Twelve Steps Towards Freedom: Presence

Dave Gregory,

This post by Dave Gregory was originally published at Seventy Two

I’ve always found the Bible a bit odd.  I mean, the beginning and the end.  No, not the kind of questions it raises when placed aside the story of the cosmos told by science.  I always found it odd in that it starts with a story of a garden.  And ends with a story of a city.  From the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem.  I mean, when we are thinking about caring for creation, wouldn’t it have been better to end up the image of a garden as a symbol of a new heaven and new earth?

I guess that it captures the flow of human culture through the ages.  From scattered groups living off their surroundings, through the discovery of agriculture and the beginnings of urbanisation.  Through to today when over half of the worlds eight billion people – expected to rise to nearly 70% by 2050 – live in sprawling, often chaotic cities leaving a huge imprint on the environment and climate of the planet.  Not quite New Jerusalem.

Yet while the garden and city seem polar opposites, look again and you will see similarities.  In the twentieth century there was a trend towards green cities.  The “Garden City” project before the Second World War.  While the post-war new city of Milton Keynes, renowned for its roundabouts and grid-roads has one million trees planted within its bounds.  Looking down on the city from the north, one can hardly see any buildings.  Looking to the future, we are going to have to green our cities, attempting to tackle local and global environmental issues as well as making then good places to live in.

New Jerusalem is a garden city.  Like Eden, there is a river flowing from it – “a river of the water of life as clear as crystal flowing … down the middle of the great street of the city”   (Rev 22v1).  On each bank stands “the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit”  (Rev 22v2).  And in both Eden and New Jerusalem there is no church or temple.  Yet, the presence of God is within them.  In Eden, God is described as “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Gen 3v8).  While in New Jerusalem, “the Lord God almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Rev 21v22).  However you look at these images, whether through the lens of rational literalism or metaphorical imagination, they both speak of the presence of God seeking encounter.

While we know that church is not the buildings, buildings often shape our community.  They are the places where we gather, know one another, worship together, celebrate significant moments.  Places where, however utilitarian they look, are the places where God is sought and encountered.  With COVID-19 this has paused in the expression of our faith.  And with the need to keep them COVID secure, looking ahead when we do begin to gather, numbers will be limited, and worship will have a hugely different feel.  Perhaps it is time to discover and respond to the presence of God in new ways.

The penultimate step of “Twelve Steps Towards Freedom” is again not about our actions.  It is about becoming more aware of the presence of God in our lives.  That we seek “through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God … praying only for the knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.”  This bears a striking similarity to Paul’s prayer in his letters to the young churches of the New Testament era, for example that in Ephesians. 

I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.  I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you” (Eph 1v17,18)

For if we are to make a difference to the environmental issues that our world and its people face, it will take more than an awareness of the issues and of carbon budgets or recycling.  We need a change of heart that comes from an encounter with God.  The God who makes, sustains and cares for creation.  If our relationship with God is to develop a focus upon our relationship with creation, then perhaps it is time we left our buildings behind and took time to seek the presence of God within the world of creation.

So, with our buildings closed for the most part, and our activities suspended through much of the summer, why not take some time to see God – the God of creation – within creation.  In your garden, on a walk, in the park.  Whether your setting is rural or urban, God is there and be found through what he has created.  Of course, this thought is not new is it?  Celtic and Franciscan spiritual insights draw greatly from creation.   Seven hundred years ago, in the thirteenth century, the Franciscan Bonaventure encouraged people to glimpse within nature signs of God’s presence and action.  God’s power in the sheer fact that things exist.  God’s desire for relationship with creation in the exuberant creativity of its wide-ranging diversity.  And God’s love in seeing how things relate to one another, working together for God’s good purpose.

So, while we are still not yet fully returned to our buildings, take some time outside this summer seeking the presence of God.  And there, look at whatever vista is before you.  Take in the whole scene.  What does it say about God’s power?  How does this sense of God at work in creation before you, empower you to share in caring for creation?  Don’t rush this.  Take your time.  If you feel powerless before the immensity of it all, then ask him to empower your imagination over what might be possible.  Not necessarily something big.  Remember the mustard seed of Jesus parable.  “Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” (Matt 13v31)

Now, focus upon one particular thing that you see.  Perhaps, the one thing that specially stands out to you.  Take time to look at it.  And then look again.  Look through God’s eyes.  What does he value in what you see?  What does he rejoice over in it?  Let God’s rejoicing feed your appreciation of all that God has made.  Let that rejoicing feed your own desire to share with the creator in his pleasure over creation.

Next, take time to notice how the thing you have fixed your attention on is connected to other things around it.  Insects to flowers.  Trees to air and soil through leaves and roots.  The shaped of hill to rain and the power of flowing water.  The waves on the sea, driven by the streams of air.  How do such things express God’s love and care for creation?  What do they say about his care for you?  About his gift to life to you?  “See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these” (Matt 7v28,29).  Draw upon this gift.  Allow it to cement your desire to share in God’s care of creation.

And discovering new connection with God.  Having a new appreciation of God’s will, ask for God’s power to live that out.  That ahead, whether in garden or building, you grow in being a missional disciple sharing with God his mission to care for creation.


This blog is part of a series from Dave Gregory. To see previous blogs in the series, please click here.

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Daily message – 14 July 2020

Eddie,
Crazy busy: A mercifully short book about a really big problem

It’s not wrong to be tired. It’s not wrong to feel overwhelmed. It’s not wrong to go through seasons of complete chaos. What is wrong – and heartbreakingly foolish and wonderfully avoidable – is to live a life with more craziness than we want because we have less Jesus than we need.

— Kevin DeYoung, “Crazy Busy”

Never Waste A Crisis

Nigel Coles,

This post by Nigel Coles was originally published at Seventy Two

‘Never waste a crisis’, a quote attributed to Winston Churchill, is something I’ve heard a few times in recent months. Listening for the voice of the Spirit amidst the myriad of voices clamouring for our attention in the midst of the pandemic, has not always been easy.

What has the virus revealed about who and where we are? Once into lockdown, ‘what is the virus revealing?’ became a key question, both for myself and in relationship with others.

However, we’re now in another phase. Restrictions are easing, mobility (hurry?) is returning … to ‘normal’/’new normal’/????  If we did not spot what the virus was revealing about ourselves and about God during lockdown, we shall return to whatever shape and model of new normal is determined by the pre-dominant cultural tides of our day.

A model from organisations involved with disaster relief provided a helpful understanding in those initial manic two weeks. It highlights what we now recognise, but were then unaware of; there are phases, periods of time, and we need to match our responses and actions appropriately. Response, recovery and reconstruction were the three phases highlighted and it’s a helpful framework to work with … provided our responses and actions are in relation to the right crisis.

Pre lockdown we had begun to talk about a crisis in leadership, discipleship and mission. This is something bigger and wider than Baptists in the UK, but we are far from immune as churches. The virus has revealed more acutely, the extent to which this is apparent. NB the virus has not created these elements of crisis, but merely revealed what was already there.

What this means for me, both as an individual follower of Jesus with personal responsibilities and as a Christian leader with wider responsibilities, is if I simply move into a phase of ‘recovery’ without having examined the foundations, I am increasing the risk of the whole building falling down. We must not invest in the future, without being clear what we’re building on today has sufficient foundations.

I want to highlight two elements of this, namely, the Church and the Bible.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, I hope you are committed to the Church of Jesus Christ. There was a time it would not have been necessary to say that, but these uncertain times don’t solely relate to a global pandemic. Frankly, there’s been too much negative energy expended and too many negative words spoken against forms and experiences of church, which suggest we can by-pass and ignore not simply two thousand years of church history, but also the bride of Christ:

Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.                                         (Ephesians 5:25-27)

Anyone who suggests the church is finished, when Jesus himself clearly still has plan A very much in focus, reveals the extent to which our biblical foundations have been shaken by the cultural tsunami of post-modernity. In practice, the small group of which I am a member has been much more significant for me than the Sunday worship gatherings (NB. plural – after all, we can think we are a part of practically any one local church, anywhere in the world). In my life, that’s nothing new, as I’ve lived for the last twenty years without being in the same place every Sunday, due to having an itinerant preaching ministry.

The question we should have been asking (pre-pandemic) is: how does belonging to this church empower everyone identifying with it, to grow as a disciple of Jesus?

Our problem has been highlighted. The virus has revealed too frequently this is far from the reality. Therefore, to ‘recover’ where we were in February 2020, is not my focus.

I’ve lost count of the number of conversations over recent years, about the extent of biblical illiteracy among Christians in the western world. However, the virus has revealed in three months what survey after survey, has merely indicated. What percentage of Christians don’t open their Bibles for themselves between Sunday gatherings? I’ve no idea, but it appears to be way too high from what I’ve seen and heard. It’s not surprising therefore, there is a new rising tide of what we used to call ‘liberalism’, but naively thought had disappeared.

As Seventy-two we’ve not been inactive during lockdown. Some of you are already finding the Discipleship Cycle a useful framework to help listen to God through scripture. In relation to the Bible we also believe Jesus is sticking to Plan A:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3: 16)

If we are committed to doing what we can (and we are) to nurture an environment for missional movement, then covenant faithfulness and biblical obedience remain non-negotiables.

Seventy-two is nudging towards releasing an App to enable more and more people who don’t habitually open the Bible for themselves, to not only do so, but to hear God speaking to them through scripture in the regular, everyday rhythms of life. If you would like to be involved in piloting the field-testing the App then please get in touch with us.

 

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Dwelling in the Word: 13th July

Alex Drew,

This post by Alex Drew was originally published at Seventy Two

Acts 16:16-40

Paul and Silas in Prison

16 Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” 18 She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her.

19 When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. 20 They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar 21 by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”

22 The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. 23 After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24 When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”

29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33 At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. 34 The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.

35 When it was daylight, the magistrates sent their officers to the jailer with the order: “Release those men.” 36 The jailer told Paul, “The magistrates have ordered that you and Silas be released. Now you can leave. Go in peace.”

37 But Paul said to the officers: “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.”

38 The officers reported this to the magistrates, and when they heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were alarmed. 39 They came to appease them and escorted them from the prison, requesting them to leave the city. 40 After Paul and Silas came out of the prison, they went to Lydia’s house, where they met with the brothers and sisters and encouraged them. Then they left.

 

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Daily message – 13 July 2020

Eddie,
Profile photo of Sinclair Ferguson

Do you understand how much your High Priest cares for you and loves you? It is almost as though He were saying, “Father, My glory will be incomplete unless You keep this promise-that My beloved disciples can see it and share it.”

— Sinclair Ferguson, “In Christ Alone”

Daily message – 12 July 2020

Eddie,

See in it a chance to die. … Welcome anything that calls you to your only true position, ‘I am crucified with Christ. ’

— Amy Carmichael, “Gold by Moonlight”

Daily message – 11 July 2020

Eddie,

— We’re not servants who eat scraps downstairs – we feast with the King! John Hindley, “Serving without Sinking”

Daily message – 10 July 2020

Eddie,

Everyone is trying to find salvation. They might not ask, “What must I do to be saved?” But everyone has some sense of what would make them satisfied, fulfilled, accepted. … Everyone has something that they would like to be, or have, or do – something that if they achieved it, then life, they think, would be complete. But these versions of salvation don’t deliver … because we were made for more. We may find some measure of success, but our hearts are always restless until they find rest in God.

— Tim Chester, “Galatians: Rediscovering Joy”

Daily message – 09 July 2020

Eddie,
Crazy busy: A mercifully short book about a really big problem

We won’t say no to more craziness until we say yes to more Jesus.

— Kevin DeYoung, “Crazy Busy”