Getting out of the way

Getting out of the way

I've had the story of Naaman the commander of the King of Aram's army on my mind recently. It's one of my favourite stories in 2 Kings 5, the miraculous healing of Naaman and in my experience, when you return to a part of scripture you've not considered for a while, something fresh often hits you and this time I found myself puzzling over Elisha's behaviour.

Elisha barged into this story, and not only does he help the king of Israel out of a major pickle, but in doing so he also takes the opportunity to remind everyone, the king included, that God is still in Israel. Life may be lived out against a stressful and uncertain backdrop of constant political and military turbulence, but God had not abandoned His people. So Elisha took Naaman off the king's inadequate hands with a personal invitation and then proceeded to behave outrageously. First, Elisha denies Naaman entry to his home and then he refuses to see him. Even in our discourteous times this would be considered outrageously rude but, for the Middle East, it was scandalous! Next, Elisha sends out his servant Gehazi with an insulting message. Talk about adding insult to injury!

I've a lot of sympathy for Naaman, who reacted to Elisha's behaviour with anger! It's clear that Naaman behaved with humility from the outset by listening to a slave girl and taking action on her testimony alone. Naaman, the great military leader, had made himself personally vulnerable. Once in the king of Israel's court he discovered his journey didn't end there and he had to trudge on, this time to a strange prophet's modest house. His expectations must have been high, but he'd also have felt very anxious. So, of course, Naaman was angry at his reception! He was hurt by Elisha's discourtesy and frightened by his own suffering, fearful of his fate. Yet again though, he listens to his servants and so bathes seven times in the Jordan and is healed.

Only then does Elisha meet Naaman. Why?

I think we have to go back to Naaman's initial reaction: 'I thought he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy.' v 11. It seems that Naaman didn't just want to be healed, he wanted far more: an experience, a genuine encounter with this God who could heal him. He just had an inadequate view of how this could come about. Elisha knew what he must do though and by removing himself completely from Naaman's encounter with God in the River Jordan, Elisha ensured that Naaman got exactly what he was after all along: a genuine encounter with the living God, proof that there was only one God worth worshipping. Perhaps Elisha could have waved his hands over Naaman and he'd have been healed but Elisha would forever have been associated with this healing and encounter. Instead, Naaman discovered God for himself and by himself. Elisha's role was to point Naaman in the right direction and then to ensure he didn't get in the way of what God was doing with Naaman.

It can be horribly tempting, like Gehazi discovered, to embellish what God appears to be doing; or to get involved to manoeuvre events to go in a certain direction; to manipulate people into responding in a certain way to what is said or done. It can be hard to stand back, leave well alone and let the Holy Spirit work in people's lives, but I am increasingly convinced that our task is simply to find out where God is at work and help the work along, which sometimes means we need to get out of His way. And if we are ever tempted to grab some of that glory and honour for ourselves by inserting ourselves into the story of what God is up to, then running in the opposite direction is the wisest move we can make.

It's my hope and prayer that I am not tempted to meddle in situations that I should leave well alone but I suspect that I have quenched the Spirit on many occasions by blundering in with good intentions when I should have backed away. Over time I have realised it boils down to how much faith I have in God. Do I trust God enough to step away at times and refuse to interfere? Is my faith strong enough to let God be God and be content to live with the consequences? The roll call of the faithful in Hebrews 11 acts as a healthy reminder that although they did not get what they thought they were promised, nevertheless, throughout their lives God was active and at work. Most of the time, like Elisha in this story, we don't have to make grand gestures to help people to encounter the living Jesus, we just have to be willing to point them in the right direction and then get well out of the way to let God get on with meeting them. The steady, ordinary life of an obedient disciple who is humble enough to know their place and do what they are told is exactly what most of us are called to.

Revd Alison Griffiths
Director Pastoral Care: South

Encouraging pioneers

The cultural landscape in the West, alongside our increasingly globalised world, has created a situation where I believe we need to move beyond our over-reliance on past church growth formulae and algorithms, and instead move to explore and pioneer different approaches to missional engagement. I would argue that the rural church in particular needs pioneers; so how might we go about encouraging an environment which is both supportive of those who have a pioneering spirit, but also assist the church to see new ideas as not so much a threat to the status quo? How could we view this as an opportunity to have a ‘mixed economy’ of both old and new?

One of the early steps I would want to suggest, which would be of help to both church and pioneer, is the ability to see the past without destroying it. Pioneers can be very good at critiquing all that has gone before as no longer fit for purpose. However, many of the things that we see as perhaps old and traditional once had pioneers to initiate them — Sunday school, church organ, hymns, seating and service times, to name but a few. The identifying and valuing of the past can also be helpful for existing congregations to see that things were not always as they are now and pioneering new ventures to share the gospel is within the DNA of the church.

For pioneers to be encouraged and truly utilised, we have to give room for failure. I have written before on this topic, so I don't wish to labour the point here other than to say, could we learn to equally celebrate “Let’s try it” as well as “we did it”? Someone once said, “If you get a bullseye every time, you’re standing too close to the target.” If we are not failing every now and again, we’re not trying anything innovative or stepping out in faith.

Isolation can be one of the most significant issues faced by pioneers, especially those within a rural context. Helping pioneers feel accepted as part of the church is so important, even if the initiative or idea will not be outworked in the local church. Some can see pioneers as eccentrics, people who don't fit in. What might it mean for us to create the space for pioneers to experiment whilst at the same time being valued, supported and prayed for as part of a worshipping community?

Pioneers, as well as those who are part of the established church, can be in danger of looking for the quick fix; the sticking plaster to place on the wound. I am becoming convinced that discerning what God is already up to, and how we respond to this as Christians, takes time. The church and pioneers can both have unrealistic expectations of how quickly results might be achieved, perhaps all to used to living in a microwave society where everything is ready at the sound of a ‘ping’. The rural context has so much to teach us in terms of the right conditions for growth, how it takes time, and how there is often a seasonality to this too.

Teamwork and encouragement go hand in hand. This is a simple, but a profound lesson contained within the epistle to the Hebrews:

Let's keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. [God] always keeps his word. Let's see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshipping together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching. [Hebrews 10:23-25 The Message]

Let’s seek to be encouragers of pioneers within our churches over the coming months.


Making disciples of all nations

We all have moments or events in our lives that we look back on and realise they were significant, life-changing even. Occasionally we are aware of their significance at the time. A few years ago on a visit to Barcelona with friends, I went to La Sagrada Familia, a Roman Catholic Basilica still under construction. It was our last morning in the city, and I'd have been happier to have simply enjoyed the cafe culture in the October sunshine. Being far more cultured than me (and less lazy), my non-church going companions dragged me along with them.

As I stood outside with other tourists looking up at the intricately carved Nativity Facade, I was struck by the solemn happiness in the faces of the carved statues representing the people involved in the story of the Incarnation. They seemed more like real people who might step down and walk away at any moment than mere stone reminders of ancient history. There was a welcome on the door of all faiths and none, of all people from any background and tradition. There was a sense we were being invited into the family home.

Then I walked through the Door of Christian Love, from the early morning warmth and sunshine into the lightness of a stone forest of magnificent trees with branches curving high above, their pale grey trunks dappled in jewelled dancing lights from the sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows. I stopped in awe to try and take it in.

It felt as if I'd walked into a part of heaven and, judging by the reactions of people who'd walked in with me, it seemed as if I wasn't the only person who felt this way. Those feelings of wonder and awe have not faded for me even though this experience is a few years old.

I have never been made so aware of how beautiful and magnificent and approachable God is.

Yet all this astonishing structure does is to tell the story of Jesus and his purpose in coming among us using visual imagery and text as well as telling the story of his disciples who responded to the commission given to them by Jesus in Matthew 28: 19 - 20: 'Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Moving around La Sagrada Familia, you couldn't help but be aware of how vital the disciples were to God's involvement in His world and that this includes ALL disciples, ancient and modern, from all church traditions and none. The story of Jesus includes all those who are part of God's family and the story hasn't ended but continues to be written as we walk it and tell it.

This unexpected experience remains alive in my memory, providing me with an anchor when I grieve the ugliness of life, a visual aid when I need to picture a God of wonder and inspiration when I need reminding of the greatness of God. Above all, this is a place I am not ashamed to take people who do not believe. There was no coercion to believe, no guilt trip laid on anyone, no judgement proclaimed. It was quite gloriously and unashamedly a proclamation of the love of God for all that was so compelling it's the only church my friends want to return to. I don't know how to tell the story of Jesus as well as the architect Gaudi has managed to but just knowing it can be done, inspires me to keep trying.

Revd Alison Griffiths
Director Pastoral Care: South

Disciple-making disciples

It is amazing how God can use the most mundane of activities to bring something to your attention. Very recently I was collecting the waste material from some of our horses, and I got talking to a dog walker as they passed. They are local to our village. Our brief conversation turned quickly to the topic of prayer, and the church and this dog walker (who I previously knew only on a nodding basis) recommended a book to me called ‘Spent matches’ by Roy Moran. I was intrigued by the title, and their brief synopsis of the book, which in short was all about disciple-making, something that God has been placing on my radar.

The author has hope for 'the church’, as indeed I have, but critiques its current state in terms of the complexity that we have placed on what essentially is a straightforward task Jesus left us with - to make disciples. Jesus didn’t say, ‘Go plant churches’. In fact, I seem to recall that when it came to the topic of churches, Jesus suggests that he would be the builder, not us. You and I, as followers of Jesus, are called to 'go and make disciples', or perhaps a better understanding is to ‘go and make disciple-making disciples.’

I need to be clear; I trained as a church planter, and I do believe in church planting. Our country needs vibrant communities of Jesus followers and, in some places, these do not exist, so we need to either regenerate what is there or begin something new, perhaps alongside the existing. My question is about how we go about assessing the effectiveness of these communities. For too long we have used the metrics of who is attending, who is part of a group, who is in and who is out, rather than asking the question, who is journeying towards and becoming more like Jesus, i.e. discipleship.

We can be good at talking about disciple-making, and we even plan for it, but as Roy Moran helpfully challenges through his book, the energies we often invest in disciple-making follows a knowledge-based approach; whereby Sunday by Sunday, or house group by house group, we download knowledge into those attending, and perhaps do little to ask about what is now changing in us, what new posture we might take because of what we have heard. It seems to me that we are in danger of calling ourselves Christians without applying our faith to every aspect of life.

One of the features of the rural context is that learning tends to be less book centred and more experiential; people want to see it in action before they will necessarily take it on board. I wonder if this perhaps offers us an opportunity in terms of disciple-making disciples? The emerging culture is yearning for authenticity, and I am yet to be convinced that authenticity is best demonstrated by being a passive audience member at a weekly event.

The book sights seven basic questions that could be used in groups, and I have slightly adapted these (below) and offer them to you as a basis for your home groups or community gatherings. I would be fascinated to hear how these work out for you, so do please get in contact and let me know!

  1. What did you do with what you learned last week?

  2. What are you thankful for? What can you celebrate?

  3. What is causing you stress at this time? What is keeping you awake at night?

  4. Do you have a need, or does someone you know have a need, that this group could meet?

  5. What does God have to say today? (This will be in response to a passage of scripture)

  6. If this is God speaking, what are you going to do about it? What are we going to do about it?

  7. Who could you share with this week what God is doing in your life?

This is not the final word in disciple-making, nor will this automatically create loads of disciples where you are; you may already be using a similar approach which is far more effective than these questions. Nevertheless, for many, this could well be a first much needed step to making disciple-making disciples.