Either it’s ‘Dunkirk’ (which I have been thinking about ever since I saw this remarkable film last Saturday) or alternatively, New Wine (our annual pilgrimage to Zion – well, Shepton Mallet). “What do you think, Lord?”
Short pause as I ponder.
So here we are on Red 9, which thankfully is above the water table of the Royal Bath and West Showground which we are currently sharing with 15000 other disciples (or given the weather, my fellow fanatics).
Actually for me it is the best New Wine ever, such is the quality of the teaching and the weight of the worship. I enjoy about 20% of the songs, which is about as high as it gets for me at NW.
Some very good seminars. I’ve been going to the ones on Christians in Politics in the TearFund marque, featuring Christian politicians from all the main parties modelling how to disagree well.
Last night I popped into Rock Solid, the ministry for 7&8 year olds, some 650 of them, led by Emily Stanford who was a member of Christ Church when her Dad, Mark, was our curate some 15 years ago. An amazing ministry which exhausts its 100-strong staff offering no less than 5 1/2 hours of contact time each day.
Emily was speaking on Jesus the true vine, holding the attention of this vast and potentially restless audience!
However, the main morning teaching for the adults has been the core of this New Wine being given by John Mark Comer who leads a church in Portland, Oregon – an entertaining speaker who knows his stuff. His essential theme is how to live the Christian life so as “to bridge the gap between who you are and what you would be.”
He also – coming from the top lefthand corner of the US between Seattle and Vancouver (where my brother-in-law is a professional coffee roaster) is zealous about coffee – which I may come back to if I have space.
Here his basic approach is summarised by a quote from Augustine: “Without God we cannot; without us, he will not.” Essentially our transformation into a new creation is in partnership with God, remarkably God choosing to work with us. That’s how he operates.
As Comer explains this is not a 50:50 partnership any more than the baking he did with his young daughter is 50:50. She may claim nearly all of the credit but he does most of the work. No, to change the metaphor “God does all the heavy lifting.”
Here this young American is seeking to correct an imbalance. We don’t simply say “It’s all God! There is simply nothing I should do for I can do nothing.” Grace is not opposed to effort – it is opposed to earning credit with God. Otherwise why would the apostle Paul continually refer to athletics training as a metaphor for living the Christian life?
So he writes to the Christians in Corinth, familiar with the Isthmian Games held just down the road every other year. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. (1 Corinthians 9:24f)
These Christians would have seen how athletes train in a regular, probably daily, discipline. In all weathers, irrespective of how they were feeling, regardless of what other people thought of them, despite all the discomfort. You just do it because that is what you do. There is simply no alternative if you want to win.
As Comer recounts you can’t just run a marathon. Most people can hardly run the length of the street but give time and commitment you gradually increase the distance run in training. It is incremental and it takes time. That is what “strict training” is all about.
One fascinating aside – Comer is a millennial in ministry with other urban millennials, those people born in the 1980’s and 1990’s and coming into adulthood in the millennium. (AKA Generation Y). Apparently this cohort typically lack structure in their lives, unfamiliar with self-discipline. They were brought up in the “everyone-is-a-winner” age group.
Moreover as reported in yesterday’s New York Times one in three millennials refuse to identify with a religious tradition, a far higher number than among older Americans. The article suggests that Christians need to prioritise “learning the practices of discipleship and strengthening community.”
And so – especially for Comer and his contemporaries – the spiritual disciplines have an important place in the life of the Holy Spirit alongside sound teaching and supportive community. We are to practice the way of Jesus through Bible reading, Communion, fasting, fellowship, meditation, prayer, retreats, Sabbath, service, solitude, study, worship, each appropriately structured and all tailored to our own situations.
Here I recall the teaching of Richard Foster in his seminal 1978 book “Celebration of Discipline.” The farmer cannot make the seed grow – only God can give the fruit. But that does not mean he does nothing. The very opposite – he works hard to make sure that the environment is right for growth.
And the heart of the spiritual disciplines, both individual and communal, is the understanding that God is with us – this is what Jesus promises. We are blessed with his presence as we abide in Christ, as we walk in the Spirit, as we practice the presence of God in our everyday lives. Otherwise we would be talking about self-help, which as we all know is doomed to failure.
Strangely the one place I find it difficult to practice my own spiritual disciplines is here at New Wine for the simple reason that I am out of routine. My running suffers too.
The one discipline I miss most is – as it happens – one which John Mark Comer also values, and it has to do with coffee.
The first thing we both do each morning is have a coffee with Jesus. For me it is a cappuccino in the kitchen, never in the study. Just five minutes being open with God.
Mother Theresa was asked by interviewer Dan Rather what she said in her prayers. She answered “I just listen.” And what does God say? “He listens.” As Emily said last night, just chilling out with God. Each morning.