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God of hope,
you promise peace and joy and unfailing love.

We wait for you, Lord,
our souls wait
with deep yearning
for you to act
to bring hope to lives
that are caught in despair,
to make peace in cities
wounded by so much violence,
to move us toward joy and love.

You are more patient with us
than we are with you, Lord.
You work in our hearts
and our minds
and our spirits,
changing us in deep places
so we become the place
where your hope and peace and joy and love
can come to birth.

Give us grace
to slow down enough
to pay attention
to the work you are doing in us
and among us.

Give us grace
to face the hard truths
that make a way
for your transforming power
and healing presence.

Give us grace
to yield to you.

We pray in the name of Jesus
who has set us on this Way of Life.

Amen.

 

Praise to you, Lord of heaven and earth.
You dwell in all glory and light,
in splendour and power.

Yet, you let go of all that
to dwell among us in Jesus.
You shine the light of your presence
into the darkest corners of our world.
You invite us to enter
a life of faith,
peace,
goodness,
beauty.

We hear the invitation;
we long for the life you offer.
Yet, tender and compassionate God,
you know who we are and what we are.
You know the decisions we have made
that have led us where we did not intend to go.
You know the moments we have seen your will clearly and done it
but you also know the moments we have struggled to see at all.
You know the good we have done
and the good we have failed to do
and the good we long to do.

In the light of your truthful knowing,
we acknowledge that we cannot save ourselves.

Wrap all that we are
and all that we long to be
in your great mercy.
Renew in us the image of your Son, Jesus,
and grant us grace to follow him.
Keep us close to you,
that we may do the work you have created us to do
and be the people you need us to be.

We ask in the name of Jesus,
who knows what we are
yet still has claimed us as his own.

Faith enough

A reflection on Luke 17: 1-10 and 2 Timothy 1: 1-14

When the apostle Paul wrote to the young recruit, Timothy, he said, “Join me in suffering for the gospel . . . we’ll only be able to keep going by relying on the power of God, who first saved us and then called us to this holy work.”

You’ve got to wonder: is that any way to grow the church? Is that any way to inspire young people to sign on? “Come and join me in suffering for the gospel.” Yet, it speaks to the deep longing to give our lives to something that matters.

God is alive and active in the world, transforming it by healing brokenness, confronting evil, creating communities where love and forgiveness shape who they are. Given the nature of the work, there will be resistance, confrontations, rejection, suffering.

When the disciples caught a glimpse of what Jesus was asking of them, they realized that they were out of their depth. Overwhelmed, they cried out, “Increase our faith!” Jesus says, “It’s now about how much faith you have. If you have faith as small as a grain of mustard seed, you would be able to say to this mulberry tree,’Go jump in the lake’ and it would do it.”

How many mulberry trees have you transplanted lately? We can’t even convince our children to join us in worship on Sunday morning! All it would take is faith the size of a mustard seed?

We have our doubts; we feel inadequate; our failures loom large in front of us. Somewhere in his writings, Eugene Peterson says that the predominant characteristic of people in churches these days is feeling inadequate. Each of us looks around the sanctuary, sees the other people sitting there and is convinced that everybody else is more sure about their faith than we are. They are more confident; more committed; more settled.

Yet, our doubts, our feelings of inadequacy, our failures don’t seem to disqualify us in Jesus’ eyes. He recruits us for his mission anyway. “Just do it,” he says, long before the Nike shoe company adopted the slogan. “Just do it, the way servants just do the jobs they are given to do. Do what God gives you to do. Go into your workplace and speak the truth and act with integrity. Refuse to participate in the gossip. Create a home for your family. Pray for someone you care about and then pray for your enemies. Do your ordinary, everyday tasks and offer them up to God.”

Faith is not the opposite of doubt. It is not as if you have to have all your questions answered, all your uncertainties settled and then you can say, “Okay, now I have faith.” Faith is about venturing forward into God’s project, God’s transforming work, bringing your doubts and your feelings of inadequacy with you, and then seeing what God will make of what you offer.

It is not an easy time to be a disciple of Jesus. The truth is that nobody has enough faith for the challenges that face us. If you are not failing at least some of the time, if you are not being driven to your knees by the challenges you face, if you are not crying out, ‘Lord, increase my faith’, then you have probably settled for too little.

We serve a living God who is intent on nothing less than the transformation of the world. God is healing our brokenness. God is making a new creation where the lost and the lonely are fathered into a feast of love and a banquet of joy. Jesus invites you to join up, doubts, failures, inadequacies, uncertainties and all. He takes what you offer to him; blesses you; breaks your life open; pours his life into your life and offers you to the world. By the power of God’s grace, you become channels of Christ’s grace, instruments of the Holy Spirit’s peace, signs of hope for the neighbourhood and the world. Apparently you don’t need a lot of faith for that to happen. You just have to be willing to do what God asks you to do. The rest depends on the goodness and grace and mercy of God. Thanks be to God.

 

God our Saviour,
in Jesus Christ you draw near to us,
entering this world where so much
does not turn out the way we expect or desire.
In Jesus, you embrace our pain;
you do not forsake us in our need:
you touch our cares and sorrow with your grace.
You make even hurt and suffering channels of your healing power.

So often we are not aware of your redeeming presence;
so often you call us to trust that you are at work
beyond what we perceive;
to live by faith rather than by sight.

And so, in faith,
trusting in your promises,
we give you thanks.

O wounded Saviour,
O resurrected Lord,
take the prayers we offer
and gather them into your suffering.
Heal us in our woundedness
and show us how to bear our afflictions
in such a way that people around us are given hope
and courage
and peace.

 

God of glory and of love,
giver of Life:
in your Word
and by your Holy Spirit,
you guide us in the way of truth.

In your Word
and by your Holy Spirit,
you promise us peace and freedom from fear.

We live in the midst of many words
and many promises
and many fears.
Yet, you have called us to be your people
in your world —
citizens of your new creation,
hearers of your life-giving Word,
witnesses to the new possibilities you offer.

We cannot be all that you have summoned us to be on our own.

We bring to you our attempts to follow your Son
and to live in his Way.

Lamb of God,
take what we offer.
in your great love,
judge it;
purify us;
redeem us
till we are made worthy to bear your glory.

In the week that is ahead,
we pray that you will turn us toward you
again and again.

Teach us again and again
to trust you and your way of saving us.
Renew us.
Renew your church,
till the river of your Life flows through our community,
our nation,
and throughout the world.

We pray in the name of Jesus our  Lord
who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit,
one God,
forever and ever.
Amen.

I have been re-reading two books recently written by Alan Roxburgh: Structured for Mission: Renewing the Culture of the Church and Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World: The New Shape of the Church in our Time. Both books provide some very helpful insights into the process of the ways churches respond to the changed context in which they find themselves.

Structured for Mission is heavier reading than the very practical Joining God. It provides a more theoretical approach to the ways in which change happens in organizations. Organizations in crisis tend to respond by trying to make changes in their structures. However, says Roxburgh, what they should attend to are the underlying stories which are embodied in the structures. These are what are really driving and shaping the structures and the organization.

He calls these underlying stories ‘legitimating narratives’ — “an overarching story that provides a group . . . with a way to express its underlying values, beliefs and commitments about who they are and how life is to be lived. It’s a story that tells a group who they are, what is acceptable and what is a proper way to live” (p. 32) Organizations and groups lose the capacity to hold the attention and loyalty of people when increasing numbers of people no longer find that the legitimating narrative  helps them make sense of their lives.

The churches that are part of what used to be called mainline denominations are operating with a legitimating narrative that values the capacity to control and manage their life. “Strategic planning [is] one of its primary tools. In this way of planning, experts gathered data, studied the various elements of a situation, and identified the gap between where they were and where they wanted to be at a point in the future. On this basis a plan was developed to get from one point to the next.” (p. 43) This narrative assumes that we are the most critical agents acting in the situation. The choices we make are the actions that determine the future.

Part of the problem that churches encounter is that the situations in which they find themselves no longer are ones that can be managed and controlled. Too much around them is changing too quickly and too drastically. The legitimating narrative no longer works:  we find ourselves in “a place where [our] explanations no longer explain and [our] actions no longer fix.” (p. 116) Churches are having to find new ways to navigate into the future.

Roxburgh directs us to our original stories to find a legitimating narrative that will help us develop the capacity to continue in our journey. In those stories — the stories of the Bible — the most critical agent in any situation is not us but God. We are certainly involved but it is God who is at the centre of what is happening. It is God’s actions that are decisive.

The first work of the churches in this place and time is to learn again how to pay attention to God: to what the Holy Spirit is doing among us and in our neighbourhoods. We do that by learning to
1) engage the scriptures more deeply,
2) listen to each other more carefully especially our stories of where God is working in each other’s lives, and
3) re-engage the neighbourhoods and communities in which our church buildings are located.
One of the tools Roxburgh uses is “Dwelling in the Word”, a modified form of lectio divina that also involves careful listening to each other.

I find that it is hard to convince congregations to adopt Roxburgh’s approach. For one this, this is slow work. It will not give an immediate appearance that something is being done to fix the problems a congregation is facing. It is also soul work — something, ironically, many people in our churches are generally not too enthused about.

In a few months, I’ll be working with some congregations that are willing to try this out. We are embarking on a journey together where we do not know exactly where we are going but we are willing to trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us. It will be an adventure — something much more interesting and compelling to me than the attempt to restructure the ‘courts of the church’ on which my denomination is currently expending great time and energy.

 

 

A prayer based on Luke 7:36 – 8:3

Great is your faithfulness, O Lord, our Saviour,
Faithful in loving us
Faithful in finding us when we lose our way
Faithful in forgiving us
and healing us
and bringing us home to you.

Great is your faithfulness, Lord,
and we are grateful.

There are times when each moment
shines with your grace and your goodness;
we know ourselves bathed in your holy care
and our hearts sing out your praise.

There are times when we struggle
to keep going
and you shepherd us,
holding us with a love
that does not let us go,
feeding our souls
with your presence,
speaking your truth
that gives us strength and courage
for one more step,
and we gasp out our
‘thank you’, ‘thank you’, ‘thank you’.

But there are also times when we
barge through our lives
oblivious to your presence,
your gifts,
your call;
unaware of all we have received
from your abundant love.

Speak to us today:
speak the words that
draw us back to you;
words that recall all you have done;
words that deepen and renew
our love for you.

We open our and our minds
to your Spirit’s work,
for you are the one
whose broken body
and poured out life
are the food and drink
we need.

Amen.

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