation or jumping about for joy, I was too drained and exhausted for that, but something had happened. There were no words, just a sense of bewildered peace. Something had happened. I returned to my seat in silence, I didn’t have the words to explain what had happened, not that really understood what had. That evening I sat quietly, listening to my friends conversations and letting the something that had happened settle and take root.

The prayer had been led to an awakening and a rebirth. I had emerged out of the pit I had fallen into when the church had rejected me for ordination. The pain was no longer imprisoning me and I could breath the fresh air. The confusion and search for answers had been replaced by a refreshing peace. I was ready to start living again.

I went back to the Diocesan Director of Ordinands (DDO) who had been keeping in touch with me to test and discern what had happened and what should happen next. I offered up the sense I had had in The Sanctuary that I should stop exploring a calling to be ordained. I offered up the confusion that came when the Midday Prayer fired me up. I offered up the chance for the church to call time on my journey of discernment. I was ready to move on.

I wasn’t asked to move on, I was asked to simply be: instead of taking up the chance to end my ordination journey with the church I was encouraged to keep traveling. Clarity and answers about my future would come, and the church wanted to wait for them with me. I began to simply live and be with God, to worship and to serve as and when I was prompted to. In time that clarity did come, and it came with the nothing-to-lose attitude that had carried me forward for prayer at New Wine.

I returned to another panel to be assessed for ordination training 18 months later. I didn’t mind what the answer was this time, I had found peace and had nothing to lose by being tested once again. This time I was recommended for training and in August 2017, 2 years after that prayer in the arena, I will begin studying to enter the priesthood.

I will be forever grateful that Christ Wimber sensed God’s will that night, and for James Bailey who prayed for me. I will also remain remain grateful that I fought through my cynicism, my fears and my self-control; and I will remember that sometimes we have nothing to lose but everything to gain.

Silent Running

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This blog has brought amazing companions on my journey of discernment.

The time has come. No it is not time to leave for my second Bishops’ Advisory Panel (BAP) but it is time to take a step back from social media and concentrate on what this whole journey has been about. It is time to focus on God and His calling for me, and it is time to do that in private. It is, perhaps, a more difficult decision to have made than it might appear.

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The Lord’s Prayer at the School Gate

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Waiting at the school gate in Wellow, Somerset

Each school day morning I arrive in a village with my children before any other family. We park, we chat, we pass around the tic-tacs (another story), then walk down to the school gate where we watch the traffic pass by and the rest of the families arrive.  It is a time I cherish, a time to share and a time to pray, and so I do.

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Counting to 10 in prayer

 

Crying with Belgium

Life never stops, even when it does.

In the midst of my commute on Tuesday 22nd March 2016 a terrorist attack ended the commute of others in Brussels. As I began another normal working day others were beginning a nightmare. Terrorism was once more brought from the war zones of foreign fields to the pavements of Europe.

At times such as this it can be hard to know how to respond. All I could do was to pray.

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A Prayer for the Uncertain

If like me you seem on an endless quest to discern where God wants you to go, or what He wants you to do, you may find this prayer by Thomas Merton helpful.  As others have probably said: the purpose is in the journey, not the destination.
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Thomas Merton

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think that I am following Your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please You
does in fact please You.
And I hope that I have that desire
in all that I am doing.
And I know that if I do this,
You will lead me by the right road
although I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust You always,
though I may seem to be lost
and in the shadow of death,
I will not fear, for You are ever with me,
and will never leave me
to face my perils alone.

Thomas Merton 

Find out more about Thomas Merton here.

The Prayer of Jabez Extending God’s Kingdom

Jabez was more honourable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, “I gave birth to him in pain”.  Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain”.  And God granted his request. 1 Chronicles 4:9-10

These 2 verses come in the midst of a geneaology.  Breaking up a list of names broken by a historical note wasn’t an uncommon thing to find in Middle-eastern biblical and non-biblical genealogies in the Middle East when this was written.

Because of their placement in the text though these two verses stand out and almost demand some attention.

Some have suggested that the place called Jabez, mentioned a few chapters back in 1 Chronicles 2:55, is named after the man we hear about in tonights passage.  Jabez the place is near Bethlehem, in the Valley of Elah, and was known as a place where clans of scribes lived reading and copying literature.

What we know about Jabez the man is contained solely within these 2 verses.  So what do we know, and what can God have for us in it tonight?

2 verses, 1 about his birth, another about his life that followed.

His mother had named him Jabez, saying, “I gave birth to him in pain.”

When we hear in the Bible about the meaning and reasoning behind a given name we get an insight into the situation that they were born into.

It strikes me that the pain of which Jabez’s mother names him after may not be childbirth.  Now being a man I’m obviously no expert on child-birth but I do appreciate that it is rather painful: my hand hurt for ages after my wife had stopped squeezing it once our children had been born…  Apparently it’s painful for ladies too!

There was no gas and air or epidural available when ladies gave birth in Biblical times, so the pain they went through was particularly immense and dangerous, as unfortunately it still is for too many women around the world even today.  That such a painful thing would have happened very often during the vast time period the Bible covers made me wonder why a name that means “I gave birth to him in pain” is only found once within it.

Perhaps the pain of which Jabez’s mother refers to is something less common than the pain of childbirth.  Perhaps, and this is conjecture on my part, perhaps there were complications during the pregnancy or labour that resulted in Jabez having a painful disability?  Perhaps Jabez was born into a troubled and difficult situation that his family found themselves in at that time?  There are many such children being born in Ukraine, Syria, Nigeria and Iraq right now.

You may wonder why I’m dwelling on the pain within these 2 verses and not going straight to the famous bit, the section of verse 10 on which a multi-million-selling book was based and which adorns pens and picture frames, coasters and posters, fridge magnets and key fobs?  I speak, of course, of Bruce Wilkinson’s book titled The Prayer of Jabez, but for me this passage is no prosperity gospel.

I will come on to the prayer itself in a moment but as I read, prayed and contemplated this passage the love that is found amidst the pain stood out.  And it is this love and pain that informs Jabez’s character and prayer.  If we jump straight to the prayer we miss the point of the prayer itself, which isn’t a prayer of prosperity but a prayer for love.

Even the order within verse 9 tells us quite a lot.  The order of verse 9, just like throughout the Bible, isn’t accidental but deliberate.  It tells us something.  Verse 9 starts not with his birth but with the nature of his character: Jabez was more honourable than his brothers”

Notice that we don’t hear that Jabez’s brothers we dishonourable but that Jabez was more honourable.  What made him more honourable?  Could it be that his character was born out of his gratitude for being shown love despite the painful life he was born into or led since birth?  He wasn’t abandoned and left to fend for himself but grew up being loved and with his brothers.  He didn’t take that love for granted, nor did he take God’s love for granted either.

Life wasn’t easy for Jabez.  We can tell that in part because he didn’t simply pray to God, he cried out in prayer to God.  He asks God to bless him and enlarge his territory.  Now given that Jabez is an honourable man this isn’t a request born out of greed.  He isn’t asking for a greater property portfolio from which to become rich; by asking for his territory to be enlarged Jabez is asking to be given more responsibilities.  This is the mark of a person who wants to give back not to have a cushy life.

By asking God to enlarge his territory he is asking for more blessings from God.  But he is wise as well as honourable, and doesn’t end with this simple request for more opportunities.

Life had taught him that if he is going to make the most of the opportunities God grants him he won’t be able to do so alone and in his own strength.  And he knows that in order to use those opportunities effectively he is going to need three things:

  1. to be in tune with God (God with Him);
  2. to be protected by God from harm;
  3. to be freed from pain.

We don’t know how old Jabez is or just what is painful for him.  Nor do we know how many times he has asked God for protection and to be freed from the pain but we do know that God grants him his request.

It is safe to assume that with his honourable characteristics that Jabez showed his gratitude to God for answering his prayer.  But how?  And how does Jabez’s life relate to us today?

Jabez prayed that God would enlarge his territories.  At first glance that sounds like Jabez wants more land, and certainly that would have been seen as a direct blessing from God.  It may sound somewhat materialistic but, given Jabez’s nature, it could well have been so that he could grow more crops and raise more animals in order to provide for his family.  There would have been nothing wrong in that.  Nor would there have been anything wrong in wanting to be free from pain as he did that.

But it strikes me that in the nature of both Jabez and God there is more to it than a simple re-drawing of a geographical boundary.

Borders are a human creation but they aren’t just geographical. We use them to create order and comfort.  We organise friends and relations into groups, our hobbies and interests too.  Sometimes those borders overlap like a venn diagram but so often our life and faith becomes compartmentalised.

Whilst we spend much of our time crossing geographical borders our relationship borders are often closed.  Yet just as when we go on holiday to foreign lands we learn and see new things so it is with relationships.

God is interested in souls not square metres so extending His Kingdom needs much more than an expanding land portfolio on which His adopted children could live in safety whilst they wait for the eternal kingdom.  Just as God works indiscriminately across both geographical and relationship borders, He wants us to do so too.

God knows the nature of love because He is love.  He gives to us because He loves us and like true love He gives unconditionally, demanding nothing in return.  God knows though that if we appreciate the love something we will want to share it with others, and He is counting on us sharing our love and knowledge of Him with others.

Instead of watching from the sidelines as the Fantastic Trio of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit collect souls one by one, God invites us in to join Team Trinity and be part of the fun.

We could sit on our sofas at home and reach for another cup of tea, safe in the comfort of our salvation but we would be so much poorer for it!  God won’t love us any less if we did but He knows we will have so much fun playing an active part. But in one sense we don’t have any choice as to whether we want to get involved or not.

In 2 Corinthians 5:16 to 6:2 Paul called us to be Christ’s ambassadors.  Ambassadors are the embodiment of a land, of a kingdom, and they cross borders to represent their home country and government.

As a result of the blessings he received Jabez would have been seen by those around him to be an ambassador of God.  We too are seen to represent God by those with whom we meet.  We are in effect seen as a living embodiment of God’s Kingdom.

Jabez prayed for more territory, for more opportunities, and not to be confined by pain.  Being an honourable man he would have given back even more so when those prayers were answered.  He would not have received God’s grace in vain, just as Paul urges us not to as well.

God doesn’t want us to confine who we share our faith with to those in our comforting compartments.  God wants us to open up those compartments and cross over their borders.  As we extend our personal borders we can put love into action as Christ’s ambassadors.  As we do so God strengthens and extends His Kingdom bit by bit, soul by soul.

God wants to use us in extending His kingdom, in bringing more people to the eternal party.  He needs us to break out of our comfortably ordered lives and try something different.  Think of it as a holiday, you don’t have to stay but you might want to!

So what borders limit you from sharing your love and appreciation for all that God has done for you?  How many borders do you need to open and cross?  What new territories and people do you need to visit to pass on God’s love to?

Remember one thing as you contemplate that: just as He promised to be with Jabez, God goes with us too.

The Land of Confusion

Stuck in a cul-de-sac with no reverse gear

Stuck in a cul-de-sac with no reverse gear

I could tell by her tone of voice that it wasn’t good news.

The call from my DDO came earlier than expected.  The Advisers at my BAP had not recommended me for ordination training.  I felt numb.

I couldn’t find many words to keep the conversation going for long.  There didn’t seem much point either when I was told that we wouldn’t find out why for almost a week.

The future that I had been preparing for had fell apart in an instant.  I had been preparing for rejection too but experiencing it is very different.  My emotions took the expected hit.  It felt like a light had gone out, like a door slammed in my face.  I knew that I would find it tough to hear such news, that I would be in a state of grief, but I hadn’t planned for my mind to be hit hard as well. Continue reading

T minus 3 weeks

Will my application be accepted?

Will my application be accepted?

The date is getting closer.  So much to do, such little time. Or is there?

As I continue my preparations for attending a Bishops’ Advisory Panel (BAP) there I the list of things I want and need to do beforehand at times feels impossible to achieve.  Yet I also feel a the sense of peace and excitement I feel as I pass through each day is palpable.

There isn’t just the BAP to prepare for, there is life away from it which continues regardless and needs time and attention.  I have my day-job, my role as a school governor, a house to sell and of course my children and wife to attend to and spend time with.  Such things keep me grounded and from becoming tunnel visioned and obsessed by all things ordination.
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Oh no, not again!

“Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again. Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the Universe than we do now.”, Douglas Adams

There I was: sitting down, contemplating the future.  Six months in which to prepare for a Bishops’ Advisory Panel lay before me.  Plenty of time to sit back, read a bit, debate a bit and contemplate all that God has to offer.  No rush, no pressure.

In the midst of this peacefulness my computer and phone sang out in unison. I had mail.

It was the DDO.  She had a surprise.  I was being invited to attend a BAP in mid-May.

I didn’t expect that.

The tranquility shattered and, not for the first time on this journey, everything that I had envisioned doing fell apart.

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A work in progress

 

My exploration of ordination feels like it has entered a new phase.

The first was private and tentative, like a child unsure if the venture is safe. I spoke informally with my vicar, I spoke with friends ordained and not. I had questions, I had doubts: what did I possibly have to offer of worth to the church? Whilst I couldn’t see it myself I knew that God would have good reason in asking me to take a look at it. Continue reading