Mark 1

The last time I met with my Spiritual Director, he gave me a little version of the Gospel of Mark.  It is an attractive looking little publication, meant to be given as a tract.  My SD had picked a couple of them up in the local Bible Society office and was telling me of how he had enjoyed reading Mark’s account of the life of Christ.  He gave it to me and commended it to me.  I duly placed the copy in my satchel and brought it home.  It did make it out of my satchel immediately when I got home but I did not begin reading it at that point.  In fact the little tract made it up to my bedside table where it gathered a bit of dust over the next couple of weeks.  Then one night just after I had climbed into bed I reached across and lifted it and decided that I would begin to read it.  I have read Mark’s gospel before, probably several times, which is most likely the reason that I had let it sit on my bedside table, gathering dust!  So as I opened it up I uttered the following prayer (or something like it!!)

Lord,

You know that I have read this book many times before and you know that it is good to read the accounts of the life of Jesus to learn from his words and ways. 

But as I lift this book, I can’t help but feel a little complacent that I maybe know the story too well.

So Lord, as I read this would you, by the power of your Holy Spirit, refresh my reading.  Would you help open my eyes to the wonder of the story of your Son again.

And I started to read at chapter one.  What happened next was what you might call an immediate answer to prayer.  I have read the opening chapter of Mark many times in my life as a believer.  I have heard the stories from the opening chapter of the Gospel of Mark since I was a little boy.  But as much as I have read those stories and preached on them and sung about them over the years, this time as I read, I began to see them all afresh as I read them in the context of one chapter.

Mark starts out telling us about John who had come to prepare the way for Jesus’ arrival.  It was John who said that while he baptized with water, Jesus would baptise with the Holy Spirit.  Then Jesus is baptized and led immediately by the Spirit into the desert, where he is tempted.  Then begins the ministry of Jesus as he announces that he has come to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God.  Then there is a series of calls, healings, outcastings of demons, and some quiet prayer in a lonely place.  All this was in the region of Galilee.  When Simon came to get Jesus in that quiet place of prayer and said that the people were gathering and looking for Jesus, Jesus said that they should go to the other villages of the region and proclaim the good news, because that is what he had come to do.

As I read this, I was first of all struck by the amount of ‘Holy Spirit activity’ that was going on.  Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert.  The disciples when called left the nets and followed immediately – this could only have been a move of the Spirit.  Jesus healed Simon’s mother in what could only have been the power of the Holy Spirit.  demons were cast out in what could only have been an act of the power of the Holy Spirit.

I found myself being amazed afresh by the early ministry of Jesus in the account of Mark.

But I was also struck by something else. Twice in this opening chapter Mark has Jesus saying aloud that he has come to proclaim the good news. First as he is beginning his ministry after the baptism and temptation and then second after Simon comes to get him while he is praying. As I noticed this, I started to get an image in my head of these two statements being like a set of bookends in which everything else was contextualised. The context of Jesus ministry was the proclamation of the good news. That is what everything was about. In the 21st century western world, proclamation has become almost completely identified as a ‘words’ only act. We proclaim the good news by telling the good news. However, in Mark 1, while Jesus does state that he is there to preach the good news, that is using words, he also models it by the working of powerful miracles and healings in the lives of individual people. Thus, I was starting to see that in the context of Mark 1, proclamation is something that is not just words, it is both words and confirming acts.

Boom!

As I started to put this together in my brain there was only one question coming to my mind: Why does this not appear to be the case today? Of course there are churches out there in these days for whom the preaching of the word is backed up by ‘signs and wonders,’ but in the context of my own church (locally and denominationally) why does it not appear to be the case? I suppose the other thing that I was asking was this: Why do we not even seem to have the faith and boldness to prayerfully ask God to work in this kind of way any more? Have we become so rational in our thinking that we are afraid to ask for something that might not be explainable in the long run?

I posted recently about being hungry for more of God and more of God’s Spirit in my life. Reading this text also made me more hungry for the work of God’s Spirit in my life and ministry. God, please grant me the courage, boldness and faith to pray humbly and with hope that your Holy Spirit’s power will move and work through the words and actions of my ministry.

Lord, pour out your Spirit upon us.

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Spiritual Direction…

I need to have my life transformed. There are no two ways about that. Each day, again and again, I need to have my life transformed. I am hungry for that continuous growth every day in my life. Today I want to be closer to Jesus than I was yesterday. Tomorrow I want to be closer to Jesus than I am today.

How is this possible?

Traditionally, the church has taught people like me that this growth will come by learning from sermons, engaging in a daily personal walk with Jesus manifested in a “quiet time” which would include prayer and Scripture reading. The church would also have taught the importance of fellowship in growth as a Christian. All these are thoroughly important elements and traditionally have been the preferred methods of discipleship and formation for Christians. I would not disagree in as much as I would say that these things are unproductive in terms of Christian growth. To the contrary, reading Scripture and spending time in prayer and fellowship are wonderful things in which growth does occur. However, I can’t help but wonder if these things are not just vehicles which we use as we travel on the journey. Thomas Merton would suggest that it is folly for anyone to go on a journey without some kind of map or guide. I would suggest that none of the above mentioned traditional tools for growth act as a map or a guide. Rather, it is the duty of the Christian who seeks to grow in Christ to have a guide for the Journey. The vehicles of prayer, Scripture reading and fellowship will only move us in the correct direction if we have the company of a guide who will show us the way in each vehicle.

I am hungry to grow closer to Christ in my journey each day but I can only move in that direction if I have a guide. I am still a relatively young man and I am a very young minister and I need the fathers and mothers in the faith that will walk their respective legs of the journey alongside me. I need those people who will watch me succeed and fail and then help me reflect and grow from each experience. I need those people who know God, to continually show me how to know God. I need them not to show it in an authoritative or restrictive way but to show me in a relationship where listening is paramount, where trusting completely in the power and work of the Holy Spirit is paramount, where Godly wisdom exists in the context of a life that has been lived on the journey.

I don’t think that there can be any doubt that there is a need for Spiritual Direction/Accompaniment in the lives of young people and young adults within the context of the church. If the Church does not have people who are willing to gently and lovingly pass on the faith then deep faith will continue to diminish in the church because as young people and young adults become middle-aged and older adults, they will not have any contextual experience or framework from within which they can answer their call to gently and lovingly pass on the faith. The result will be a diminished depth in the faith.

I do seek out those fathers and mothers in the faith. I meet for regular spiritual direction with a local priest and several of my colleagues from the denomination I serve in (although they would not recognize that what they are doing in meeting with me for a coffee is a form of Spiritual Direction.) Their ministry to me is helpful and I usually come away from a session feeling that I have been helped on my journey in either a very specific or a more general way. I also know other people who seek spiritual direction and are blessed, encouraged and moved forward as a result.

I worry though that in many local congregations there are no longer many Christians who are willing to take on those roles as spiritual fathers and mothers. My perception (based only personal observation) is that this is creating a dangerously big hole in the church and is feeding the growing false identity of the church as a country club for Christians, as opposed to the church’s identity as a prophetic, nurturing community of Christ. It appears that for many years now people have come to church and have been left to do it themselves and have been expected to find faith and grow deeply in that same faith. This does not work and cannot work. The example all the way through Scripture is of people being nurtured in the faith by others: Paul and Timothy, Jesus and his disciples, Eli and Samuel, Elizabeth and Mary, Paul’s continuing letter writing ministry to the churches that he planted. The list could go on. The Christian faith has survived because there have always been faithful people who passed on the faith to those coming after them. Susannah Wesley passed the faith on to John, Charles and all her other siblings. There can be no getting away from the need to pass on the faith and passing on the habits of faith. Simply saying that we will let people/our children find it out for themselves is not good enough.

So what? How do we begin to fill this wide chasm? Well, firstly it has to start at home. I have a responsibility to pass on the faith to my children. They will only learn to pray if they see me praying and get the opportunity to pray with me. I know that my Dad prayed and continues to pray for his kids every night, but I never remember actually praying with my Dad. I can desire that my kids see and know Jesus in their lives, but if I do not show them Jesus in my life and in our life as a family then they will never know how to live that life. It starts at home. But what about the church – the wider family of God? How do we bridge the gap in churches? A recent book called ‘The Trellis and the Vine’ is a good place to start perhaps. I would not stand as theologically conservatively as the authors of this book on some things, but there can be no denying that the structure of their offering is a good one. They suggest that we seek to be reading, reflecting on and applying Scripture to our lives in partnership with brothers and sisters in the faith and seeking to invite others to do the same. They suggest that by doing so, we will encourage one another to take seriously the Word of God as well as encouraging one another to live well the Word of God. By reading in community, we are inviting the Holy Spirit to come and speak in to our lives through the reading and ministry of the Word.

Christianity must be passed on and it must be lived in order to be passed on well. The time is now right for people to throw off the shackles of nominalism and to live and experience fully the grace, mercy, peace and love of God.

Show us your glory God.

You know me…

You know me Yahweh.
You know everything.
You made everything and you are in everything so you know everything.
You know everything about me.
You created me in your image.
Before I was formed you knew me.
Knowing me you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
You ordained the days of my life.
You knew the things I would go through.
You know the things I will go through.
You know the things I am going through.
You know everything and you still love me.
That blows me away.

The lectionary Scripture readings for this second week of Epiphany (1 Samuel 3:1-10, Psalm 139:1-6 & 13-18, and John 1:43-51) all point to the simple fact of the matter. God knows. In many ways this is a daunting thing to read first in the day. He knows the thoughts in my head and heart as I drift off to sleep. He knows the dreams that my dark little mind can formulate. He knows that actually, this morning my first thought was not of him. He knows the strayed thoughts I will have today. He knows the temptations I will consider giving into. He knows that some of them might even get the better of my strength of mind, heart and devotion. Yes, it can be a daunting thing to consider that God knows everything.

But it can also be a somewhat comforting thing. Because he also knows the good things that live and breathe in this body and mind that he has sewn together. He knows the extent of love that he has poured into this heart which does actually overflow into the lives of others. He does know the compassion that exists and the deep, deep desire to serve that is also there. He knows the good and right places that my thoughts will go to today. Above all this though, the central reason for beginning to consider that it is a comforting thing that God knows me is this: God knows me inside out and yet still loves. In the midst of the failings and the successes; the struggles and the victories, the battles and the breezes, God knows and loves. It is his love which picks us up when we fall – even in the knowledge that we might fall again very soon after we have been picked up. It is his love which carries us in each and every situation that we must move through. He knows and he loves completely.

Today, I might stumble and fall at some of life’s hurdles, or I might leap over them in the very strength and power of God’s love. Whatever happens, this I know beyond doubt: that there is now no condemnation for those that are in Christ Jesus and that nothing at all on this earth – visible or invisible – can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.

In the words of Saint Patrick, today I bind myself unto that love. The love that knows everything and still loves regardless.

God, may the love you lavish on me today in and through your Son, Jesus Christ, overflow and be a blessing unto those around me. Thank you for knowing me and still loving me. Amen.