spiritual fitness centres?

I have taken the plunge and joined a gym (and yes, that is a mixed metaphor as they don’t have a pool). I have done so in order to continue the rehabilitation process following my surgery earlier in the year.

fitness Series 1It’s the first time I have joined a gym and the induction was an interesting experience for a novice like me. The first thing I was asked was what I wanted to achieve. I said that I want to improve my general fitness and stamina and also rebuild some of the muscle bulk that I had lost during the past six months (the gym is aware of my cardiac surgery). So the instructor showed me a number of machines and devices that I could use in order to achieve these goals. I am not sure that some of them would not have been out of place in a medieval torture chamber, but they are all designed to work on a different set of muscles, or to improve general stamina and fitness. A couple of days afterwards I am now feeling the burn in some of the muscle groups that weren’t previously exercised too much. But I am also confident that I can achieve what I want to achieve if I am regular in my attendance and work hard when I am there.

When I was on some of the machines that work on the basis of resistance against the muscles they are designed to enhance I was shown how to adjust them by engaging different quantities of weights. As I am not a weightlifter and am looking to start slowly most of the time the instructor advised reducing the weights to a level that I think others might categorise as ‘puny’. Apparently it’s important not to start too high but to build up gradually so that the muscles get warmed up and are not stressed. I can cope with that, I think.

I also had a go on a treadmill – getting up to a decent walking pace and adjusting the angle so that I was walking uphill. I felt quite pleased with myself until I noticed that further along were some people who were running rather fast on similar machines. In comparison to them I was going at a snail’s pace. But walking fast is what I need to do to raise my heart rate without over-stressing, so I am happy with that.

I imagine that a lot of the lycra-clad gym-dwellers would not think my efforts are very impressive. I reckon that there are plenty of people who are older than me who are able to lift more weights and go faster. But that’s not the point. I have to start from where I am and aim for the goals I have set myself. Others will be fitter, faster and stronger and will other goals that are not mine. I wish them well in that but I am not in competition with them, I am on my own journey of fitness.

Reflecting on my first experience of the gym I wonder whether there are a few lessons that we need to learn in churches.

I think it’s really important to recognise that people are at different places in their journey of faith, and to consider how we might help them to grow from the point they are at now, rather than offering a one-size fits all solution. When I was getting ready to be baptised at the age of 13 I had a series of sessions with a more experienced Christian who helped me to understand more of my faith and how to follow Jesus more closely. Sadly after I was baptised that stopped and I was not mature or confident enough to ask that we continue. But can we offer that to those who want it?

And on a similar theme do all of the small groups in a church operate at the same ‘level’? My personal preference would be that all of them are exploring the same theme at the same time so that the church as a whole has this in common. But almost all of the study material I have seen always seems to be pitched at just one level. I am not talking about academic levels or even levels of spiritual comprehension, but what if people were offered the opportunity to explore the same theme in different ways that suited their preferred learning style and also that understood that people want to explore at different depths, and which enabled people to engage with the theme in ways that most suited their spiritual preferences? The material might be more complicated to create (although I would love to have a go) but I think it would be far more healthy and helpful in the church and perhaps more people might engage with the groups. And what if then there were collective opportunities for people to share together what they have experienced in their groups and encourage one another? Would that be a healthier model of church?

I’m not expecting that we introduce spiritual torture devices to achieve this – the Spanish Inquisition should remain a hideous historical event (cue “nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition…”). But I think we should recognise that people are at different stages in their journey of faith and that they find it easier to encounter God in different ways. So some people find meditation and contemplation really helpful while others find that they are closer to God in serving others and still others prefer energetic worship, but all can enable an encounter with God. (For more on this read Sacred Pathways by Gary Thomas.)

I have found my spiritual home in the Baptist church family. One of the distinctives is an emphasis that all of us can encounter God, can serve him and other people, and that he speaks through whomever he chooses to speak (so we should listen to one another). We summarise it as ‘the priesthood of all believers’. As I see it those who are in ‘leadership’ positions are there to serve the church and enable everyone to grow in the depth of their relationship with Jesus and to live out their faith in their daily lives. They are not ‘in charge’, nor are they more important than anyone else. There’s not meant to be a hierarchy, but somehow it feels as if there is, with people putting others on high spiritual pedestals (or at least on small raised areas) above them. Other church traditions have a more overt and acknowledged hierarchical approach. But we do ourselves a disservice and perhaps even undermine what God’s Spirit is doing in each of us if we start comparing ourselves with one another and playing a version of church Top Trumps. It’s a fine line between seeking to emulate those we admire and feeling like we are unworthy because we are not like them. But God doesn’t want you to be like anyone else, he wants to help you to become the best you that you can be.

I am sure that I am being idealistic here. But what’s wrong with pursuing an ideal? And if I am going a long way down this line, maybe we should stop calling ourselves churches and start to call ourselves spiritual fitness centres in order to embed these ideas?

Or maybe not.

Be blessed, be a blessing

 

scaling new heights

So this morning we have really joined the digital age. Because of the large number of internet-connected devices in our home our broadband connection was running really slowly. There were various correlations but the most significant was that the speed of connection was inversely proportional to the waking hours of our teenage offspring.

Hence the conversion to Fibre Optic Broadband. I thought that it would involve diggers digging holes in the road, a trench being dug through our garden and holes drilled in walls. Instead a nice man came in, having done the work at the green box at the end of the road, did a bit of disconnecting and reconnecting, and I was almost ready to go. Following instructions in the booklet that came from our supplier was easy, and after waiting for a couple of minutes… tadaaa. Superfast broadband (at least until the teenagers wake up!).

This quick conversion is in marked contrast to the way in which most people come to faith. It seems that so much attention is paid to the ‘moment’ of conversion – when someone makes a decision to follow Jesus or realises that they are a follower – that we neglect all that goes before and much that comes after.

engel scale

James F Engel’s famous eponymous scale reminds us that the ‘moment’ is only one part of the journey of faith. An amended version is here:

I have been reflecting on this in preparation for Sunday morning, and wondered where the people who will be in church are currently located on the scale. I hope and pray that they are moving upwards, wherever they currently are, and hope and pray that we as a church are helping them in that process.

It’s a real challenge. We want to be helpful, we want to be supportive, we want to assist people in their following of Jesus (or ‘discipleship’ in Christian jargon) but that can sometimes be reduced to attending a course, or reading a book, or ticking a box. I reckon the best way of ‘discipling’ someone is a group of friends together who encourage one another, who support one another, who pray for one another. If there are particular issues or questions they can ask someone who might know. But it doesn’t need structure so much as a loving mutual responsibility.

Or am I being naive?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

om nom nom nom nom

There are many things that populate the surface of my desk. There are post-it notes with telephone messages, pieces of paper with ideas and spider-grams and scrawlings. There are letters awaiting reply. There are various bits of stationery and equipment. And there are many books.

First and foremost is my bible: without which I would be lost. Then there are books that help me understand my Bible. There are books that I use to help me plan services. There are books that I use for my own reflections and time with God. And there are books that I am reading to further my understanding and brought my awareness. And there is a pile of books that are waiting to be read.

One of my ambitions is to be able to be in a position where the height of the pile will diminish. This requires a certain amount of discipline on my part to set aside time to read, reflect and pray. With all of the busyness that being a minister entails it is very easy for this time to be squeezed out. I can find myself seeing it as a luxury or an indulgence and justifying not reading books because I’m spending time doing “proper ministry”.

But unless I am being fed I am going to struggle to feed others. Unless I’m being nurtured I will find it difficult to nurture others. You can only give somebody something that you already have. when I returned from my sabbatical leave I was full: I had spent 3 months reading, reflecting, praying and being fed and nurtured. and unless I am regularly replenishing myself eventually the well will run dry.

In case you’re interested the books that are currently ‘on the go’ are: How God Became King (Tom Wright); Real Scientists Real Faith (Ed RJ Berry); and Christ in the Wilderness (Stephen Cottrell). There is a substantial queue waiting to be the next in line!

How and where do you get fed?

Be blessed, be a blessing

I think I’ve used this joke before but it’s relevant to today’s theme:

bible genesisA collector of rare books ran into an acquaintance who told him he had just thrown away an old Bible that he found in a dusty, old box. He happened to mention that Gluten-somebody-or-other had printed it.

“Not Gutenberg?” gasped the collector.

“Yes, that was it!”

“You idiot! You’ve thrown away one of the first books ever printed. A copy recently sold at auction for half a million dollars!”

“Oh, I don’t think this book would have been worth anything close to that much,” replied the man. “It was scribbled all over in the margins by some guy named Martin Luther.”

Being overtaken

My position in our household has changed. I have been overtaken. I used to be the tallest person in the family, even despite losing the additional height afforded by having hair. Now, however, I have been overtaken in height by Thomas, my 15 year-old son. It’s not as if I have shrunk (other than my hairline).

It feels a bit like a game of Mario Kart I was playing against him a while ago. I was happily zooming along in the lead with the finishing line in sight, not anticipating anything preventing me from taking the victory and gloating joyfully (but graciously), when all of a sudden Thomas overtook me and beat me on the line. It seems that he appeared from nowhere, and the same feels true of his sudden growth spurt. How did it happen?

I may seem bitter or regretful about this relegation, but I am not. I find it remarkable that the small(ish) baby I held in my arms 15 and a bit years ago has now grown taller than me. I am proud of the way he has grown and matured as a person (as I am also of my daughter, Hannah, but thankfully she has not yet grown taller than me). I felt that fatherly pride last Sunday in a special way.

Last Sunday morning both of them took part in leading our church as members of the youth group who took over the morning service. In addition to the ‘normal’ parts of our service like singing, Bible readings and praying we also had a ‘Cool Wall’ of Bible characters (see Top Gear for an explanation), a great drama depicting the early part of David’s life and then his victory over Goliath and an exuberance of youthful joy and enthusiasm as they all took part in different ways.

Hannah played the drums, narrated a drama and spoke about what life is like for her at school and Thomas played keyboard, acted in the drama (as Goliath, appropriately) and preached the sermon! I sat there being blessed both by what the all young people said and did as a member of the congregation and being blessed by what Thomas and Hannah were doing in particular as a proud dad.

That’s how God feels when he looks at you as you follow Jesus.