Holy cow?


Milton Keynes is well known for its concrete cows. Cows in a field would make a new town look idyllic thought the architects. But would farmers keep some cows nearby? Never mind, we’ll make fake cows so it looks right. But concrete cows are not right. They are fake.

Moses had a similar problem. Beware of Holy Cows.


Scanning through Facebook posts yesterday I noticed this quote from a friend:

[A] clergy person told me today that I should not just be good, I should be holy.

I immediately felt irritated and for good reason. I am always suspicious when spiritual leaders tell followers that they need to be holy or ‘more holy’.

The reason for this is that for the last twenty or so years I have noticed a pattern relating to such pronouncements.

A very respected leader came to our church conference. He spoke passionately about holiness as a prelude for revival. He left us all certain that we were far from holy. In a way, it put a guilt trip on us all. If only we could pursue holiness like the man who taught us…

Two months later that man was arrested for paedophile offences.

Another man came and repeatedly told us we were unworthy and needed to pursue holiness. He often left good people feeling guilty and unworthy.

He was arrested and jailed for fraud.

These are two examples but I know of many more.

According to Wikipedia:

David Yungi Cho is a Korean Christian minister. He is Senior Pastor and founder of the Yoido Full Gospel Church the world’s largest congregation with a claimed membership of 830,000 (as of 2007).

I have often heard him speak on holiness.

In February 2014, he was convicted for tax evasion, given a 3-year suspended prison sentence, and fined the equivalent of almost US$5 million.

The call to holiness is sometimes a tool of manipulation. If you can make a group of people feel guilty and unworthy, you can often get them to do things they would not normally do, in order to ‘prove themselves’. Usually this involves them giving money or time to further the manipulators ends.

So here’s a couple of thoughts on holiness.



– dedicated or consecrated to God or a religious purpose; sacred.

First of all, every human being is created in the image of God. That is quite a holy thing in my book. In that sense it is not what we do but who we are that makes us holy. When Jesus was accused by the ‘holier-than-thou-gang’, he didn’t big himself up so much as include us all as sons and daughters of God.

Jesus answered them, ‘Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods’? If he called them ‘gods’, to whom the word of God came – and the Scripture cannot be broken – what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?’ John 10:34-36

In spiritual terms, it is by seeking God that we come to share in his holiness. His Spirit is the Holy Spirit, so when we join ourselves to him we become one with his holiness.

‘But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit.’ 1 Corinthians 6:17

Some people think that holiness is wearing spotless clothes, going to a lot of church meetings and events, and stinging your enemies with a condemning Bible verse here and there. It isn’t. It soooo isn’t that!

Jesus was a real man. He hiked up mountains, went fishing, visited the poor, and spoke about being really alive.

The least, the last, and the lost all found a welcome from Jesus. He went to parties and dinners, and he was the life and soul of the party. He talked about all the stuff we talk about.

He spoke about children and fathers, money and debt, fishing, living and dying, marriage and divorce, childbirth, farming and the weather, governments and corruption, crime and punishment, telling the truth and lying, sex and adultery, food and wine, tax and fairness, work and rest, jewellery and investments, love and hate, climate change, earthquakes, famines and wars, Friends, Neighbours … Home and Away.

He talked about all the things we are still talking about today. And then he staggered the men and women he hung out with, in a single sentence.

‘If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.’

Living in the real nitty-gritty of life, with real ordinary people, laughing with those who laugh and weeping with those who weep – that is real holiness.

Pursuing God, reflecting on life, loving others, enjoying a sunset, rejoicing in nature, trying to make the world a little happier for someone else – that is real holiness.

Removing great burdens of guilt and shame from people’s backs – that is true holiness.

Being a complete Pharisee and telling others they don’t quite measure up to God’s expectations – that’s the work of the devil... because that does not bring life, it brings death and depression.

I think Ghandi said it best, ‘I would have become a Christian until I met one.’

Here endeth the lesson…


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The outsiders

alone I was chatting to a friend recently about not really fitting in with church. He pointed out that Jesus spent most of his time with the outsiders, the ones that didn’t fit in. The religious people of the day excluded the poor, the prostitutes, the Samaritans and all the others who didn’t fit with their strict criteria. If the Messiah was coming, surely he would visit the righteous, they thought. But when Jesus returned from his going out into the desert, he came to the synagogue and made the announcement to the religious people –

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me…’ (Luke 4:18)

He makes a speech about Jubilee – the blind see, debts cancelled, prisoners freed. They all say how wonderful he is.

‘And He began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’ So all bore witness to Him, and marvelled at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth. And they said, ‘Is this not Joseph’s son?’ He said to them, ‘You will surely say this proverb to Me, ‘Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in your country.”

Then Jesus tells them that, just as in the past, he isn’t coming for the religious but for those who don’t fit in. He lists some of the times God did that before.

‘But I tell you truly, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a great famine throughout all the land; but to none of them was Elijah sent except to Zarephath, in the region of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. (An outsider.) And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian. (An outsider.) So all those in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, and rose up and thrust Him out of the city; and they led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw Him down over the cliff. Then passing through the midst of them, He went His way.’ Luke 4:21-30.

Then the people got really angry with him and threw him out of town. But, actually, if you don’t fit in, or you’re a bit of an outsider, Jesus is good news.

At his birth he wasn’t found in the palace or even the hotel. He was found outside in a stable with a few farm workers, outsiders.

In his death, he wasn’t in the city, but outside the city wall. He came for the outsider. He identified with the outsider. And most of his miracles were done out on the street, with the outsiders – the least, the last and the lost.

So many people tell me of their struggles with Sunday church – feeling like a passive observer, watching an irrelevant performance, cringing at a shallow and often trite worldview.

We seem to have wandered far away from what Jesus left us in the Early Church – a group of people who just spent time together each day, who went about their daily routines, and yet transformed the world.

History is at a crossroads. Recent studies show that more than two thirds of Christians in the UK have left the Sunday morning event and gone off to explore a deeper more meaningful walk with Jesus. Something is happening in society. There is a sea change going on. It is time to be prophetic.

But we need not fear. Jesus comes to us outside. The Community of St Anthony is a scattered group of believers who are journeying in a more Celtic or monastic way with their faith.

If you sometimes feel you don’t fit in, you’re welcome to join us. There aren’t any services as such, but a meeting for coffee, or a walk, here and there, now and then, in twos and threes, and journeying online. This Christmas, even if we don’t fit in – especially if we feel we don’t fit in – Jesus comes to us with hope, healing and life.

The God Journey – NONES and DONES


This week I caught up with listening to the God Journey guys on their podcast. This episode is helpful not only to those exploring spiritualty beyond the Sunday Event, but it also explores the major change going on in the way people follow Jesus.

Highly recommended listening.

From their blog:

Where have all the people gone? Pew Research announced a couple of years ago about the rise of the “Nones”, those who no longer claim any religious affiliation. Now, there’s a growing conversation about the rise of the “Dones”, those who are leaving traditional Sunday morning congregations to find more authentic expressions of community. Research shows that these maintain a deep passion for God, but that it is unlikely that they will ever return. Brad joins Wayne as they talk about the research here as Wayne had an opportunity to speak with the lead researcher on this project. The research does not bode well for the future of traditional congregations.

Have a listen. See what you think.

Going out into the ‘desert’


The monastic life has always been seen austere, solitary, or celibate, not least because the Father of Monasticism, St Anthony the Great, began his journey into monastic life by going out into the desert to find God. His journey was therefore necessarily austere, solitary, and celibate. By contrast, my life is not austere and I am not celibate.

For me, the spiritual journey begins with solitude – the ‘going out into the desert’ to find God. I am not leaving home to live in a physical desert but I have withdrawn, I have pursued the solitude necessary to find God.

And some just don’t get it.

Backslidden! Heretic! Lost his faith

Such are the thoughts of my detractors.

But I am not the first to ‘go out into the desert to find God.’

There was a man called Moses who climbed Mount Sinai alone, to seek God’s face. He was gone for so long his followers set up an alternative religion while he was gone. Holy cow!

Joseph had an enforced desert experience in the pit, and then in prison, before becoming the Prime Minister of Egypt.

The Holy Spirit, we are told, drove Jesus into the desert before his ministry began.

These and countless others went out alone into the desert and sought the face of God.

‘What about fellowship?

‘What about Church on Sunday?

‘What about accountability?

‘What about being part of a community?

No doubt they faced similar questions. But the truth is, the going out into the desert is absolutely essential. It is there, in deep solitude, that we will hear the still small voice of God. It is there in the desert that we receive the call, the vision, and the empowerment.

‘Then Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee…’ – Luke 4:14

It is there in the desert, in the solitude, that God comes to call and empower.

The urban monastic life, therefore, straddles two worlds – the world of solitude and withdrawal, and the world of everyday life.

Strangely, it is not the chatter of the world, but the chatter of the faith-community that we need to silence – the quick fixes, the trite quotes, the shallow solutions and, frankly, the denial of the depth of God. All these voices must be stilled, and the only way is withdrawal.

When the clamour of shallow voices is finally hushed, then we may hope to hear the still small voice of God. If we truly want to be like Jesus, we would allow the Spirit to drive us out into our desert, into our place of solitude, to seek the face of God.

And here’s the thing – it’s not something you can pop out and do on a Thursday afternoon for an hour. It takes a long time.

It took Moses a long time. The people became impatient.

It took Jesus forty days.

It took St Anthony thirteen years!

It takes as long as it takes.

I have been journeying in this desert walk for three years. I think I have only just started.

Organised and institutional church is dying. People are leaving in droves, to pursue a more solitary walk with God. Something is happening. It’s a moment in history. It is time to hear the voice of God. It is time to journey into the desert. ___________________________________________________________

I have written about my journey into urban monasticism in  the book Excess Baggage:

Available in Paperback and on Kindle here

The pursuit of community


It’s been an interesting few days. I have been challenged recently about the importance of community in terms of pursuing our walk with God. At the end of last week, I thought that maybe that is what holds the old institutional church together. They do seem to have community at least once a week.

But then I read this article – The Rise of “The Dones” as the Church Kills Spiritual Community – and realised that what looks like community, actually often isn’t.

So where does that leave us?

Over the weekend, I had a call with an old friend – a retired vicar. We hadn’t been in touch for about a year. As we talked about a new sort of monasticism – the subtitle of my last book – he said that true monasticism is reflected in the life of St Anthony. It is a going out into the ‘desert’ to find God. It is from that finding God that a call or a leading comes. Then out of that calling or leading a community may form, as in the case of the Desert Fathers.

All this encourages me to continue to pursue this adventure of seeking God ‘in the desert.’

But it may also be time for a few of us to get together and share something of our journey. I am always interested in getting a coffee or going for a walk to chat and reflect with those on, or considering this journey.

The other thing my retired clergy friend did was to point me in the direction of the writings of Ray Simpson of Lindisfarne, and his books and downloads from his website may be of interest. Others had mentioned Ray Simpson to me, but this was the push to finally do a bit of research.

May this week be a week of new spiritual discovery for all of us.

Murmuration meditation…


Here’s a video of a murmuration of starlings. The question I want to ask as you watch this is – which bird is in charge? This phenomenon is a wonderful example of how a community can be led by the Holy Spirit with each playing their part but without organisation or hierarchy.

I think the early church was like this.

I meditate on this often.

We make the road by walking

WeMakeTheRoadCoverI am currently reading We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation and Activation by Brian D. McLaren. The author has been on the emerging church journey for many, many years and is often an inspiration for those seeking new expressions of their spirituality.

I wonder if those of us who meet up from time to time should read it and reflect on it, at the same time.

Basically he goes through the church year reimagining the various aspects of Christian teaching.

For example, in an early chapter about genesis is begins by talking about ‘aliveness’ – how the story of creation and the observation of nature speaks of God’s brimming life-giving personality. He then goes on to write about this ‘aliveness’ being in Jesus and how he clashes with the stifling restrictions of the Pharisees.

‘What we all want is pretty simple, really. We want to be alive. To feel alive. Not just to exist but to thrive, to live out loud, walk tall, breathe free. We want to be less lonely, less exhausted, less conflicted or afraid . . . more awake, more grateful, more energised and purposeful.’

And isn’t that what we are all looking for? Not only in spirituality but in life generally, don’t we long for ‘aliveness’?

The author has also included though/discussion points at the end of each chapter for those who are reading it as a group, or for individuals to keep a journal.

A few quotes:

On the early church:

‘… before Christianity was a rich and powerful religion, before it was associated with buildings, budgets, crusades, colonialism or televangelism, it began as a revolutionary non-violent movement promoting a new kind of aliveness on the margins of society. It dared to honour women, children and unmarried adults in a world ruled by married men.’

‘It had no bank accounts, but was rich in relationships and joy. It had no elaborate hierarchy and organisation, but spread like wildfire through simple practices of empowerment and self-organisation.’

As one review says on Amazon:

‘It isn’t the kind of book you can start at the beginning and read over a weekend. It is a pilgrimage. A journey. It’s a book that if you click with it will sit next to you for the next year and be part of you and your life . . . It made me think in ways I’d not thought before, some things weren’t mind-blowing, some things made me stop. It’s excellent as a starting place for journaling.’

The book is available for Kindle and in paperback on Amazon here.