Tag Archives: Growth

Pope Francis – Untying The Knots

Francis often quotes the words of the German poet Holderlin
“may the man not betray what he promised as a child” (page 25)

Francis knew some familiar struggles

“One regular gripe was that vocations to the priesthood had fallen in Buenos Aires in his time” (page 121)

On Rafael Tello, the Liberation Theologian silenced by the Church
“Nobody who has opened up new paths leaves without scars on his body.” (page 138)

“Guilt by itself… is just another human resource.  Guilt, without atonement, does not allow us to grow” (page 146)

On going out to the peripheries (a now famous speech before the conclave and given here) the surge needs to surge forth to the peripheries.
“The Church is supposed to be the mysterium lunae, the mystery of the moon is that it has no light, but simply reflects the light of the sun” (page 155)

“It’s about a shift in our understanding of Church. The community which presides in love; that is putting the Pope back in the college.  It is ecclesiastically radical.  He has thought through what he is doing.  It is the produce of the many years of practical theology.” (page 166)

He calls for “a church that gets out in the street and runs the risk of an accident” rather than a church which “doesn’t get out and sooner or later gets sick from being locked up” (page 180)

The Shack

You can kiss your family and friends good-bye and put miles between you, but at the same time you carry them with you in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world but a world lives in you – Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth – page 209

An infinite God can give all of Himself to each of his children.  He does not distribute Himself that each may have a part, but to each one he gives all of himself as fully as if there were no others – A.W. Tozer (page 218)

Earth has no sorry that heaven cannot heal – author unknown (page 231)

She lives where there is no impatience.  She does not mind waiting. (page 235)

Faith never knows where it is being led.  But it knows and loves the one who does the leading. – Oswald Chambers, page 239

Earth’s crammed with heaven

And every common bush afire with God

But only he who sees takes off his shoes

The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries – Elizabeth Berrett Browning

Tributes to Dallas Willard – Part 2

On definitions:

Dallas and I used to play a game. I would ask him for definitions of all kinds of words. And every definition would contain a clarity and freshness and precision that would require folks to sit and reflect for a while. “Hey Dallas . . . ,” and then I’d ask him about any word or concept that mattered, and would receive a brief education in the possibilities of redeemed thought.

The word spirit. “Disembodied personal power.”

Beauty. “Goodness made manifest to the senses.”Maturity

disciple is “anyone whose ultimate goal is to live as Jesus would live if he were in their place.”

Dignity is “a value that creates irreplaceability.” (This one, he graciously attributed to Immanuel Kant.)

“Hey Dallas, what is reality?”

“Reality is what you can count on.”

“Hey Dallas, what is pain?””Pain is what you experience when you bump into reality.”

“What is spiritual maturity?”

“The mature disciple is one who effortlessly does what Jesus would do in his or her place.”

“What exactly does it mean to glorify God?”

“To glorify God means to think and act in such a way that the goodness, greatness, and beauty of God are constantly obvious to ourselves and all those around us. It means to live in such a way that when people see us they think, Thank God for God, if God would create such a life.”

Somebody once said of Dallas: “I’d like to live in his time zone.” During one of his lectures, a listener challenged him with statements that were both offensive and incorrect. Dallas paused, thanked the person for their comments, and then simply moved on to the next question. Somebody asked Dallas afterward why he had not countered the student’s argument and put him in his place. “I’m practicing the discipline of not having to have the last word.”

“One sign of maturity are the thoughts that no longer occur to you.” On the first day of sobriety, a recovering alcoholic will be filled with thoughts of her heroic efforts. After 20 years of sobriety, her mind will be free to think other, more interesting thoughts. Her sobriety will no longer look heroic, only sane—only a gift.

On eternity:

“Hey Dallas, what’s death?”

“Jesus made a special point of saying those who rely on him and have received the kind of life that flows in him and in God will never experience death. . . . Jesus shows his apprentices how to live in the light of the fact that they will never stop living.”

Our destiny, Dallas used to say, is to join a tremendously creative team effort, under unimaginably splendid leadership, on an inconceivably vast plane of activity, with ever more comprehensive cycles of productivity and enjoyment. This is what the “eye hath not seen, nor ear hath heard” in the prophetic vision. It is worth a few dozen read-throughs (found in The Divine Conspiracy).

Dallas also used to say, “God will certainly let everyone into heaven that can possibly stand it.” This is another one of those statements that becomes more daunting and frightening and wonderful the more you think about it.

“Keep eternity before the children,” his mother said. Dallas kept eternity before us in a way no one else quite has. And now he has stepped into the eternal kind of life in a way he never has before.

I’ll bet he can stand it. I’ll bet he can.

Love feels distant

He said, “I can’t dress myself, I don’t have….”


She said, “You’ll have top dress yourself” and she left the room.


He said “I kicked, I screamed, I kicked, I screamed, I yelled, ‘You don’t love me anymore!”  Finally I realised that, if I were to get any clothes on, I’d have to get my clothes on.”  After hours of struggle, he got some clothes on.  He said, “It was not until later that I knew my mother was in the next room crying.”


I don’t know if God distances God’s self from us, but I know sometimes we feel some distance.

(page 97)

Mend The Gap – Chapter 7

From Velvet Elvis:

Imagine what happens when a young woman is raised in a Christian setting but hasn’t been taught that all things are hers and then goes to a university where she’s exposed to all sorts of new ideas and perspectives.  She takes classes in psychology and anthropology and biology and world history and her professors are people who’ve devoted themselves to their particular fields of study.  Ist it possible that in the course of lecturing on their field of interest, her professors will from time to time say things that are true?…What if she has been taught there’s not truth outside the Bible?  She’s now faced with this dilemma: believe the truth she’s learning or the Christian faith she was brought up with… (page 119)


On the commitment demanded of Mormon young people

They may only convert one person for every thousand doors they knock on, but it’s easy to esee why this kind of dedication has led to the numbers of Mormons in America increasing by over 100% in the last ten years.


In the UK many children from Muslim families return home from school each evening and straight away start two hours of Koran study.  Many Jewish children attend at least one evening a week of Torah instruction. (page 128)



The answer doesn’t lie in simply giving our congregations the right answers to difficult questions: ‘If someone asks you where dinosaurs fit into God’s plan, then this is what you need to say.” (page 120)


Ortberg on New Year



Talks about how Jesus grew, and may not have been a physically great specimen, but when he died the Spirit entered into him and was able to draw him out of death.


There is thing about trying to pretend to be smart – if you are the smartest person in the room then you are in the wrong room.


Also great comparison of 10 year olds who were given maths problems, and some of them gave up and were frustrated, but others loved the challenge, even though they were getting these wrong all the time.


The violence of the command “Chop it down!” is a clue to the context.  Following Jesus doesn’t make for smooth sailing.  Travelling with Jesus through Samaria on the way to Jerusalem is not a parade led by a brass band and cartwheeling cheerleaders.  Suspicion and hostility are pervasive throughout this trip, so perhaps it doesn’t matter where Jesus inserts the story; almost any place on the journey would serve as a suitable context.  There are going to be fig trees without figs – an offense to any serious farmer – at every turn in the road.  But Luke places it early on, so that it can be working in our imaginations all through the journey.  (page 66)

“The more you keep your mouth shut, the more fertile you become.” (page 73)

The violence intended for the fig tree is deflected by the gardener’s “Let it alone”.  The violence visited on Jesus is countered by “Father, forgive them.” (page 74)

Lone Ranger

Whilst it’s true that a Lone Ranger can learn a lot through self-study, Lone Rangers (and even Brains on a Stick who know the Bible inside out) aren’t exempt from need-to-know and need-to-grow moments.  Yet when they are faced with one, their isolation guarantees that the only thing they’ll know is what they already know.


As for wise counsel, a warm hug, or a swift kick in the rear, those are rather hard to self-administer.  If we don’t have those kinds of relationships in place, it’s usually too late to pull them together once a need-to-know or need-to-grow crisis hits with full force.

The Church of England Needs Its Own Rebirth

Wilson is a roots man, despite his apparent pessimism. “Locally, the CofE is often good news. Individual clergy and Christians are often liked and respected on the streets. The figure of Jesus remains broadly attractive, even intriguing and sometimes compelling.”

But he goes on to say: “The national institution, however, appears disconnected from all this, remote, hierarchical, fixated on its own stuff. The church of the future may be less a civil service or conventional business, and more a movement like Alcoholics Anonymous, the ultimate locally delivered, life-changing non-profit organisation. The job of the hierarchy will be to enable this, not to represent it or control it.”

On Good Friday, as parishes prepare for their Easter services on Sunday, it is a good moment to assess the state of the Church of England, which Rowan Williams will hand over to his successor when he moves to Cambridge next winter.

Under his leadership, it took two decisions, unwillingly and perhaps unconsciously: there will be female bishops, and there will not for the foreseeable future be openly gay and partnered bishops, even if they are celibate.

Neither was exactly the outcome Williams had wanted. He had hoped for a compromise that would enable the opponents of female bishops to continue to live within the church, but the General Synod rejected that decisively in February.

Ten years earlier, at the beginning of his episcopate, he was forced to back down from a plan to appoint his then friend Jeffrey John as a bishopbecause John, though celibate, was partnered with another priest, and in due course entered into a civil partnership with him. He did give John a job as dean of St Albans, as partial compensation for his disappointment, but was never able to overcome evangelical opposition to his being a bishop.

Even these limited gestures were enough to provoke a schism in the worldwide Anglican Communion between the liberals, mostly in North America, and the conservatives, mostly in Africa. The CofE also rejected Williams’ plan to patch that up, by a kind of treaty that would formally bind the communion together. It has a hard enough time obeying its own bishops – it certainly wasn’t going to obey foreign ones.

To many outsiders, much of this has come across as out-of-touch and self-obsessed, but it is in part a symptom of the fact that the church is not is really one organisation.

Wilson is seen as a liberal, and a very junior bishop. But large parts of his analysis are shared by the evangelical Justin Welby, newly appointed bishop of Durham – the fifth-ranked job in the hierarchy. He says: “The longer I go on with this, the more I realise that the Church of England is not an organisation in any recognisable sense.”

“Any sort of concept of top-down direction is much more complicated than it looks. Part of it is illusion: because bishops are dressed up in funny clothes, with funny hats and special sticks it’s assumed that if they say to a bunch of parish clergy ‘do something’, they will do it. But that’s not how it works and never has been. Each part of the church has its own competence.”

Welby worked for 12 years in the oil industry before becoming a priest, so he knows something about the outside world. And he didn’t attend the meetings of the General Synod, the church’s governing body, before he became a bishop, as he thought it didn’t seem to deal with anything interesting. Both of these facts represent wider trends.

Welby’s a man, of course, which no longer makes him typical of ordinands. A majority of people training to be priests are women, even if few of them will find full-time, fully paid jobs. But Welby’s experience of the outside world before his training is typical. So is his pragmatism about church growth. Although he is generally reckoned to be an evangelical, he doesn’t believe that it follows from any particular theology. The idea that strict churches grow while liberal ones decline isn’t borne out by the facts: “Church growth is about doing standard things well – funerals, baptisms, weddings: making sure you’re welcoming and tolerably warm and the sermons are worth listening to.”

These seem quite simple things. But in practice, they can be very hard. Jessica Martin is a former English don at Cambridge, who left that job two years ago to become the priest of three small villages south of the city.

“I don’t feel that what I am doing at the moment is actually managing decline at all. What we’re experiencing is modest growth.”

She talks about a pattern in which the decline is still happening among older people, who grew up with Christianity and are now dying off. “I feel we might be in a sort of transitional point.”

The growth is coming among families: “Getting your children baptised is how the overwhelming majority come.” But these new members have grown up away from Christianity and the language and traditions of the church. Pretty fundamental Christian concepts, such as sin, just don’t make sense to them any more. “I find families very ignorant and very responsive, and happy to come to stuff that they feel they might have some chance of following.”

The problem, she says, is finding ways of reaching half-believers. “The cultural assumptions of the people under 40 who I meet are just totally different, and the habits of being that the church both assumes and inculcates are new. When people are confirmed as adults, a lot of them have problems with penitence; they say: ‘But I have always been a good person!'”

Yet the church remains attractive in her villages partly for reasons that have nothing to do with theology, she says: “I encounter quite often in the people who do flirt with church a quite explicit desire for physical community: an anxious sense that people need to get together and do stuff in the same place and time.”

Not everyone has Martin’s optimism. She says: “When I talk to clergy who are on the verge of retirement, they are much more depressed than I am. The generation who are coming up to 60, 65 got the full force of decline and are feeling very low about it.”

Fewer, older and less active

In places where no young people come to church – and there are many – the whole enterprise seems doomed. The vicar of one country town, coming up to retirement, talked to me anonymously about his frustrations.

“I am going into an annual meeting in a couple of weeks’ time wondering why churches are so full of people who aren’t in the least interested in Jesus. We are buggered because we’re working for something that has the structure of the civil service. These are grim times.”

His congregation remembers a time when they had more, younger and more involved members. “Over time, these congregations have become aware that their members are fewer, older, and less active in the church. Away from metropolitan centres, the CofE is still in the petit bourgeois mindset of the 50s and 60s,” he says. “Church was about being associated with the right tribe, sitting in the next pew to the headmaster and the local doctor. My lot can proudly parrot the catechism, want hymns they know and haven’t a clue what it is all about.”

So there is still quite a lot in favour of the dead tree story. The long-term trend in church attendance is still downwards, and the prolonged and bitter arguments of the past 30 years, first about female clergy and later about openly gay ones, have made the church look stupid, even to itself.

Constitutional reform has whittled away at the links between church and state: if the House of Lords is reformed, there will be at most 12 bishops sitting in the new upper chamber; the next archbishop of Canterbury will be the first since the Reformation to be chosen entirely by the church, with no final veto resting with the prime minister. Attacks on the church’s position as a supplier of education, and on the saying of prayers in public institutions, such as at council meetings or in hospitals, are becoming more vehement. And the idea that England is, or ought to be, a Christian nation looks increasingly questionable. In a lot of places, such as the disillusioned vicar’s town, the CofE looks like the church of an England that no longer exists or is dying.

But at the same time, there are unmistakeable signs of growth in the roots. Parts of the church have adapted. Although the long-term trend has been downwards for 50 years, over the past decade attendance has been flat, and has been growing in cathedrals and in London.

Pete Wilcox is the dean of Lichfield cathedral, and will move shortly to Welby’s old job as dean of Liverpool. Last summer, the cathedral mounted an exhibition of an Anglo-Saxon gold hoard found outside the city, which dated from the first Christianisation of Mercia, in the eighth century, along with two of its own relics of St Chad, who led that missionary effort. It was fantastically successful, but it didn’t seem Christian at first: “For three weeks we ran absolutely full capacity. We could barely have crowbarred in a single visitor. But they came quite explicitly to see this exhibition. We had exhibited the gold alongside our own artefacts and the chronology enabled us to communicate.”

The visitors, as they left, were handed prayer cards. They could light a candle, and leave a request for prayer. The cathedral was astonished by the response to these. Apparently secular visitors filled out two or three times the normal volume of cards: “What we had for the three Sundays of the exhibition was an overflowing wicker basket, too many for us to read them all out. They were entirely the work of people who hadn’t come with any spiritual purpose in mind.”

The problem for the church is how to turn this kind of “spiritual but not religious” traffic into more committed believers when it is the committed believers who are very often the most off-putting factor for the uncommitted.

For a while, it seemed the personal qualities of Williams could bridge this gap. But though he was admired and even loved, the church seldom did anything he really wanted it to. He managed to make the church look better to outsiders, but he had less success making Christians think well of each other.

None of Williams’ potential successors have that charisma. Wilcox points out that when Williams goes, there will be no one on the bench of bishops who has been a full university professor – something else that has not been true since the Reformation.

In May, the bishops will meet for a last attempt to fine-tune the legislation that makes female bishops possible. This has dragged out for seven years now. They will be trying to make as much space as possible for those branches of the church that simply cannot accept that women can be priests or even bishops. The synod, which must approve the bishops’ tinkerings when it meets in July, is in a much less inclusive mood. To judge from the debates in February, it wants the irreconcilable opponents pruned from the church, rather than accepting women as perpetually second-class bishops. If all goes to plan, the first women will be consecrated as bishops next year. If everything goes wrong, then the legislation could go back to diocesan committees for another two years of wrangling over details.

Either way, the church still won’t look like an organisation. But away from the synods and all the archaic brittle grandeurs of establishment, it still seems to be alive, and even putting out fresh, strong shoots.