Ash Wednesday

In recent years, as readers of this blog will know, I’ve become more and more convinced that we need to redeem our days by setting our clocks to the story of Jesus. The Church through the ages has been shaped by marking time through a Christian Calendar rather than by the time given by their surrounding cultures. I’ve written about that in more depth here if you’re interested.

Today is Ash Wednesday, and in 2021 it seems that it is particularly poignant. It is a day where we are invited to “consider our deaths”.

The traditional practice of Ash Wednesday is for a Priest to burn the palm sunday crosses from the year before and then to mark the foreheads of those present with ashen crosses.

It is a strange practise but, like many liturgical practises there is a sermon in the sign. A full year before the celebrations of Palm sunday, the remembering of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, celebrated as a coming liberating King. A year later those same celebratory palms are the ash through which we remember;

“from dust we came and to dust we shall return” 

God’s conquering King, in the eyes of the palm branch wavers, was seemingly conquered by the Roman Empire at the cross just a few days later. 

Many of our premature celebrations turn to dust, but just like the act of baptism represents, God calls us to death in order that we can find life. Lent is a time of remembering that we are dead people walking. 

Lent reminds us that although by the Spirit of God we participate in Christ’s resurrected body we await our own and the renewing of all the cosmos around us. In Lent, we resist our culture’s tendency to rush to end of the story and we reflect on the ‘not yet’ of the Kingdom of God.

The story our cultures tell us often portray a view of life that will never end. But the time of Lent is for Christian’s to take a true life audit and part of that is considering our finiteness, put bluntly taking seriously that one day we will die.

Psalm 90:12 – Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.

We have become addicted to racing past grief, distracting ourselves from loss. Our culture teaches us to pick the easy route, and certainly considering our own death is not that. But although death is an enemy of God and one He has and will conquer it does teach us about how to live in this time. Death teaches us humility.

A number of years ago, a 14 year old from the teenage discipleship club we help run in Masiphuemelele committed suicide. The day of his memorial we had planned to begin the Alpha Course with this same community. We decided to go ahead and work through the first session which was “Life: Is this it?” One of the questions was, “If this was your last 24 hours, what would you do with it?” 

Questions like that can provoke our fear, our anxiety, or maybe our ambition, all the things we have yet to do. But Lent is a time to remember our smallness, our finiteness, our need of God and our rememberance that we are dust. The word ‘humility’ comes from the root of humus, which means ground or dust. 

Wise people take time to dwell in the serious, contemplating death takes work. It is true that Jesus offers us abundant life, but he requires that we enter death, His death, and our own in order to truly receive that. 

Maybe you can find a simple way to mark this day around your dinner table, here are some simple ideas;

  • Read Psalm 51 slowly together and then take some time to sit listening to the song below

Finally, you might consider reading this simple prayer/liturgy from the forthcoming prayer book Every Moment Holy, Vol. 2: Death, Grief, and Hope which can be pre-ordered on Rabbit Room:

Children of the Living God,

Let us now speak of dying,
and let us speak without fear,
for we have already died with Christ,
and our lives are not our own.

Our dying is part of the story
that God is telling to us,
and part of the story
that God is telling through us.

It is not a dark and hopeless word
we must take pains to skirt or
mention only in hushed whispers lest
our conversations grow awkward
and uncomfortable.

Rather, death is a present and
unavoidable reality, and one
through which we—the people
of God—must learn to openly
walk with one another.

Yes, it is cause for lament. Death is
a horrible and inevitable sorrow.
It is grief. It is numb shock and
raw pain and long seasons of
weeping and ache. And we will
experience it as such.

But it is more than all of that.

For is is also a baptism,
a prelude to a celebration.

Our true belief that Christ died
and was raised again
promises this great hope:

That there will be a newness of life,
a magnificent resurrection that
follows death and swallows it entirely.

Death will not have the final word,
so we need not fear to speak of it.

Death is not a period that ends a sentence.
It is but a comma,
a brief pause before the fuller thought
unfolds into eternal life.

Beloved of Christ, do not
hide from this truth: Each of
us in time must wrestle death.
In our youth we might have run
in fear from such lament, but only
those who soberly consider their
mortal end can then work backward
from their certain death, and so begin
to build a life invested in eternal things.

We should remember death throughout
our lives, that we might arrive at last
well-prepared to follow our Lord
into that valley, and through it,
further still, to our resurrection.

Death is not the end of life.
It is an intersection—a milestone
we pass in our eternal pursuit of Christ.

Yes, death is an inhuman, hungering thing.
But it is also the pompous antagonist in a
divine comedy. Even as it seeks to destroy
all that is good, death is proved a near-sighted
buffoon whose overreaching plans will fail,
whose ephemeral kingdom will crumble.

For all along, death has been blindly serving
the deeper purposes of God within us—
giving us the knowledge that
all we gather in this short life will soon
be scattered, that all we covet will soon
be lost to us, that all we accomplish by
our ambition will soon be rendered as
meaningless as vapor.

Death reveals the utter vanity of all our
misplaced worship and all our feebly-
invested hopes.

And once we’ve seen, in light of death,
how meaningless all our human strivings
have been, then we can finally apprehend
what the radical hope of a bodily resurrection
means for mortals like us—and how
the labors of Christ now reshape
and reinterpret every facet of our lives,
rebuilding the structures of our hopes
till we know that nothing of eternal worth will ever be lost.

Yes, we are crucified with our Lord,
but all who are baptized into his death
are also resurrected into his life, so that
we live now in the overlap of the kingdoms
of temporal death and eternal life—
and when it is our time to die,
we die in that overlap as well,
and there we will find that our dying has
already been subverted, rewritten, folded in,
and made a part of our resurrection.

Have we not all along been
rehearsing Christ’s death and
his life in the sacrament of his
communion? We have been both
remembering and rehearsing
our union and reunion with him.

O children of God, do you now see?
Your pursuit of Christ has always
demanded a daily dying to your own self,
and to your own dreams.

That final, brief sleep of death is but the last
laying down of all those lesser things, that
you might awake remade, set free, rejoicing
in the glorious freedom that will be yours.

Yes, hate death!

It is an enemy—
but an enemy whose end approaches, and
whose assault can inflict no lasting wound.

Yes, weep and grieve!

But more than that, believe!
The veil is thinner than we know.
And death is thinner still.
It cannot hold any whose names are
dearly known to God. Rejoice in this!
Death is neither a grey void, nor
a dungeon cell—but a door.
And when Christ bids us
pass through at last,
we pass from life to Life.


If you’d like to support my reading and writing you can sign up for a fortnightly members-only newsletter The Lectio Letter. You can flick through the archives (one’s without a star are open to anyone to read) to see if it’s something you might be interested in.

Entering into Advent | A Lectio Letter Preview

This is a preview of an article from my members-only newsletter The Lectio Letter. To find out more and to read this entire article head to

“We are adrift. I know that seems dramatic, but it becomes increasingly apparent that in this post-modern malaise our lives can often drift on without a meaningful sense of direction bar the odd spurt of intentionality or a passing moment of stirred emotion.

Into the fray walks, the much neglected practise of the Christian calendar. A calendar that was designed to imbue every year of our lives with a steady retelling of the Gospel. This lifetime immersion in the story which is intended to tell us how the world really is is desperately needed in a world in which we are thrown left and right by every new offer of a ‘big story’.

As Christians have discovered again and again throughout history, our individual, family, tribal, and national lives end up as small claustrophobic stories. Stories which, ultimately, fail at the task of weaving a narrative that catches up all of creation in the loving gaze of its creator.

A fixation on these smaller stories, is, to return to the opening metaphor, like fixing the vessel of our lives to an untethered buoy, somehow believing that it is, in fact, an anchor. The buoy may help us to position ourselves, but it does not bring us into contact with the firm and stable structures that underpin our very existence.

Do not misunderstand me, it is not that attending to our personal, familial and cultural stories is unimportant. If we neglect to take stock of these and how they have shaped us, we will not have a keen enough grasp on our own reality to offer it back to God. But we cannot lose grip on the main thing, to take what is ours and offer onto the altar of God which refines, transfigures, and multiplies our small lives into a participation in the everlasting life of God…”

The Lectio Letter | Issue #1

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The Lectio Letter

At the end of last year, I started a writing project called Lectio Letter hence the quietness on this blog in the past twelve months.

I do intend to keep writing for this blog but I will also share previews of the work I am doing for the Lectio Letter.

The project grew out of my need to drum up a budget for buying books. In the last season, I have been working on more and more curriculum development for the courses (Teleios and the M.A. Programme) offered through the Centre for Christian Formation. As I explored resources and approaches to helping those working in ministry deepen their practise and understanding of theology and discipleship I recognised I was going to need to explore much more widely, which ultimately meant buying books!

I hoped, and now have confirmed, that given the number of people who would ask me for book recommendations, as well as those who often report less time to read than they’d like, that I could convince a few kind-hearted folks to ‘sponsor’ me to read and to write some reflections in an exclusive, members-only newsletter (It’s $5 each month).

It’s been almost 8 months and I have managed to publish one every two weeks (meaning for the budget-conscious among you that each newsletter ‘costs’ $2.50), and have been very grateful for lots of gracious and encouraging feedback.

As a reader of this blog, I’d be delighted if you’d consider signing up to help support my book-buying habit and hope that in return you’ll find some value in my reflections.

Should you be less than interested in bookish sounding reflections, I also include a brief update on what we are working on, recommend some music, something worth watching and a plethora of interesting links (much like the link lists I used to post here).

Friday Link List | 15th February 2019

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve posted a friday link list. As ever, I recommend you grab a cup of coffee and enjoy this miscellaneous list (or save it for a slow saturday morning!).

There are few people that would find everything here interesting, but hopefully there is a little something for everyone;


What I’ve written recently;


I’ve been more and more interested in the forms through which we read scriptures, screens, small text, illustrated text (and how they impact how we understand and draw from the text). Beauty creates a certain receptivity that we can’t deny. Transpositions posted a series on the first hand written in over 500 years, the Saint John’s bible.

In 1995, Donald Jackson, Senior Scribe to Queen Elizabeth II, presented his lifelong dream to handwrite and illuminate the Bible to the abbey and university. In 1998, they commissioned Jackson to begin the project, and on Ash Wednesday in 2000, he drew the first words: ‘In the beginning’. Eleven years later (2011), Donald and his wife, Mabel, presented the final page of The Saint John’s Bible to the abbey and university.”

Via Alan Jacobs Newsletter

Alan Jacob’s, who I mention again below, makes this claim;

“Those who say that the personal is the political are wrong, but the error is understandable, and it’s probably better to make the equation than deny the connection.”

in his review of the film Roma which I began watching in a recent feverish flu-ridden bed day. Needless to say it required more attention that I could muster, but the cinematography is truly beautiful.

Jacob comments:

“Iris Murdoch once wrote of the Gospels that “they are the kind of great art where we feel: It is so.” That’s how I felt watching Roma.”

The famously anonymous street artist Banksy has increasingly turned toward aspects of performance art as he continues his subversive career. When someone tried to auction a famous work of art it shredded itself upon the blow of the gammel. It’s hard to imagine this wasn’t somewhat staged. Here’s a video of how it was made..


I’ve more and more been gaining a laymans appreciation of classical and choral music. NPR tiny desk has been the way I discovered many musicians, here is a truly astounding performance by a russian pianist who is still in his 20’s and is already called

“without question the most astounding pianist of our age.”

by The Times of London.

Under the topic of sound, this is more like ‘sound advice’ (excus the pun!). Fernandos Gros comments on the productivity cult which argues for early rising. His almost too obvious to mention, but not obvious enough wisdom is “get enough sleep”…The whole article is worth reading here, if like me, you are sometimes tempted to ascend to the dizzy heights of productivity hacks.


Popular Etymology (0rigin of words) writer the Inky fool writes A Quick Guide to Decoding English Place Names.

It’s generally quite easy to guess the etymology of an English place name, and quite pleasant too, as you get to sound clever. The system is not in the slightest bit infallible, but it generally works

Truth, Theology and Thinking

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been enjoying reading Alan Jacob’s writing on and offline. He is a thoughtful christian voice, which is rarer than it should be. I’ve been reading his biography of the common book of prayer which is part of the ‘lives of great religious books series’. A book I haven’t read, but sounds fascinating, which he writes about here is “The Year of Our Lord 1943” which traces the similarities between simultaneous Christian thinkers, Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, W. H. Auden, and Simone Weil as they approach the end of the war and consider what it will take to rebuild the soul of the world, spoiler, it’s education.

The structure of the book is narrative which makes these thinkers and Jacob’s own argument centering around their coherence despite lack of interaction with one another much more readable.

Fascinating conversation between Glen Scrivener and Andrew Wilson. They are touching on some areas which have been very significant for me in the last few years at about 30mins into their conversation. Namely, as we seek charismatic gifts, Is the distinction between natural and supernatural helpful? As they discuss, I think the future breaking into the now, rather than the ‘up’ breaking into the ‘down’ is a far more biblical picture of what is happening when we experience when we experience what we’ve commonly referred to as the supernatural. They mention CS Lewis’ perspective which I had not heard before, which is that the inbreaking of God’s reality in the miraculous is not a suspension of the natural order of things but instead a restoration of the truest way things were created to be, which I couldn’t agree more with. Watch the video below if you are interested in hearing more of that…

The Theopolis Institute is about to embark on a course relating to Christian paths towards human maturity. Being in a context that is making it our business to consider this very question I was intrigued. I was even more intrigued to read David Field’s lengthy and opening article which proposed Reformed Christians should be paying attention to Freudian Psychology, Zen Buddhism, and the Desert Father. Not a common voice, but actually I think it was done in a very careful and accomadating way.

What follows simply presents a list of topics and propositions relating to psychoanalysis, the Desert Fathers, Zen Buddhism, the self, breathing, silence, the unconscious, discipleship, counseling, and our deep and unsatisfied desire to be like Christ.

It is intended, however, that the list also serves as an argument in support of the simple proposition: Reformed Christians would do well to take a look at the proposals and practices of psychoanalysis, the Desert Fathers, and Zen Buddhism because these supposed ‘paths to human maturity’, at the very least, generate some important challenges and questions for us.

David Fields – Paths to Human Maturity

Alistair Roberts adds his voice here too;

Wisdom moves us beyond the enclosed and domesticated realm of the garden and into the wider world, where we must deal with dangerous and untamed beasts with shrewdness and skill, not merely with the more binary categories of the Law that are most prominent in our childhood.

Another voice I’ve been appreciating (and who’s writing is keeping me in the loop with a number of happening in the UK Anglican world) is Ian Paul. He is a scholar in the book of Revelation, but seems to speak sense in many areas he covers. Here’s an excellent guide on how to read the endlessly misunderstood book of Revelation well.

I hadn’t heard of the recent controversy surrounding Liam Neeson’s, put briefly;

“He had heard that a friend had been raped by a black man, and confessed that he had, for a time, sought to vent his anger on any black man he could find—though he never actually enacted this.”

Liam Neeson Interview on the Independent

Ian Paul illuminatingly describes this as another situation where there is no grace or forgiveness within the public square even if someone’s admission is given as a confession;

The whole point of Neeson’s story is to show how horrible the attitude he held really was and (in reference to the revenge movie he is promoting) to highlight the hollowness of seeking revenge at all. Neeson was not painting himself as a hero here, he was pointedly casting himself as someone not to be emulated here.

Now, without diminishing what a horrible attitude and thing to do this really was (and Neeson made no bones about that fact), this highlights the problem with a new morality. There is no grace, forgiveness or restoration for those who transgress. It matter not whether it was a hidden attitude brought to light, or an action repented of long ago, what matters is that you broke the rules and there shall be no clemency.

Ian Paul – Is there Forgiveness for Liam Neesons Sin

These type of situations helpfully reveal that societies, maybe even especially secularised one’s, live religiously. The question as ever, is not if we will worship, but who do we worship, and further still, if we become like what you worship, what or who are we becoming?

That’s all for Today…

Is ‘Generation Z’s fragility destroying their ability to be discipled? | Short Thoughts

Introducing Short Thoughts Often I’ll have a short thought, more half of a thought really. I will begin to write it down and then the thought will wander off into the long grass and I’ll decide to finish working it out later. Now I have a few dozen half-finished blog posts in my folder and this site sits dormant. So, I’ve decided to exchange fantastic for frequent and to hit publish on shorter thoughts that are not polished or even properly thought through. Enjoy!, but don’t hold me to it, I’m just thinking out loud. You can read some more here

Something has to go…

It seems that in following Jesus something within you, that was alive and very much a part of you has to die in order to find the truer life that Jesus is offering. This is gestured towards in our Baptisms, spoken of explicitly in verses like “Those that give up their life, find it” (Matthew 10:39) and more figuratively in “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground..” (John 12:24).

This part of us that has to ‘die’ has been thought of as our ego-structure from a psychological perspective, our sin nature from certain strands of new testament interpretation, our false self within psychoanalysis. Which ever perspective you come from discipleship involves certain things dying for other things to be raised up by the power of God.

But, as the cheesy sermon joke goes, “the problem with living sacrifices, is that they keep crawling off the altar”. Every generation it seems finds new ways to resist death, loss and grief. After all, it is the ground zero of our greatest fears, and so we obssess over it, ignore it, avoid it, all the while generally believing somewhere deeper than our cognition that death, quite literally, has the last word.

More than just a playground

In Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Coddling of the American mind – How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure“, he analyses the state of current University students in the US and the unfolding patters that developed their way of being.

Generation Z is the generation born from 1995 onwards, they are experiencing more anxiety and depression than any before. He identifyies as the sources of this reality, a move in the mid-90’s where parents, through fear of abuduction and a range of other dangers that provoked nation-wide paranoia, no longer allowed children to play outside with friends unsupervised. He remarks;

“parenting strategies and laws that make it harder for kids to play on their own pose a serious threat to liberal societies by flipping our default setting from “figure out how to solve this conflict on your own” to “invoke force and/ or third parties whenever conflict arises.”

“The Coddling of the American mind – How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure

What we are left with, Haidt is arguing, is an emerging generation of adults who, instead of being trained to work towards justice though conflict solving skills learnt in the playground, they now simply claim victimhood to adult-authority-figures even as they themselves become adults.

Is suffering necessary for maturity?

This lack of ability to become resilient and to take personal responsibilty as they navigate conflict and offense is now a serious problem for contexts which are seeking to form young people in the ways of Jesus.

In Jesus’ own life, he grows up and indeed functions in his ministry with singnificant opposition and a plurality of voices and perspectives claiming they are right. Increasingly, the millenial and Gen-Z generations, maybe especially within the church, are doing the opposite.

In the hyper-fragility which emerges due to a lack of sensed safety the generational group that Haidt researches seeks out tribal echo-chambers which surround themselves with enough similar voices that they are innoculated from dealing with opposing perspectives.

Haidt claims the cure for our current fragility is the removal, at least temporarily, of the relative comfort and protection that large swathes of western society have recently enjoyed;

“From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.”

“The Coddling of the American mind – How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure

Some untruths we need to unlearn..

Haidt and his co-writer claim that there are three untruths that have moved from being laughably wrong to widely accepted within a short amount of time;

  1. What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
  2. Always trust your feelings.
  3. Life is a battle between good people and evil people.

It seems that in light of this, central to discipling a generation who have been formed this way is to;

  1. To become aware of God at work by developing a perspective of sanctification and godly refinement taking place exactly in the places and times which are most uncomfortable and even painful.
  2. To validate the reality of the experience of feelings, and yet recognise that much of the task of self-governance is to referee your feelings in such a way as they are ordered in service to loving God, and others.
  3. To recognise that the line between good and evil runs through every heart, that their are tree limbs in our eyes, that none of us can cast the first stone. To recognise that humility, or recognising our limitedness is the way in which we affirm that God is God and we are not.

As groups that have had to endure generations of oppression are often markers of, suffering can be a context within which we develop character that relative comfort does not create. Similarly, the Apostle Paul once wrote;

“we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance character, and character produces hope.”

Your thoughts?

Who is telling the time?

Part of the reason things here on the blog have been so stop and go are my activities with the new Centre for Christian Formation and Discipleship. The first part of my series on Time, Advent and the Christian Calendar has just been posted..

Time is not just passive or neutral, it is affective, it carries us along with a storied momentum. Time follows along all the days of our lives whispering to us about where, when, and who we are.

Read More here.

Love is like Ghosts. Few have seen it, but everybody talks | Short Thoughts

Introducing Short Thoughts

Often I’ll have a short thought, more half of a thought really. I will begin to write it down and then the thought will wander off into the long grass and I’ll decide to finish working it out later. Now I have a few dozen half-finished blog posts in my folder and this site sits dormant.

So, I’ve decided to exchange fantastic for frequent and to hit publish on shorter thoughts that are not polished or even properly thought through. Enjoy!, but don’t hold me to it, I’m just thinking out loud.

“Yes I know that love is like Ghosts. Few have seen it, but everybody talks” – Lord Huron

Love is such a central concept (and hopefully reality) in Christian life and thinking. But often, what we have accepted as love needs to be challenged, re-thought through and reconsidered. We as Christians can be in danger in having neat (even scriptural) definitions which leave us with porcleain-doll-concepts rather than robust, three-dimensional, lived out experiences of love.

All of us know that love is complicated, joyous, costly, overwhelming and messy in real life. That is why I try and make a practice of listening to other perspectives on central concepts within Christianity, thinkers I anticipate disagreeing with but who can act as an acid to any of the overly porcelain aspects of my thoughts.

A person who has been an excellent ‘acid’ for my thinking has been Pete Rollins. Pete Rollins1 is an author and philosopher who is well versed in Christian theology but often challenges and confronts christianity with thinking that emerges from psycho-analytic theory. Recently I heard him paraphrase one of the fathers of psychoanalysis, Lacan2;

“Love is giving what you do not have to someone who doesn’t want it”

This quote takes a little unpacking, but I think it gives a fresh angle into a type of resilient love that is rarer and rarer.

“Love is giving what you do not have..”

Rollins makes the point that when we attempting to attract people (he uses the example of social dating app “tinder”) we are showing them the excess of our lives, we have travelled, we are qualified, we are funny. But much of what gets given in the reality of love is your lack. What you are not, what you cannot be or choose not to be. As someone else I heard recently said, “we love the whole person, their assets and liabilities”.

“… to someone who doesn’t want it”

Who of us wants another’s lack? But, at some level we are aware, Love in this way reaches a new height even as it reaches what some might see as a depth. It does so because we are not commodifying the other into something that increases our sense of social net worth, the other is someone who costs you. In that way, you no longer need the person, and you can be free to truly love them for who they are, not just what they bring you. This may seem most applicable to marriages and other romantic relationships but this can equally be true for our friendships and even the person at the check out in the supermarket. We are called not just to be nice but to love our neighbour and who is my neighbour? Whoever is in front of me.

Certainly, this is not all that love is, not by a long shot, but sometimes it is helpful for us to see from all angles, especially from below.

Buy Minutes not Data, It just might be more Christian | Short Thoughts

Introducing Short Thoughts

Often I’ll have a short thought, more half of a thought really. I will begin to write it down and then the thought will wander off into the long grass and I’ll decide to finish working it out later. Now I have a few dozen half-finished blog posts in my folder and this site sits dormant.

So, I’ve decided to exchange fantastic for frequent and to hit publish on shorter thoughts that are not polished or even properly thought through. Enjoy!, but don’t hold me to it, I’m just thinking out loud.

Part of what it means to be distinctly Christian in the 21st-century is to find ways to order our relationships to the many forms of technology that surround us. Christianity is at its core about a body. The Son, who becomes a body in Jesus Christ for our sake. Our task as Christians is to live faithfully in our bodies, relationships and creation-context in ways that witness to the days when we will have bodies everlasting, as CS Lewis says, “till we have faces.”

In our view of history (that can often have an air of superiority), we can become trapped in the idea that our temptations, our challenges and the habitual addictions that we face in the 21st Century are the worst history has ever seen. Of course, our technology might be new, but we are far from the first age that has ever experienced a technological revolution. As Andy Crouch has perceptibly named, often our use of technology is the exchange of personhood for power. What we could do slower with people, gets set aside for what we can do speedily without requiring the intervention, permission or participation of other people.

Similarly, we could say that it is the exchange for in-bodied relationships for an excarnated un-relational voyeurism. Bluntly speaking, it is the difference between observing someone’s life through Instagram instead of inviting them over for coffee to ask them about things…

What we need1, are interruptions in the way technology recruits our habits in ways that simultaneously connect us and leaving us at a deeper level more disconnected than ever.

One practise that could concretely interrupt these habits would be exchanging the money we spend on data or Internet for our phones and instead buy call minutes, credit or airtime.

Often messaging, even with all the wonderful emojis at our disposal, is a disembodied form of receiving information rather than engaging in a truly person-to-person interaction. In-person conversations may not always be realistic when you live far from those you are hoping to connect with but, Remember the good old fashion phone call? Voices, real-time, emotional intelligence that does not require an emoji yellow face to communicate.

What would it do to our relationships if we picked up the phone rather than scrolled through Facebook or instagram2 to observe someone’s life as a distant facade instead of the true conversational connection that could come from a phone call or Skype?

Buy minutes not data, it just might be more Christian.

  1. let the reader understand, far from a pontification from on high, but instead what the author needs 
  2. which are quickly becoming the same thing as our virtual public square becomes a singular space for best-self-projections, virtue signalling, communication and memories all rolled into one. 

Humanity is suffering from Identity Theft

People are made to name and to be named. God names humans as His image and then renames people, most significantly Abram, to indicate how their very identity has been shaped by their history and experiences in God.

In Ephesians 3:15 Paul uses the phrase;

“…before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth receives its true name.”

It is important for our identities to be received, not simply formulated through our own whims and desires. Imagine the tragedy and impact of parents refusing to name a child and making the child name themselves. We need an orientation point outside of ourselves, we need to know we belong somewhere and to someone.

Increasingly identity in western culture is seen as something that has fluidity, but identity and particularly names are something that are meant to remind us who we are, and whose we are. We are named by our parents, and they were named by their parents, and like it or not we are linked to our genealogy. As much as many of us, especially in our teenage years, would love to throw off what we see as the confines of familial connection, we are inextricably linked and shaped through the people we belong to.

We do in fact belong to people, social scientists continually affirm that we are social creatures who derive our meaning and identity from our relatedness. Even the various fads and phases that happen through our childhood and adolescence are attempts to transcend our given belonging (most often our family, nation or religion), and attach ourselves to another group (often marked by external signifiers of fashion, to signify an allegiance to a music genre or social movement).

Often our adolescent rebellion is against, most commonly, our family. Our rebellion is motivated by trying to achieve something we most likely already have, but do not feel and therefore do not remember; An Identity and a sense of belonging.

This is the very root of our human problem. We are a people who have forgotten who we are.

In the midst of the tremendous creativity of the creation account, we find a story that seeks to remind us of this common human malady; A stolen or forgotten identity. Many wonderful things are created, and then the pinnacle of this creation are creatures that resemble the very creator Himself. The image of God, man and woman. Yet further on in the story, all is lost when the chaos creature, the serpent, offers the creator-like creatures what they already have;

“Serpent: That’s not true; will you not die. God said that because he knows that when you eat it you will be like God” Gen3:5

The serpent tempts Eve with what she already has; the image of God. This case of identity theft leads the creator-creatures to lose their connection the very source of their life, and every subsequent human ratifies this grave choice.

Scripture is written as a narrative to invite us to belong to the covenant people whose story it tells. As we read it, we see a story that links all humanity together in our inclination to beauty, belonging, as well as to disconnection and pain. Scripture helps us realise that we can belong to a family, an identity that has been constructed and achieved by someone else, namely Jesus Christ. Finally, He is the one who relieves us from the unbearable burden of creating our identities from the ground up.

This isn’t to say that God is disinterested in our uniqueness, our expressiveness or our individual choices. He is, but the most important things about us, much like our human family identity, are things we are given, not things that we have achieved for ourselves. In some sense, we create the significance of our first name and we receive the significance, both good and ill of our family name.

In the emptiness that emerges when we are driven to create our own identity, we define ourselves in ways which mark us out from one other. We end up needing to defining ourselves over, apart and against one another. What makes us different? How do we count in the midst of the masses of others? This whole pursuit creates competition and disconnection and creates the intense fragmentation we experience and observe in society today.

Most of the evil, rebellion, and pain-inflicting actions of humans I’m convinced come from this basic foundational issue; there is not a place where they are loved, where they belong, where they are given a name that has more dignity than they could have ever dreamed. We are not driven by the need to create an identity, we receive the gift of identity and are then free to bless others to join in this family name.

At the heart of our modern identity theft is the way we understand the idea of freedom. Our understanding of freedom is to be free to choose every decision and action based on our personal desire and preference. The major problem with this freedom is that it does not take into account how interrelated our desires and actions are. We are deciding, thinking and acting within a mesh of perceived and invisible tensions and pressures that we often struggle to even identify. This type of freedom is a mirage. We cannot stand objectively and decide, so many things have been decided already, so many of the contexts of our decisions, the very choices we are given have been pre-selected for us. To attempt to objectively decide and judge every action and situation would render us paralysed and creates the curved-in state that Luther said was the essence of sin. That is why rather than attempt to create our own identities at every turn, we have been given boundary lines that make our choices meaningful.

If we try to craft our own identities disconnected from the One who gives true names we risk becoming mere shadows of what was intended for us. We have been given names, as dignified as sons and daughters of the living God. If we forget who we are, we don’t just endanger ourselves but we work against the very redemption story of creation we’ve been caught up in.

Untangling the Circles of our Lives

It can seem like we have less and less time, less relational energy and yet various voices within the Church consistently compete for when and where we should be spending that time.

“We should spend time with other Christians, it will build us up!” “No”, say others, “we should be out in ‘the world‘ making an impact”. Finally, others insist we should not “melt into the world, but neither should we lock ourselves away in the Church”. We should ‘reach out‘ by drawing not-yet believers into Christian community.

Within all this cross-tension of advice, we can often just give up figuring out who and where we should be. We instead default into either our personality-type-path-of-least-resistance or else conform to whatever is en vogue within the social tribe within which we find our sense of belonging.

David Fitch, in his book ‘Faithful Presence’ offers a thoughtful grid or set of analogies to figure out how to understand the spaces within our lives, not ‘forsaking meeting together’ as those who follow Christ, and yet having a presence in our communities. What is particularly helpful is his suggestion about who is the true host in each of these spaces.

In mission-oriented type groups, more complex theories of outreach or strategies for church planting find themselves with ‘in-house’ short-hand, acronyms and language. Although it can be tempting to poke fun or wash our hands of such moves, more and more it seems to me, that when humans gather around certain focus’, be it church planting, cycling or composting, they develop short-hand, in-house languages to communicate within themselves. Interestingly, in the last few years, much due to the work of Mike Breen and 3DM, shapes have become a popular way to display, in a short-hand way, these types of methods.

In reading David Fitch’s book Faithful Presence, and he used 3 types of circles to talk about the continual location (or in his words, “faithful presence“) of God through His people, the Church.

The Close Circle – The Host is Christ Himself

This circle (importantly called close not closed), is the committed people who are ‘In Christ’, those actively choosing to be in mutual submission to God, one another and His Kingdom. Helpfully I think, Fitch points out, there is a closeness that develops in this group which should about naturally and could even be understood to be supernatural. Often, in mission(al) circles, anyone who might confess an enthusiasm for gathering with others in this circle are seen as ‘churchy’ or ‘religious’. But Fitch takes as granted, that there will be an unmitigated reign of Christ in this space as no other, as all are in (at least stated) allegiance to Him.

Sometimes, enthused mission-ists,1 who are seeking to push people towards a missional practice, they can be caught doing it in an immature way. They create scarcity and shame, claiming that the real ‘heroes’ are the ones ‘out-there‘. This way does not recognise the abundance of dignity and honour that exist for all callings and spaces within the Kingdom of God. All spaces and callings within the Kingdom of God have honour and dignity, because they are God’s, not because the role or location is more en vogue. Frankly speaking, if this ‘circle’, is neglected or dishonoured, mission does not sustain its love for those it is co-missioning with, and therefore cannot display God’s love faithfully ‘out-there’. We renew and are renewed in this sphere to live faithfully present in the other two circles.

The Dotted Circle – The Host is the Believer/Disciple

Of course, God’s presence is not meant to be contained or confined to the close circle, God’s love by its very character moves out and expands an embrace to others.

Importantly though, within the dotted circle, it remains a place where the followers of Jesus are the hosts and it is defined as a place where a circle of committed followers are present. The biggest difference in this liminal space is that strangers and neighbours can enter, watch and participate, as much as they can, in what God is doing here. This might be a meal, party, foodbank project, but the space is open and yet is hosted by followers.

When the dotted circle gets confused with the close circle mission becomes impossible. When the dotted circle does not welcome strangers, it remains close or even closed. But when the dotted circle is seen as sufficient, then the renewing work of God that happens around the communion table, an unmitigated place of worship, devotion and connection to those In-Christ is lost.

The Half Circle – The Host is the World

Christ presence goes with us from places of worship (close circle) to places of hospitality (the dotted circle), into the places we live and work (the half circle). In the half circle, our posture has changed, taking a cue from Jesus’ teaching in Luke 11, we go, not as hosts but as guests.

We take on the humility that comes from being a guest. Contrary to turning up with resources, handouts and a large presence, we turn up to the world with need. The question here, as Fitch puts it is.. “not whether Christ is here or not. Rather it is whether his presence will be welcomed”. Just as Jesus’ sends out the 72 in Luke 11, we are not forcing our way by being the ‘haves’ in a world of ‘have-nots’, we are not insisting on our way by reaching for cultural influence, we are coming as servants and ready to pronounce the peace of Christ to anyone or anywhere that welcomes Him.

Fitch ends by saying that when we see the Church as a people, our location…” cannot be seen in terms of in here or out there. It is an entire way of life”.

Of course, these types of ways of describing things can become systematic. In the negative sense, any language we use as a system very quickly becomes a static and therefore dead ideology that bears no fruit.

But sometimes, these ideas can act like coat hooks for the times we spend, helping us to engage God, the world and other followers of Jesus fruitfully.

Is this helpful to you? What other frameworks have helped you connect with God, other believers and the wider world?

  1. my made up term for those zealous for the Church to ‘leave the building or it’s ‘holy huddle’.