James’s Blog: The Cost of Discipleship.

James’s Blog:  The Cost of Discipleship.

“Go away!” squealed the Ghost.  “Go away!  Can’t you see I want to be left alone?”

“But you need help,” said the Solid One.

“If you have the least trace of decent feeling left,” said the Ghost, “you’ll keep away.  I don’t want help.  I want to be left alone…”

The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis

‘Insufficient’ is not a word that good Evangelicals would typically apply to Jesus’ death, but Paul wasn’t so squeamish.  Notice what he tells the Colossians: ‘Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the Church.’

Paul is not, of course, suggesting that we need more than Jesus to restore our relationship with the Father, rather he is saying, “Jesus’ suffering may bring salvation, but it does not necessarily bring maturity.  Spiritual growth doesn’t just happen.  You need someone to get alongside you and teach you, feed you and change your dirty nappies.  That’s the job that I’ve taken on for the Church, and let me tell you this: It’s a costly business.”

That’s the hidden cost of discipleship.  In our immaturity we don’t realise that the men and women who invest in us, and help us get to know God better, can only do so by giving up something of themselves.  I think about the time people spent with me rather than doing something infinitely preferable; I think about the suffering that others went through so that I could be spared some of the same pain; I think about those who spend an hour on Sunday mornings helping my children get to know God.

But this reliance on one another, rather than just God, isn’t some oversight on His part; some side effect of sin.  It’s the divine core of discipleship.  God wouldn’t have it any other way.  He’s terribly keen on interdependence, you know.  It’s what He wants, for us to need others; it’s the inbuilt ‘flaw’ that forces us into relationships – forces us to emulate the Trinity.  If Jesus’ life, death and resurrection were sufficient not just for salvation, but made our spiritual growth inevitable, then we wouldn’t need community.  We could retreat to our monastic cells and just sit around, waiting for sanctification to kick in.  God’s not going to give us that excuse.  So He made it that for me to grow, I need people, and those people have to pay a debt of love.  And then He made it so that I have to do the same for others.  Clever.  That’s probably why Paul felt able to rejoice in this particular cost of discipleship.

*Award Winning!* James’s Blog: The Man who Sold me a Pear

*Award Winning!* James’s Blog:  The Man who Sold me a Pear

We were in the supermarket to buy a pear for Imogen. She’d been asking for one all day, ever since she saw a picture of a pear in the morning and been reminded that they existed. There were no pears at home, so I found myself in a supermarket, a single pear in my hand, queuing up to pay.

And I felt embarrassed.

It had been a tough six days, on top of a tough six weeks, which had come off the back of a tough six years. I was tired, and had been worn down by the harsh reality of living and moving and having my being in this tainted world. We had returned to the UK from Australia just under a year ago, and were gearing up for our fourth house move in as many months. I had been wearied by the dehumanising journey of simply trying to secure a place for my family to live. I had spoken to countless robotic voices, and a fair few human ones, giving and taking various details. I had been dragged through the mill, weighed on the scales and been found wanting; judged by our absence from the country and by our inadequate income. Whenever I described our situation I encountered awkward pauses, credit checks and patronising explanations as to why we needed to jump through a dozen impersonal hoops. After all that suspicion and contempt, my embarrassment made perfect sense.

You see, there I was, surrounded by shoppers with bulging trolleys and heaving baskets, holding one pear. Do you understand? We were wasting their time, me and my pear. Me, the less than human, offering something that was barely worth their while to sell. What would be the response of the worker at the till? Mockery? Contempt? “One pear? Couldn’t you have at least bought two or three?” Would I even be worth any emotion? It’s a difficult thing to find yourself in a place where the best that you can hope for is to be ignored.

I was called forward to a till. An older man, not old, but older than me, with a scattering of awkward teeth left in his mouth, like Stonehenge after an earthquake. I prepared myself for the worst.

“Just one pear today,” I said, offering my feeble excuse to the God of the Till, hoping to stave off his wrath. If I make light of the situation perhaps I can escape with just a disdainful smile. I think I could handle that.

“Just one pear,” he repeated, but there was no judgement there.

I handed him the fruit. It was duly processed.

“Fifty-four pence, sir,” he said, without a trace of sarcasm.

Was that expensive for just one pear? I didn’t care, because he called me ‘sir’. Did you hear that? ‘Sir’! Me, with my solitary Forelle pear! Surely I did not deserve a ‘sir’, not for fifty-four pence, but it was given anyway.

Emboldened by this kindness, I passed over a five pound note.

“Thank you, sir,” he said, as though the tedium of having to count out four pounds and forty-six pence worth of change was a precious gift that I was passing on. How much effort would he have to expend for my pittance? How much of my fifty-four pence would make its way to his pocket? Surely none, and yet…”Thank you, sir,”

He passed over the handful of gold, silver and copper shrapnel. I received it as though I were receiving a communion wafer.

“There you go, sir. Would you like a bag?”

Nowadays you have to pay for the privilege of a bag, but not then.  In those days, they were free.  And he makes the offer.  A free bag for my one pear!  What generosity of spirit!  What grace!

“No, thank you,” I said, smiling as I passed the fruit straight on to my delighted daughter.

No bag, but the gesture meant more to me than a thousand bags.

“Have a good afternoon,” I said. I meant it.

“You as well, sir,” he replied. He meant it too.

I swear to you, in all seriousness, there were tears in my eyes as I walked from that till-bound saint and out of that supermarket. Until that moment, I hadn’t realised just how bruised I was, and neither had I realised just how hungry I was for a little kindness.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,” said Jesus, “and I will sell you a pear.”

This post won the 2016 Good Samaritan short story award with ACW and Street Pastors

James’s Blog: The Thin Line Between Love & Hate.

James’s Blog:  The Thin Line Between Love & Hate.

I’ve just returned from speaking at our church on the topic of ‘Love’, because there’s no reason why my first church-based speaking engagement in years should be about something, you know, easy.

I used to work for a charity called Tearfund. I was in the glamorous business of, as it was known back then, ‘Income Processing’. That meant that if you sent in a donation, I was one of the people who made sure that your gift ended up allocated to the right project. You too can ascend to such dizzying heights if you have a degree in theology.

One day we received a letter with a donation. The gist of the letter was that the writer had been saving up to buy a new house, but that God had made it clear to her that she wasn’t to move. The donation was, she wrote, the money that she had saved so far towards her new house. Her donation was a cheque for £80,000.

What I remember most about this was the letter. By the tone, the wording and reading between the lines I was certain that this letter should have had a postscript, and it should have read ‘P.S. I’m not happy about this‘. There was a resigned frustration, a subtle anger in the wording. This was £80,000 worth of painful submission.

One day, an elderly man who had once walked around Palestine with an itinerant preacher and trouble-maker wrote his own letter, and in it you find the words, “This is love for God: To obey his commands.”

What an intriguing paradox; the topsy turvey Kingdom of God in action. Love for God has little to do with feelings, and much to do with obedience. Like the woman who surrendered £80,000, it is possible to be angry with God, resentful towards God, frustrated by Him, but if you do what He asks, then you love Him nonetheless. ‘A cold and broken Hallelujah,’ as Leonard Cohen sang. Hollywood tells us that we should have soaring violins and misty-eyed glances across a crowded room, but true love can be spitting bile as long as it obeys. After all, what you do shows to whom your heart really belongs.