This is a footnote to my last post about pressing on to win the prize.
Above is Marianne Vos from the Netherlands winning the Women’s Olympic Road Race with Team GB’s Lizzie Armistead close behind for the silver medal. Armistead explained her tactics like this: as soon as Vos made a breakaway from the peloton she accelerated to keep up with her; she wasn’t going to let her get away.
When one person ‘presses on toward the goal to win the prize’ it has an effect on everyone else. The pace of the whole race increases. Everyone has to up their game. There is an important leadership lesson here: when we make a move towards radical discipleship it has a significant impact on everyone around us, whether or not we see it at first.
I experienced about 15 seconds of the Olympics on Saturday.
We went to watch the Men’s Cycling Road Race in Surrey. It was a pleasure to stand around for an hour or so by the roadside in the friendly and celebratory atmosphere. At about 11.30 the leading group of cyclists whizzed past us in about 5 seconds. At about 11.33 the main group (the ‘peloton’ I discovered it was called) whizzed by in about 10 seconds. Then we went home to watch the rest of the race on TV.
Like everyone else I believed that Team GB would win a medal, probably gold. The commentators had implied it was almost inevitable, following the success of Wiggins in the Tour De France and given the exceptional sprinting power of Cavendish. So it was a shock to see Cavendish finish in 29th place.
I pay tribute to all the cyclists for competing in such a gruelling endurance test but I have special respect for those who broke away from the peloton to get a position in the leading group who would finally battle it out for the medals. Congratulations to Alexander Vinokurov from Kazakhstan for out-powering and out-smarting the rest to grab the gold medal.
Looking for some discipleship insight from this experience I turned to Philippians 3.14: I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. I was disturbed to realise that I am mostly content to keep pace with those around me; to cycle in the peloton with no plan to break away and win the prize. But the radical call of Jesus, which the apostle Paul heard and acted on, is to push beyond the company and culture in which we move (even the apparently Christian culture of the church community), and press on for the prize of a life daily more and more conformed to Jesus.
I’ve had two very contrasting experiences of being welcomed by churches during my recent sabbatical travels. One church utterly surpassed themselves. Here are some highlights:
Greeted in church car park by hi-vis jacketed volunteer with beaming smile who seemed genuinely pleased we had come
Directed into parking spaces reserved for first time visitors right outside main doors
Led from car into building by still-smiling hi-vis man and introduced to welcome co-ordinator
‘Triaged’ by the latter then sent for ‘complimentary’ filter coffee in foyer
Whilst drinking coffee another welcomer who already knew we were from Worcester came over to chat
This 3rd member of the welcome team got down to the nitty gritty: this is what will happen in the service, this is how you take commnion here (dip the wafer in the wine), let me tell you about groups your children could attend, and let me show you round the building then usher you to a seat before the service starts
The contrasting experience was quite simply this: we looked at the church website and sat-naved to the place it said they met on a Sunday. But no one was there. And there was no sign telling us they were elsewhere. I’m sure it was an admin slip up that is not unique to that church, but it made me wonder if it’s possible for newcomers to arrive at any church and feel the church is not there for them even when the room is full of worshippers. The first church certainly avoided that pitfall.
This week I spent four days enjoying the warm hospitality of the Northumbria Community. It was a guided retreat. And here the word guided is significant. I have been on solo retreats seeking the isolation that gives time to think and I have been on group retreats, which have often been more like houseparties or conferences. But I felt rather vulnerable allowing someone to speak into the deep and normally very private heart of my journey with God. It was a risk for me to seek guidance here. I’m very comfortable with guidance from others on how to teach the scriptures or lead a church or catch the wind when I’m sailing, but I’m not used to letting anyone into the me-alone-with-God space.
I was not disappointed. The searching but creative daily encounters with a wise and gentle guide left me wondering why I have neglected the disciples’ no-brainer of a request for anyone wanting to walk with Jesus, ‘Lord, teach us to pray,’ and instead adopted a stubbornly DIY approach to prayer. (DIY for me usually means a] read some instructions in a booklet or on a website, b] make a second-rate job of something that could be done far better, c] under no circumstances employ or consult an expert!)
I am cautiously going to name three things I learned about prayer. I say cautiously because
a) I’m not sure that I have learned them; I’ve probably only learned that I need to learn them,
b) I don’t so much mean that I learned them as brain-knowledge as that I tentatively began practising them and was seized by the beauty and profundity of a refreshing encounter with God
c) I might be missing the point altogether by trying to quantify growth in prayer by measuring outcomes.
Here they are anyway:
- Quietening my soul and centring on God is not simply the overture to prayer; it can be the whole symphony. (Psalm 131 helped me accept this: a psalm of stilling that is enough in itself.)
- Praying for others can be just holding them in my awareness before God and his unspeakable love. (Matthew 6.7 helped me see that intercession is not dependent on my ‘many words’.)
- The intensity of God’s presence when I am found and held by him in prayer can overflow into a richer experience of being present to others in the rest of life. (I’m modelling this on Jesus’ fusion of withdrawing to pray and being fully present with people he met.)
I’ve been praying for years – in fact, decades. But I feel more like a beginner than ever. I think this is healthy.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
(T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets: Little Gidding)
I went to church on Sunday. This is not unusual for me. But I went with the lightness of spirit that comes from being on sabbatical and not feeling the usual weight of responsibility. And because of that I guess I saw with different eyes, or at least through lenses with a slightly different tint.
In the morning Becky and I visited a big church in Birmingham and we went to the evening service at St Peter’s. There was great stuff in both services: Bible teaching, rich worship songs, thoughtful prayers, enthusiasm, faith and life. But what made the greatest impression on me were the stories that were told about following Jesus today. In the morning a lady recounted her journey through an illness during which she had lost her sight for a time, describing the real experience of strength, help and healing from God’s Spirit and God’s people. In the evening Neil, who was preaching, told a powerful story about responding in a gracious Christ-like way to a white witch he met at a wedding.
What stood out in both instances was the simple power of someone saying: ‘I’m following Jesus and this is what it looks like in the reality of my life.’ It made the link between theory and practice. Between being just hearers of the word and being ‘doers’ also. Between the narrative of Scripture and the narrative of our lives.
In Christian jargon we sometimes call this sort of thing ‘testimony’ – a word whose power is dulled by its quasi-legal connotation. The word is derived from a Latin root meaning ‘witness’. That feels more helpful. In worship people act as witnesses to the fact that following Jesus is bearing fruit in specific circumstances.
I realised this weekend that I generally treat real-life story telling in worship as one of the chef’s occasional specials rather than giving it a place on the regular menu. Our living could be better nourished if as a church community we make some more space for listening to each other, to notice and celebrate what God is doing in us and through us.
It’s one of the richest books on my shelf and I turned to it again today for a steer on sabbatical living. Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places by EP did not disappoint.
The most striking thing about keeping the Sabbath is that it begins by not doing anything. The Hebrew word shabat, which we take over into our language untranslated, simply means, ‘Quit…Stop…Take a break.’
As such, it has no religious or spiritual content: Whatever you are doing, stop it…Whatever you are saying, shut up…Sit down and take a look around you…Do’t do anything…Don’t say anything…Fold your hands…Take a deep breath. Creation is so endlessly complex and so intricately interconnected that if we are not very careful and deeply reverent before what is clearly way beyond us, no matter how well-intentioned we are,we will probably interfere, usually in a damaging way, with what God has done and is doing. So begin by not doing anything: attend, adore.
In the same section he quotes a poem by Wendell Berry. The little I know of Berry is that he synthesises the wisdom of a farmer, an academic and a peacemaker. Here is Sabbath:
The mind that comes to rest is tended
In ways that it cannot intend:
Is borne, preserved and comprehended
By what it cannot comprehend.
Your Sabbath, Lord, thus keeps us by
Your will, not ours. And it is fit
Our only choice should be to die
Into that rest, or out of it.
It’s Day One of my sabbatical. One of the numerous privileges of being a minister in a church that graciously honours its leaders is that the sabbath principle of one-day’s-rest-in-seven is supplemented by an additional three months’ break every seven years. So I’m on a break from church responsibilities – and the church is on a break from me.
I’ve been trying to stop. Because that seems like the right place to start. It turns out this will be a greater discipline than I envisaged. The title of an album we listened to a lot when we were students comes to mind: Can’t Slow Down. Today I have discovered how much momentum I have. Having worked myself at a fairly relentless pace for many months I have slammed on the brakes but my stopping distance is longer than I expected. I have been wandering around making lists (mental and electronic) of things I must/should/might do, almost as though I’m afraid of not being driven.
I then took an active approach to inactivity and listed the things that actually hep me to rest, adding what to me constitute their opposites:
- walking (as opposed to running, which I do not for joy but to extract the health benefits)
- reading (as opposed to watching TV or passively grazing on Radio 4)
- listening to instrumental music (as opposed to pop songs that hook me in and grab my attention)
- praying (as opposed to cramming activity into my diary/existence)
- waiting (as opposed to rushing. There’s an idolatry hard for me to resist)
I called these my ‘targets’ for week one of the sabbatical, then realised what I’d done. So I am now cherishing them as the tone I want to set for week one…and beyond.