2018 RLT #18: Together

‘When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place’ (Acts 2:1).

A couple of days ago I shared my witness about how I first came to conscious faith in Christ – the day I gave my life to Jesus as a young teenager.

Our parish at the time – St. Leonard’s, Southminster, in Essex – was going through a very joyful time of charismatic renewal. People were experiencing the Holy Spirit in very vivid ways. New people were coming to faith. God seemed to be very present in people’s lives; there were stories of guidance, of healing, of answered prayers. We were learning new worship songs (many of them ‘Scripture in Song’ choruses – King James scriptures, easy, catchy, folk-style tunes – or songs by ‘The Fisherfolk’ from the Community of Celebration). It was a very joyful time to be a new Christian.

The word ‘together’ stands out very strongly for me from that time.

When I first committed my life to Christ my dad had been attending a little midweek Pentecostal prayer meeting, so I started going along with him. In this group I first encountered extemporary prayer (some of it very long!), charismatic gifts, informal Bible teaching etc. After a while our Anglican church started ‘home meetings’, as they were then called – home based groups for study and prayer – and I started going to one of them. By then I was playing guitar and it wasn’t long until I was roped in to play for the time of singing that was always part of our meetings. In those days we had no song books; the songs were short and easily memorable, or we might print off little chorus sheets (using the good old Gestetner duplicator!) to pass around.

Toward the end of my time in Southminster (we moved to Canada in December 1975) I became part of the Thursday night home meeting that met at Ken and Kath’s house. 8.00 p.m. Thursday night became a very special time for me. I would get up in the morning and go to school with a sense of excitement – ‘Tonight’s the night!’ I knew I would meet God there when God’s people were gathered ‘together in one place’.

There might have been ten or twelve of us, including one or two teenagers like me. There would be singing, there would be teaching, and there would be extended times of prayer – half an hour, forty-five minutes. Sometimes during those times of prayer someone would sense that God had given them a word to speak to someone else, and they would share it. Someone might speak in a strange language, and another would be given the interpretation of what had been said. There would be prayers for healing, perhaps with laying on of hands. And the sense of God’s presence was strong.

Ever since that time I’ve viewed these midweek groups – whether you call them prayer meetings, Bible Study groups, or whatever you want to call them – as vital and central to Christian growth. Simply put, my observation has been that those who make time to participate in groups like this grow exponentially in their faith.

And I still believe that today, even though today’s schedules make it far more challenging for people to commit to these groups. Whether they meet early in the morning, over lunch hour, afternoon, or evening or weekend, I would strongly encourage everyone who wants to grow as a Christian to find a group like this and join it. Actually, you don’t need to find one – you can start one! Do you work in a downtown office tower? Why not find out if there are other Christians in your office tower who might be interested in a lunchtime prayer and study group? There are lots of resources out there to help you; you don’t need a priest or professional minister to lead it.

What should be part of it? Well, there are no rules, but I think it’s good if the group has something for the Head, something for the Heart, and something for the Hands.

Something for the Head: a time of study, probably Bible study. This can be the simple reading of a Bible passage and the discussion of a few questions to help people understand it. Resources for this sort of thing are easily available (I would highly recommend the ‘Serendipity Bible’ which has study questions in the margin for every single passage in the Bible – it’s out of print, but used copies are easy to find online).

Something for the Heart: the relational component. We express joy in our relationship with God through prayer and praise. We express love to one another as we pray for each other, listen to each other’s stories, and bear each other’s burdens.

Something for the Hands: our lives need to be changed because of our meeting together. The point is to grow as followers of Jesus, finding new ways of loving God and loving our neighbour in action. So it’s good to ask each other ‘What am I going to do differently this week as a result of our meeting?’ – and then to pray for each other as we go out and put it into practice.

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them’ (Acts 2:1-4 NIV).

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2018 Random Lent Thought #16: Testimony

The Canadian Book of Common Prayer gives guidance for people who want to ‘frame for themselves a rule of life’ (see p.555). One of the things it asks us to consider is the boldness of our spoken witness to our faith. So ‘witness’ is a part of our Rule of Life and ought to be a part of our Lenten considerations too.

Today I will give my witness.

I was born in a churchgoing family; Mum and Dad took me to church every week, prayed with me at bedtime, gave me Bible story books and did what they could to grow faith in me. Later on, when he was in his thirties, Dad was ordained as an Anglican priest, so the ‘church’ element in my life got stronger.

I don’t regret any of that. I especially appreciate the musical heritage it gave me; I was a choir boy for part of that time and even today there are hundreds of hymns and anthems I know and enjoy. I never rebelled against church – and yet, at the same time I have to admit that God was not yet personal to me. I didn’t ‘know’ God or conceive that a personal connection to God was possible. Religion to me was institutional, and it was not central to my life; other things were more important to me.

As a young teenager I got confirmed (as you did), and although I don’t recall much about the confirmation classes, I do recall becoming friends with an older girl in the group who had a living Christian faith. This was clear to me: she was experiencing her faith in a way I was not. That intrigued me.

Dad also began to lend me religious books. He knew I was a reader and undoubtedly wanted to steer me in the right direction. Unfortunately I didn’t tend to read the books he lent me – just a few pages, and then I’d hand them back.

After confirmation our class (it was a big one – about twenty people I think) decided to stay together as a youth group. We met on Sunday nights for some discussion and study (I think – I have little recollection of the content of the meetings). But as was the way of such classes, it quickly began to drop off, and after a year it was a much smaller group.

About this time, Dad lent me Dennis J. Bennett’s book ‘Nine O’clock in the Morning’. Dennis was the first Episcopal priest in the U.S.A. to come out and share his story of a Pentecostal ‘Baptism in the Holy Spirit’ experience. ‘Nine O’Clock in the Morning’ was the first Christian book I read all the way through – in fact, I read it in one sitting, from start to finish. I found it riveting. Here was a story of a man who experienced a real God doing real things in the real lives of real people. People could feel the power of the Holy Spirit flooding them. People could be healed of real physical illnesses. People could speak in unknown languages of praise to God without learning them. People could receive God’s guidance in direct ways. It was a million miles away from my rather predictable and mundane experience of the Church of England.

When I finished ‘Nine O’clock in the Morning’ I was on a quest. In the words of one on the characters in the book, ‘Whatever it was that these people had, I wanted it’. But I didn’t know what the next step would be for me.

On the evening of March 5th 1972 – a Sunday – our youth group met in Dad’s study. It was a very small group: me, Dad, and the older girl with a real living faith. I have no memory of the subject of the evening’s discussion, but at some point Dad turned to me and said, “You’ve never given your life to Jesus, have you?” When I think back on that question I wonder why I wasn’t embarrassed by it. The only answer I can come up with was that Dad had given me the answer to my question ‘What’s the next step?’

After the meeting was over I went up to my room, sat down on my bed, and prayed a simple prayer ‘giving my life to Jesus’. It was very undramatic; I had no vision of God, didn’t ‘speak in tongues’ or anything like that. It was very prosaic and mundane, in fact! But something real happened that night, because from the next day onward, the pursuit of a life with God had somehow become the central reality of my life.

I told Dad what I had done and of course he was pleased. He did two things to help me. First, he said ‘Tell someone else about it right away’ – which I did – and so got into the habit of being a witness before I knew enough to be embarrassed about it. Second, he lent me the booklet ‘Seven Minutes with God’ to help me get started on a daily Bible reading and prayer time – a habit I continue to this day.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this experience set the course for the rest of my life. I would not be the person I am today, the Christian I am today, the priest I am today, if I had not given my life to Jesus in response to Dad’s challenge. That was the day when Jesus first captured my heart. Since then, I’ve been trying to work out the implications of faith in him for every aspect of my life.

March 5th 1972 is forty-six years ago today. Today I thank God for this experience of conversion, which changed my life, and I thank God for my Dad who was willing to give me the challenge that led to it.

This is my witness.

The Patron Saint of Relational Evangelists

Reblogged from 2012.

In the church’s calendar we often celebrate special feast days to remember ‘saints’ – people from Bible times or afterwards whose lives have been especially Christlike. We do this not to worship them in any sense, but simply to thank God for their good examples and to learn from their faithful discipleship.

Today, November 30th, is the feast day of one of my all-time favourite biblical ‘saints’ – Andrew. Andrew is known today as the patron saint of Scotland, because of a dubious legend about his bones being taken there in the 8th century. I’m a bit doubtful about the whole idea of ‘patron saints’ myself – I really don’t hold with the idea of a saint giving particular care to one country or group of people – but we won’t get into that here.

However, if Andrew is the patron saint of any group of people, it is surely evangelists. This idea might come as a surprise to some, as he isn’t remembered in the church as a great preacher or as a missionary who pioneered whole new areas for the gospel. In fact, I get the impression from reading the stories of Andrew that he was the sort of guy who was quite happy to play second fiddle and fade into the background without drawing attention to himself. But Andrew had this great characteristic: he loved to introduce people to Jesus.

What do we know about Andrew? Well, he was the brother of Simon Peter who became the leader of the apostles, and the two of them were fishermen. We also know that Andrew had been a disciple of John the Baptist before he met Jesus; presumably he had heard John’s message about the kingdom of God and had been baptized by him. The first time we meet him he is standing with another disciple of John, a man called Philip. It’s the day after Jesus was baptized, and, as the crowd is milling around at the Jordan River, Jesus walks by. John the Baptist points him out, and he says to Andrew and Philip, ‘“Look, here is the lamb of God”. The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see”. They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day’ (John 1:36-39).

So John the Baptist points Andrew and Philip to Jesus, and they spend the rest of the day with him. What happens next? Well, John the gospel writer tells us that Andrew ‘first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah!” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter)’ (vv.41-42).

It’s interesting to me that John the gospel writer tells us that this was the first thing that Andrew did after he left Jesus’ company. Obviously what he had seen and heard in that day he spent with Jesus had really excited him: he had found a faith worth sharing! And he also had someone he loved who he thought was worth sharing that faith with – his dear brother Simon. Two of the most important questions we can ask ourselves as Christians are ‘Do I have a faith worth sharing?’ and ‘Do I have a friend worth sharing it with?’ For Andrew, the answer was obviously a resounding ‘Yes!’

Andrew goes on to become one of the inner circle around Jesus – the twelve who he chose to be his ‘apostles’ – the word means ‘ones who are sent’. They would spend the next three years with Jesus, watching and learning from him, and then he would send them out as his missionaries to spread the Gospel all over the world. But before that happens, there are a couple of other stories of Andrew bringing people to Jesus.

In John chapter six, Jesus is teaching a large crowd of people and they have nothing to eat. Jesus decides to test the disciples, so he says to Philip, Andrew’s friend, “Where are we to buy bread for all these people to eat?” Philip replies, “Six months’ wages would not be enough to buy food for each of them to get a little”. But then Andrew chimes in: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” You know the rest of the story: Andrew brings the boy to Jesus, and Jesus takes the five loaves and two fish and uses them to feed a crowd of five thousand people.

Do you see how Andrew brings Jesus’ ‘raw material’ to him? Andrew’s brother Simon Peter went on to become the great leader of the early church, but it would never have happened if his brother –whose name is not so well-known – had not first brought him to Jesus. And Jesus did a great miracle when he used the five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand people, but Andrew was the one who gave him the materials to make that miracle happen, by introducing the boy to him.

I get the idea that Andrew was the sort of guy who would know who was in a crowd. I get the sense that he enjoyed being with people and was an approachable sort of guy. I remember a few years ago, when I used to lead services once a month at the Edmonton Young Offender Centre, that we had a girl on our team like Andrew. We would wait in the room we were using for services while the staff brought the kids down from the various units, but this girl would always be moving among the kids as they came down, asking them questions and chatting with them. She was really approachable, and afterwards, when the team went out for coffee on our way home, she would always be the one who would tell us that we needed to be praying for so and so, because they were getting out of jail this week, and so on.

I get the idea that Andrew was like that. It would be natural for him to be aware of the boy with the loaves and fishes, because he’d been moving through the crowd chatting with people. He loved people, and he loved Jesus, and most of all he loved bringing them together.

There’s one more story about Andrew in John’s Gospel. In John chapter twelve, Jesus and his disciples are going up to Jerusalem for a Jewish religious festival. We read that ‘among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks’ (v.20): we assume that they were what were known as ‘God-fearers’ – Greeks who had accepted the God of Israel and his laws, although they had not gone the whole way and been circumcised.

Anyway, these Greeks have heard of Jesus and they want to meet him, but they are a bit nervous about it so they approach Andrew’s friend Philip first – perhaps because he has a Greek name? They say to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (v.21). So Philip tells Andrew, and then Andrew and Philip together introduce the Greeks to Jesus.

That’s the end of the story – we don’t know how the conversation went – but I’d suggest to you that those words of the Greeks could well be the text of Andrew’s life: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. All that we know of Andrew suggests that he dedicated his life to helping others see – and meet – Jesus. Andrew has not gone down in history as a strong leader or a powerful preacher. Rather, we remember him for his personal witness; he is the one who speaks to people one at a time, the one who introduces a friend to Jesus. And so, as we think about what it means to be one of God’s saints – God’s people, the ones he is using to spread his love in the world – I want to suggest to you that Andrew is a good model for us.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. How is that prayer going to be answered today? How are people who have not met Jesus, and perhaps don’t know anything about him, going to have the opportunity to see him and meet him? I think the answer to that question has two parts to it.

First, people are going to see Jesus when the Christian church, and the individuals like you and me who are its members, look more like Jesus. In other words, when we get really serious about putting the teaching and example of Jesus into practice in our everyday life, then people will see Jesus for themselves. When they see us loving our enemies and praying for those who hate us, caring for the poor and not dedicating our lives to getting richer and richer, seeking first God’s Kingdom and not worrying so much about material things or titles or fame or recognition in the sight of the world – when they see all this, then they’ll be able to see the face of Christ in his people. A tall order? Yes – but it’s always been part of our Christian calling, hasn’t it?

Second, people are going to see Jesus when we, the people of Jesus, introduce them to him, so that they can come to know him for themselves. I am a Christian today because of someone who did that – my Dad. My family went to church every week, of course, but my Dad was the one who lent me Christian books and who, at the crucial point in my life, challenged me to give my life to Jesus. I first met Jesus for myself because of that challenge.

At our Edmonton diocesan synod a few years ago Bishop Jane Alexander ended her charge to the synod with this challenge: that before our diocesan centenary in 2013, every Anglican in our diocese would lead one other person to Christ. Doubtless Jane knew that this would be a daunting prospect to many people in the church, and so she continued, ‘And if you don’t know how to do that, will you agree to work together with other people to learn how to do it?”

I’ve had the joy, throughout my life, of helping people who were not Christians come to know Christ for themselves, and I have to tell you that there’s no joy like it. All of us are all called to be witnesses, as Andrew was. We’re not all great preachers or healers or miracle workers or church leaders, but I hope that we all have a faith worth sharing, and that we all have a friend worth sharing it with.

In the 1920s an Anglican priest called Sam Shoemaker wrote a poem about this ministry of introducing people to Jesus, and I want to close with it:

I stand by the door.

I stand by the door.
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out,
The door is the most important door in the world-
It is the door through which people walk when they find God.
There’s no use my going way inside, and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only the wall where a door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind people,
With outstretched, groping hands.
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it …
So I stand by the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world
Is for people to find that door – the door to God.
The most important thing any person can do
Is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands,
And put it on the latch – the latch that only clicks
And opens to the person’s own touch.
People die outside that door, as starving beggars die
On cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter—
Die for want of what is within their grasp.
They live on the other side of it – live because they have not found it.
Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,
And open it, and walk in, and find Him …
So I stand by the door.

Go in, great saints, go all the way in–
Go way down into the cavernous cellars,
And way up into the spacious attics–
It is a vast roomy house, this house where God is.
Go into the deepest of hidden casements,
Of withdrawal, of silence, of sainthood.
Some must inhabit those inner rooms.
And know the depths and heights of God,
And call outside to the rest of us how wonderful it is.
Sometimes I take a deeper look in,
Sometimes venture in a little farther;
But my place seems closer to the opening …
So I stand by the door.

There is another reason why I stand there.
Some people get part way in and become afraid
Lest God and the zeal of His house devour them
For God is so very great, and asks all of us.
And these people feel a cosmic claustrophobia,
And want to get out. “Let me out!” they cry,
And the people way inside only terrify them more.
Somebody must be by the door to tell them that they are spoiled
For the old life, they have seen too much:
Once taste God, and nothing but God will do any more.
Somebody must be watching for the frightened
Who seek to sneak out just where they came in,
To tell them how much better it is inside.
The people too far in do not see how near these are
To leaving – preoccupied with the wonder of it all.
Somebody must watch for those who have entered the door,
But would like to run away. So for them, too,
I stand by the door.

I admire the people who go way in.
But I wish they would not forget how it was
Before they got in. Then they would be able to help
The people who have not yet even found the door,
Or the people who want to run away again from God,
You can go in too deeply, and stay in too long,
And forget the people outside the door.
As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,
Near enough to God to hear Him, and know He is there,
But not so far from people as not to hear them,
And remember they are there, too.
Where? Outside the door–
Thousands of them, millions of them.
But – more important for me –
One of them, two of them, ten of them,
Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch.
So I shall stand by the door and wait
For those who seek it.
“I had rather be a door-keeper …”
So I stand by the door.

Low-Key Religious Experience

1Religious experience doesn’t have to be dramatic to change your life. I know that, because my life was changed by a low-key religious experience.

I gave my life to Jesus when I was thirteen. This was part of a series of events that had been going on for some time.

I had been confirmed a year or so beforehand. Some of the confirmation candidates had stayed together as a youth group, and one of the people in that group was an older girl whose faith impressed me. Also, my dad had been lending me Christian books, and I’d read Dennis Bennett’s Nine O’Clock in the Morning, describing his early experiences in what we now call the ‘charismatic renewal’. Healings, speaking in tongues, works of knowledge and wisdom, baptism in the Holy Spirit – it was all very dramatic. And I found it very attractive (and a lot more exciting than the staid Anglican worship I was experiencing at the time).

But my night of commitment to Christ was the opposite of dramatic. At a youth group meeting, my dad (the vicar) said to me, “You’ve never given your life to Jesus, have you?” After the meeting, I went to my room, sat down on my bed and prayed a simple prayer giving my life to Jesus. That was it.

I realized as I was thinking about it this morning that I actually have no memory of that event. I think I do, because I’ve told the outline of the story so many times. But I don’t remember why I did it. I don’t remember what the thought processes were that led me from Dad’s study to sitting on my bed praying the prayer. And I don’t remember how I felt, before, during, or after.

I must have been at least considering the possibility of something dramatic happening. Think of what I had been reading at the time – the spiritual experiences of charismatic Anglican (Dennis Bennett) and Pentecostal (David Wilkerson) Christians (yes, I’d read The Cross and the Switchblade too). Those folks didn’t exactly major in low-key religious experiences! But I have no memory of anything dramatic – no powerful sense of God’s presence, no speaking in tongues, visions, or voices from heaven. No memory at all. Whatever happened, I’ve forgotten it.

However, something happened, because that day set the course of the rest of my life. Very quickly, Christ and following Christ moved into the centre of my life and became my number one priority. I was an enthusiastic Jesus-freak almost from day one! Dad taught me to pray and read the Bible and I made it a habit, a habit I’ve maintained to this day. I plunged into Christian fellowship, small group worship and study times, and I read voraciously. And four years later I enrolled in a two-year training course to become an evangelist. Later on, I was ordained a deacon and a priest.

But all this began with something so low-key that I can barely remember it!

So don’t feel second-class if your religious experience is low key. God is still at work, at a far deeper level than your emotions. As my friend Harold Percy says, God doesn’t write boring stories; all God’s stories are interesting stories. Including yours and mine.

Everyone’s story is unique. There is no template. There are no standardized conversions. Every conversion described in the Book of Acts is different, except for this one thing: they all describe a process by which person’s life is reorientated toward the God who Jesus revealed to us.

And that’s the most important issue. Not ‘Did I feel Jesus enter my heart?’ or ‘Did I see a vision of God?’ or ‘Did I pray the right prayer?’ The important issue is ‘Today, as I go into my day, is my face toward the God who Jesus revealed to us?’

Everything else is optional.

A Spiritual Anniversary

On March 5th 1972, at the age of 13, I made a decision to follow Jesus, and told him so. That wasn’t exactly the language I would have used at the time, but that’s what was happening. It was actually a rather low key event – there were no mystical firework – but it must have stuck, because it changed the course of my life.

Of course, I had no idea just how challenging or all- encompassing that commitment would be. I didn’t know myself very well and I didn’t know God very well. But everything has to start somewhere, and for me, that was the start of a life of conscious discipleship.

So thank you God for the past 45 years. Thank you also for my Dad whose gentle challenge brought me to that moment.

Nicole Cliffe: How God Messed Up My Happy Atheist Life

Nicole CliffeNicole Cliffe tells the story of the work of God in her life that resulted in her moving from atheism to Christianity:

I became a Christian on July 7, 2015, after a very pleasant adult life of firm atheism. I’ve found myself telling “the story” when people ask me about it—slightly tweaked for my audience, of course. When talking to non-theists, I do a lot of shrugging and “Crazy, right? Nothing has changed, though!” When talking to other Christians, it’s more, “Obviously it’s been very beautiful, and I am utterly changed by it.” But the story has gotten a little away from me in the telling.

As an atheist since college, I had already mellowed a bit over the previous two or three years, in the course of running a popular feminist website that publishes thoughtful pieces about religion. Like many atheists (who are generally lovely moral people like my father, who would refuse to enter heaven and instead wait outside with his Miles Davis LPs), I started out snarky and defensive about religion, but eventually came to think it was probably nice for people of faith to have faith. I held to that, even though the idea of a benign deity who created and loved us was obviously nonsense, and all that awaited us beyond the grave was joyful oblivion.

I know that sounds depressing, but I found the idea of life ending after death mildly reassuring in its finality. I had started to meet more people of faith, having moved to Utah from Manhattan, and thought them frequently charming in their sweet delusion. I did not wish to believe. I had no untapped, unanswered yearnings. All was well in the state of Denmark. And then it wasn’t.

Read the rest in Christianity Today magazine here.

‘Finding Your Way Back to God’ (book review)

51bca9zR2xL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_An excellent book for the most part. Dave and Jon Ferguson focus on the parable of the Prodigal Son under five headings or ‘awakenings’ – the Awakening to Longing, to Regret, to Help, to Love, and to Life. Also running through the book is the idea of the Thirty Day Wager: the daily prayer ‘God, if you are real, make yourself real to me’.

The five sections of the book each include several chapters built around the theme of the five awakenings. But there are also daily resources – a question to ponder, guidelines for journaling, and a prayer based on variations on the wager. I understand there are also DVD resources available.

The book is enriched by many stories of people who have experienced God’s help in their lives. Refreshingly, not all of the stories have happy endings (a couple of the cancer patients died, for example). The book is also permeated throughout by a sense of God’s grace – reaching out to people in their brokenness and failure with the opportunity for a fresh start.

I think this would make a fine resource for people who are not yet believers, and also for Christians who long for a deeper sense of God’s presence in their lives.

‘Finding Your Way Back to God’ on Amazon.ca.

‘Finding Your Way Back to God’ web page.