Musings about the desert

man in desertSix months ago I started on a prayer journey, one that is leading me into the desert, one that is helping me to encounter God in fresh ways.

It was unfinished business that led me to this. I went through a time of depression in 2010 which took a long time to journey through to a place of healing. Near the start of that trough, I was given a prophetic picture that felt quite profound at the time. In this picture I was standing in a desert with strong, warm winds around me. I had a beard and yet no clothing except a cloak, with a staff in my hand. At the time the meaning seemed simple – that I was being stripped back and yet God hadn’t finished with me.

I have revisited that picture in my mind’s eye a number of times. Although I did find emotional healing for my wounds, even in the midst of busy church leadership, I think I have wondered if there was a deeper ‘call to the desert’ in that prophetic vision.

Well, this March I felt the nudge of the Spirit more strongly to turn aside and journey with the Lord into the wilderness. I grew a beard (a first for me!), I went off all social media, I carved out time to read about desert spirituality and I prayed more – asking God to take me on a wilderness journey.

I am enjoying the experience so far. I have not yet actually gone into a desert, just found solitude and some lonely spaces. I am learning from some of the wilderness saints of old, for their desert was both one of their own hearts and also a prophetic journey.

For me, I know that I need to let Him help me deal with the poverty of my heart, and find the treasure of His presence there.

I choose to stand in the strong winds of the Spirit and cross currents of life circumstances, and be strengthened in the midst. I have a beard to identify with the Nazarite sense of setting oneself apart for God more than previously. I unclench my fists from my wants and desires to receive the gift of a cloak which He wraps around me – His righteousness, holiness and anointing. I stop trying to lean on external props and unhelpful crutches, that I may become secure in God alone and take hold of His staff of authority.

It was said of John the Baptist that ‘he grew and became strong in spirit, and he lived in the wilderness…’ (Luke 1v80).

This desert prayer journey for me is quite profound, even though it seems at odds with some of the prophetic sense of God’s work in the nation, expectancy of spiritual awakening, and shaking in the nation. Yet I trust it will reap dividends for me and maybe for others too. I am on parallel journeys of, on one hand pressing in in prayer for God’s glory to be revealed in our nation, and on the other turning aside personally, to wait for the Lord in the wilderness.

As Catholic devotional writer Alessandro Pronzato says,

“The crowded bus, the long queue, the railway platform, the traffic jam, the niehgbours’ television sets, the heavy-footed people on the floor above you, the person who still keeps getting the wrong number on your phone. These are the real conditions of your desert. Do not allow yourself to be irritated. Do not try to escape. Do not postpone your prayer. Kneel down. Enter that disturbed solitude. Let your silence be spoilt by those sounds. It is the beginning of your desert.”

So this aspect of my blog is journalling a few things I am learning on this desert prayer journey. I will write about other things too, but will mark similar writings with a ‘desert and pilgrimage’ tag. You are welcome to read my musings as ever; personal though they may be, they may resonate with something of your journey.

God bless.

 

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Brief pilgrimage to Iona

P1010210

Copyright Janet Schofield “Fionnphort Mull 2004”

It’s been two years since I finished a sabbatical. And two years later I now find myself visiting Iona on pilgrimage, an idea which was seeded in me those months ago.

With our children on Christian camp and my wife taking a creative weekend craft workshop, I decided to clear the diary at the end of July for three days. I sped up the motorway to catch the Oban to Mull ferry. Once across, I tried to unwind as I took in the beautiful scenery along the country roads the length of Mull, parked the car and took the Fionnphort passenger ferry across the sound to Iona – the last one of the day.

I need to reflect on spiritual benefits the short retreat gave to me, but five things made an immediate impression:

IMG_1997Firstly, the sense that I was a pilgrim. A day’s journey, where I prayed on and off, helped me quickly move into a place of slowing down and stillness. I was coming to an island, completely off the beaten path of modern civilisation, but on a well trod path of other seekers and prayer-ers. Amongst families and organised tourist groups, I mingled with many others who, like me, were making their own spiritual journeys. We rubbed shoulders in the guest houses, on the ferry and in the prayer chapels, giving each other respect and space to be with God.

P1010132Secondly, the feeling that Iona was a holy place. Christian places of prayer, both ruined and current, engendered a spiritual atmosphere. I walked past many celtic crosses and read many stories of the early Celtic monks. Iona is iconic, one of a handful of ancient monastic centres in Britain, which was set apart for prayer, for reading and copying of scripture, and for a simple, serving lifestyle that brought glory to God for centuries.

 

P1010112Thirdly, the evidence of a missionary spirit. St Columba and his companions made a monastic base on the island, so the stories tell, but the vibrant afterglow of the Christian missionary endeavour even 1,500 years later is hard to miss. Walking in the graveyard next to the abbey, I was moved by the evidence of holy lives laid down for Christ, of kings who were so influenced by these monks that they were brought in pomp to their final resting place, and of this being the serendipitous launching pad for the gospel to spread through Scotland and into England.

P1010129Fourthly, the realisation that it was an easy place to pray. I joined 150 other pilgrims for evening communion in the abbey, from all walks of life and faith. We sang by the mix of setting sun and candlelight and broke bread together simply and profoundly. On Iona, whether in a chapel, on a meandering path, or sat upon a beach, I found it a very conducive place to speak to and listen to God. The anticipation of a spiritually ‘fruitful’ time can sometimes lead to an anticlimax in the moment itself, but here encountering the Holy Spirit happened quite naturally and wonderfully.

P1010149-EditFifthly, the experience of a gentle wilderness. Crossing two islands, taking nothing more than hand luggage, and with no mobile signal anywhere, I felt as though I was leaving normal civilisation behind and coming to a different world. Even the isolation and simple ruggedness of the island carried with it the call of wild and an uncanny sense of God. Despite a small resident community living a fairly modern lifestyle, you can walk a short distance across grassland and sit ‘on the edge of the world’ gazing out on the vast Atlantic ocean.

All of this has been very helpful for me as I am on a spiritual ‘desert prayer journey’ this year. I hope there will be more to write on this in the coming months. What a privilege to be able to travel so freely on pilgrimage, something readily available yet something I rarely take the time to do.P1010155

 

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Reflecting on summer sabbatical time

reflection-learning-300x199Most of us measure time in segments – seasons, years, holidays, birthdays. Often individual months can drift by without sensing their importance for us or being aware of how we have used the time.

The summer of 2014 will be memorable for me, as I was privileged to take a three month time out of usual responsibilities as a church leader. The time of June to August was a change of pace. I didn’t stop working totally, but wrote, dedicated time to hobbies, sought God about this season of my life and spent quality time with my family. It was time very well spent. When I reflect back on it there are many lessons I felt God was teaching me. The three most timely ones I think also may apply to you:

God has His hand upon your life

During the summer I was hoping to find some spiritual renewal in my faith. I was a bit weary; a four year battle to overcome  depression was a still carrying lingering effects; I knew my heart had a habit of closing down to God and others when I was stressed. I didn’t know what conference or counselling opportunity could help bring fresh healing and personal vision. Well God had a surprise in store! The fortnight before my sabbatical myself and three friends attended a house of prayer networking conference in Europe. I went with a ‘work head’ on, but God chose there to minister deeply into my heart. Four three days I couldn’t stop crying during worship or in the prayer room. Past regrets, disappointments, tiredness was so profoundly washed away in the sense of the Lord’s presence and healing. A new experience of the Father’s love for me opened up my heart in a very beautiful way and the veil of sadness from past depression was lifted from my emotions. It was truly a spiritual encounter…and I hadn’t even started my sabbatical! The experience has changed my and meant my next few months were full of purpose rather than seeking for a watering hole.

What this says to me is that God has his hand so clearly on my life. He knows my needs and how and when He needs to work with me. Most times I am not so aware of that fact, and that might be true for you too. Yet there are these wonderful times and seasons where He underlines the truth that he is ordering our steps and profoundly involved in our days and destiny. The Psalmist’s realisation about God in Psalm 139 was that ‘You have laid Your hand upon me’ and ‘that knowledge is too wonderful for me’! 

God is interested in your dreams

I had planned two special things during this sabbatical time. The first was to take time to develop my photography hobby. I was able to take a day a week to wander and travel a bit to take landscape pictures and get a bit better at it. It has been an interest of mine for a while and it felt so good to give quality time to my hobby. Being in the midst of nature and trying to capture it on camera was fun! I lost track of time as I was in the ‘zone’ so often and enjoyed seeing some improved progress. The other dream was to take an extended family vacation in America. We had talked about it for a few years, to go to the west coast when the children were old enough to appreciate and remember it well. It all came together in August for 16 days. We did a fly drive and toured from LA up the west coast all the way to Seattle. So many memories and experiences, from the them parks to national parks, from cities to rural small towns, from interstate highways to hairy mountain roads. It was a family trip of a lifetime so far! 

What all this underlined for me is that God is really invested in your dreams. The longings and desires that are deep in our hearts are known by the Lord. Not everything I have longed for has come to pass, yet these two interests and desires of mine have been fulfilled. If God has made us, that also includes placing good dreams and desires in us, with the view that He can help us achieve them. There was a struggle to find time and finance to do these things for me; dreams don’t often come to us on a plate! What is interesting for me is that neither photography or the holiday were ‘spiritual’ dreams, but He seemed pleased with them and blessed them beyond words. As Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 3v19: ‘God is able to do more than we can ask or imagine’! Let’s keep our dreams alive.

God has an unswervable purpose for our world.

My other focus in June and July was writing about the future, about End Times, Jesus’ return and some spiritual themes around those topics. God has prompted me again and again to dig into these things in order to understand them better and communicate them to others. So a short book has come together over the last few weeks. What has come through to me in this studying and writing is that God has a clear and sovereign purpose for humanity and for the earth as a whole. I was discovering afresh that this plan is revealed throughout the bible and seen most clearly in the coming of Jesus. The logic of His first coming – life, death, resurrection and ascension – brought in a kingdom life that has been at work in our world ever since. My fresh reading about the future shows that the Christian gospel includes an amazing finale – Jesus coming again to finish what He started and sort out the messes of our world and reign in power and love.  

This truth is always relevant and gives Christians hope even in the face of evil and struggle. It might be very helpful in the light of current world crises and conflicts. When we are not sure how good can triumph over some of the evils we see, we can remind ourselves that God will finish the work of salvation He has started. I read in my bible readings yesterday the famous passage in Isaiah 9 about ‘to us a child is born’. Verse seven at the end of the reading struck me most: ‘Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, He will reign on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this’. God is serious about His kingdom and zealous about bringing about His plan of salvation.

Of course, this is the bigger picture we find ourselves in. God helps us to know that His hand is on our lives for our good. He takes our dreams and desires and helps us find fulfilment in many of them. And all this is within the greater context of a world in which God is working out His good and greater plans. 

So reflecting on this summer, I find that the months have been full and significant. As I return to normal routines, I wish I could be as aware of every month is such a vivid way. I find myself praying with the Psalmist again, here in Psalm 90v12: ‘teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom’.

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Fascinating Revelation!

revelation_churchesSecond week into my sabbatical and I am still dipping in and out of Beacon things that I need to around for and people I want to be with. Still I am carving out a couple of days for study & reflection. Writing on my forerunner book starts in earnest next week. Right now I am preparing for Thursday evening’s Forerunner school of ministry at the Beacon (no 5 out of 6). This is the raw material from which I will be writing.

This week we are looking at the book of Revelation. I have been a bit more anxious about this one, because people are coming on the course to learn and I am usually just one step ahead each time, enough to teach & help people orientate themselves through End Times Christian thinking. I am encouraged that I have moved forward quite a bit in understanding the themes and structure of this last book in the bible recently, the one that often daunts people. Some folk have said to me that they just don’t understand Revelation, or are afraid or put off by the imagery from delving into it more.

I have to say that, from being like that in the past, I am beginning to love this book. Two years ago I tried, on advice, to read Revelation through every week for about four months. That gave me a familiarity with the text and narrative. These last few weeks I have again read and re-read the book, examining the breakdown of the chapters, reading other commentaries, making sense of the imagery, gaining some confidence in understanding the sequence of events before and around Jesus’ return. I am balancing out this study with my regular bible readings and am looking forward to reading Revelation with the group this Thursday, as wisdom is best discerned in community.

Yet the one thing I keep finding is that my heart burns within! I find myself inwardly excited about these still-shadowy realities. I feel close to John the Divine as he watches and sees and experiences these overwhelming visions. I burn to know, not just the End Time timeline, but the God who is sovereign over it all. And I long to be a clearer voice concerning these things, even when they are not particularly popular in the UK church to chat about.

For any who are trying to get into this book, don’t hold back, but pray your way into a deeper encounter with the Jesus of Revelation and understanding His ways. I am certainly finding it fun and awesome too!

Blessings, William

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A change of pace

20140602-202428-73468599.jpgA change of pace for me for the next few months!

After 16 years as a Methodist minister I am just now taking a three month sabbatical.
The time never seemed right before but, after various prompts, it feels a good opportunity now. Apart from feeling a bit anxious about stepping back from things at the house of prayer, I am relishing the possibility of space and different focus for a bit.

I am going to use some of the time to write up the Beacon Forerunner End Times course as a draft book for publishing. I am also going to use my camera to explore some landscape photography. Hopefully Karen and I can get some more time together and be renewed spiritually, and we look forward to having August clear for some special family holidays.

I will try to blog how these coming weeks progress, especially as I put pen to paper about this forerunner call to help prepare people for Jesus’ 2nd coming. I am praying that God will lead me and shape me and bless my family and friends too, in this season.

Blessings
William

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HOP gathering in Europe

augsburg hopI have just returned from Augsburg, Bavaria in South Germany, from a prayer summit. With my friends Paul, Kev & Katie, we spent four amazing days with 120 leaders of houses of prayer across Europe. 42 HOPs, 20 nations, every denominational stream – an awesome mix of variety but with the same DNA! Everyone is following God’s call to grow night and day worship and prayer in specific places for the sake of cities and nations.

I was a bit blown away by the sense of significance of the gathering. We went to connect with likeminded people and we certainly did. We met some beautiful people with very moving stories of how God has led them on a prayer journey over the years; some great miracles and costly sacrifice. God’s presence was strong amongst us. I was personally touched afresh by God’s amazing love which keeps freeing my heart to grow in Him and in my destiny.

The Augsburg HOP team blessed us beyond expectation and they are a powerful example of a dedicated space with continuous corporate worship and intercession since 2010 – and from a Catholic charismatic stream.

Paul, Kev & Katie with new friends Tom, Christiana, Jeremy and Alice

Paul, Kev & Katie with new friends Tom, Christiana, Jeremy and Alice

We have come away feeling very much part of a Holy Spirit movement with a growing momentum across our great continent. We are looking to see the glory of God cover the earth.

As the song says: ‘Day and night, night and day, let incense arise!’

Hallelujah!

William

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Stepping up, wising up, growing up

245_Stepping_upI haven’t blogged my reflections on life in the last two months. Not that I haven’t been thinking, far from it, but we have been living a busy and interesting journey in the city and as a family.

Last month our city churches hosted a national conference on ‘Transformation – it’s our time’. Great connections with Christian here and oversees who have a similar heart to see Gods kingdom breaking out more in society. Also a significant prayer journey leading up to the conference for various people locally. There was a focussing of attention on how to nurture a spiritual environment here in our city where God can move – to believe and act on a vision for community transformation. We are growing up in faith.

Yet this talk of transformation is in a society not without its challenges. A nation in which civil rights and God established principles on sexuality clash and where brokenness and moral meandering measure our path. Transformation is much desired but not necessarily with God in the midst of it. In surveying these things, we are wising up.

This month our daughter finished junior school. Good grades, large scale shows, special parties, prize giving, group hugs and photos – it was all a fantastic way of finishing a year and ending that season of her life. It’s not all easy of course, the thought of ‘big school’, an unfamiliar taster day, the reality of missing her friends, the end of the familiar and comfortable routines. But we were proud of her and her friends as they took their bows and said their farewells. They are stepping up into a new phase of life.

That’s where I find myself at the moment, in my city and with my loved ones, and how often that is how God leads us. He holds our hand through the turn of chapters, calls us to grow up and take responsibility for ourselves and our society and embody the faith we believe in. Much challenge, much grace, much reward… If we wise up, step up and grow up in our faith.

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Making sense of God’s call

thinkingI’ve been musing about many things in recent weeks because there has been much in the news and in the world around to try and make sense of.
I’ve shared in the sense of shock surrounding terrorist attacks in Boston USA and in Woolwich closer to home.
I’ve followed with pain the parliamentary debates and national mood about redefining marriage.
I’ve noticed areas of promising regeneration in our city and passed through derelict streets and decaying local centres.
I’ve enjoyed celebrating friends’ weddings and birthdays and also sat with others friends coming to terms with cancer and serious illness.
I’ve stood in strong faith with others praying for spiritual transformation across communities and yet been challenged by people around me far more fervent for God than I have been in past weeks.

And in the midst of all this normal flux of good and bad, joy and pain in this world we inhabit, I try to come to terms with a forerunner calling and destiny. The reason I started this blog was to reflect on faith, life and ultimate things. I grow in conviction that the 2nd coming of Jesus is closer than we think – maybe not immediate but only decades away. Just as John the Baptist was a forerunner declaring a simple message before Jesus’ ministry 2000 years ago : ‘prepare the way for the Lord’, so too there will be many voices united in a similar call in the closing years of human history.

Many times I don’t know what to do with this sense of God’s call to me. I shy away from saying it too much to those around me for fear of sounding like a stuck record. I also think I struggle with the radical nature of this message. It’s radical in the sense of being an unusual focus. It’s also radical because it is essentially prophetic and future oriented – these things haven’t happened yet. I am also reticent about these things because of sounding wacky and unbalanced – in an age of fear of extremism, there is a cost to being a forerunner. In addition I sometimes worry about the possibility of being plain wrong – I might not be hearing from God at all and just projecting my own internal thoughts about the future.

I think too that it is easier not to concentrate on such things because it requires hard work – in thinking, discerning, reading and praying to understand a new area of theology for me (eschatology/ end times) – and a reassessment of priorities and lifestyle. I still like my comfort and an unruffled life, which of course is an illusion anyway.

So, even in the light of these uncertainties and life around me, this forerunner conviction grows. I do hope I am not the only one feeling this. Time will tell.

One afternoon last week, when I was concerned about the cost of pursuing this call, I happened to be reading Mark 13v34 when Jesus speaks of the day and hour of his return being a mystery. He still tells his disciples to be ready and even calls for the one at the door to watch. The name for that person is a ‘porter’. Well I happened to take that quite personally, as God’s gentle challenge, imbued in my surname, to be one of those who will watch in faith for the signs of Jesus’ return.

I hope that might be an encouragement to any who are either wrestling about God’s call on your life, to keep wrestling with it and not to bury it. The may also be others who God is similarly speaking a forerunner word and prophetic understanding. I somehow don’t think it is going to go away!

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Faith to overcome

ImageWhen I knew that two Nigerian bishops were going to visit our house of prayer, I was really looking forward to meeting them. I knew that the church in their country was growing fast, but I also knew from the BBC news and broadsheet reports that there are ongoing terrorist attacks against Christian congregations that could threaten to destabilise the country. So I was keen to hear how God’s work was going and concerned to find out how they were coping with fear and stress of intimidation and attacks.

So bishops Sunday and Simeon arrived in their ecclesiastical finery and we gladly hosted and showed them round our prayer rooms. Then conversation turned to my questions on their welfare.

Their response fascinated me. Yes, churches are growing, new congregations being planted and many people coming to faith. Yes, terrorist attacks are a problem; churches have suffered but the threat is less than news reports say and far away from their districts. They seemed surprised to hear my concern, for their eyes are more on the kingdom and less on the problems.Image

However the two bishops in turn expressed concern for the church of the UK. They saw the British church as their parent and were aware of her ailing health. So they quizzed us whether the spiritual fire is still burning in our congregations, and whether young people are still coming to know the Lord. We were touched and likewise sought to reassure them of much good news in our country going against the current of the secular tide – of spiritual health and focus on mission and hope in God’s transforming power.

So there we were, two parts of the body of Christ expressing concern for the other’s welfare. Different situations, contrasting challenges, particular issues to overcome. One facing threats and intimidation, the other secular marginalization of belief. Both real and both needing courage to rise and live out our faith in God.

Jesus calls us all to be overcomers, not just in personal life, but as the collective body of Christ. In the book of Revelation he challenges a variety of churches to overcome – overcome threats, temptation, deception, division, apathy – so that they can gain eternal reward of reigning with Jesus (Revelation chs 2&3). We see the need for the persecuted church across the world to be strengthened and encouraged. They see the need for the Western church to be full of faith and radical in sharing the gospel. Let us all be aware of our own need for God’s grace and power to overcome and be grateful for the prayers of our brothers and sisters across the world.

In the words of Hebrews 10v24: ‘let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds’. We can all be overcomers.

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Tackling trees and other challenges!

loppersWe’ve been putting it off for a few months…knowing that the back border needs tackling in our garden. One tree dead and another overgrown conifer trespassing onto the patio. So last Wednesday we set at the task. My wife cutting the small branches and I doing the heaver labour, armed with small loppers and a spade.

We went through a gamut of thoughts over the next two hours. ‘It’s not so hard, just some small trees….oh, these branches are bigger than we thought…the loppers won’t go through this…maybe we should get a professional in…we won’t give up yet…don’t know how all this foliage will fit in the car…phew the branches are off, now for the roots…they won’t budge…at all…excavating around the tree…snipping off the small roots…no movement…can’t see what’s holding it…ah, some big ones now…one by one…it’s shifting…round the other side…chopping wearily now…loosening…sheer brute force now…over and on its side…one last tug…out!’

Well we’ll think twice about breezily taking on such trees again (I strained some forearm tendons in the process!) but we did it. There was, and is, great satisfaction about overcoming challenges that seem bigger than us. Whether it is a work project, or rocky patch in a marriage, or financial struggle or longstanding fear, with God’s help we can find reserves of determination, love, hope and faith to conquer things we thought impossible.

Jesus encouraged faith that could take on huge challenges – “say to this mountain, ‘move from here to there,’ and it will move” (Matthew 17v20). I don’t think Jesus was meaning easy faith, for he himself wrestled in prayer at different occasions. But he did mean overcoming faith. As the elderly apostle John wrote, ‘everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith’ (1 John 5v4).

We will enjoy a better view down the garden, and decisions about new shrubbery now. And in other aspects of life conquering challenges through faith and perseverance opens up the way for new growth and opportunities. What might God be encouraging you to tackle and overcome in this season of your life?

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