Asking Questions

Question MarkI remember during theological college being told over and over again about the importance of asking questions.  It is the central component of any genuine listening, it is core to forming authentic relationships, it is a key avenue for finding out how you can genuinely help or love anyone.  Questions, I was told, are important.  I agree.

I’m an extrovert by nature and I talk a lot (those who know me will verify!).  Learning to ask questions has, for me, meant learning to not jump to assumptions about what people are saying and to hold back on my responses until I’ve given them plenty of time to speak.  It has meant learning to own up to my ignorance or confusion about things people are saying so that I actually find the truth, rather than pretending to know what they’re talking about.  It has meant learning patience, humility and love.  These lessons have been learnt the most thoroughly, and led to the greatest benefit, in my most intimate relationships.  Right up there among them being my marriage.  Asking questions and (very importantly!) waiting to answers, even ones I don’t like, has deepened my relationships across the board.

So, what about in our most important relationship, the relationship that (for those who believe at least) defines all the others?  What about in our relationship with God?  Do we ask Him questions?  Do we wait for answers?

It was maybe 8 years ago that I remember first being struck by the idea that I could actually ask God questions and He might answer.  I’m not just talking about musing to myself over theological concepts or conundrums of life, but asking specific questions about everything from ‘who have you made me to be?’ to ‘what do you think about this person?’ to ‘what can I do to bless you today?’ or ‘what are you up to in this place today?’  If God is a distant being known only through words on a page then any questions we have we need to deal with amongst ourselves.  But if God is our Father who relates to us even so intimately as filling us with His Spirit – His very presence – then we’re in a two-way relationship and communication is open.  For me, this radically changed my faith.  A new life came into it along with a joy and dynamism because it no longer became simply about following precepts in a book, but about being aware every moment of the presence of my Father with me, speaking, loving and moving.

So why did it take so long?  I think because, probably like many others, I wondered whether God could really actually speak to me.  Would he?  How would I know if he did?  Understanding a few key things helped me with all this….

1. Jesus told us He would speak.  John 10:27: “My sheep listen to my voice, I know them and they follow me.”  If you’re a sheep you can hear.  From the first

Logo for the excellent pre-school at St Mary’s, Loughton

Word at creation through to Jesus answering his disciples’ questions away from the crowds, the Bible is full of God coming and speaking to His people.  Jesus’ promise was that if we’re a sheep we would hear – we can listen, be known (in relationship) and follow.  Not only can we hear God, but we can know that it is Him.

2. How do we know?  A major question for me was ‘How do I know it is not just me?  It feels too natural.’  Sometimes we’re waiting for a bolt out of the blue, an audible voice or writing in the sky.  Yet if we’re made for relationship with God then we are designed to hear His voice – it is natural.  God often speaks to me with words and phrases that pop in my mind because I’m a words person.  I know others who hear God through pictures because they think pictorially.  The imagination God has given us is a huge means by which He speaks and often it will seem like the most natural thing in the world.  So we don’t discount it from the outset….but how do we know?

3. Community, obedience and intimacy.  Not an exhaustive list, but three key parts of discerning God’s voice.  Intimacy – like any person, the better you know them the better you know their voice.  You get to know them by spending time with them and listening to them.  Give time to being with God, waiting for Him to speak, getting to know His character, what He’s like.  Obedience – listen and do it.  I learnt to recognise God’s voice as I began to try and follow it.  I made a choice to stop waiting until all my doubt was removed and what He may have said sufficiently analysed before acting on it – I began to act.  As I followed gentle promptings I began to discern more easily what was me and what was Him – it becomes fairly obvious as you walk it out!  Community – we don’t walk alone.  Talk to others who know Him well – ask them how they hear God speak – ask them to weigh up with you what you believe God is saying.  Look to Scripture.  The Bible is written by our community – God will say nothing that contradicts Scripture, though He may speak about things not explicitly in there (like who to marry, where to work, etc).

So, what do you think? Does God speak today?  Ask me any questions, let me know any thoughts, tell me how God speaks to you and what this means for you….I’d love to hear, so why not leave a comment or answer the poll and continue the conversation?

Shining like very English stars…

ShineMy posts so far have been fairly theological, today I’ve got something a bit more personal on my mind.  Well, personal for the Anglicans amongst us.

What with the appointment of Justin Welby as the new ABC and the shambles of the vote on women bishops, the Church of England has made a number of headlines recently.  Most of these have been somewhat predictable commentary and I’m not wanting to throw out another opinion on women in ministry right now.  I have actually been struck by something quite different.  Something that I feel I should have known, but has hit me afresh like a slap in the face, namely, that people not only see the Anglican church as marginal and harmless, but that is precisely what they like it for.  Anything that rocks the boat is an issue.

A few months ago I began reading The Week magazine (I’d thoroughly recommend it) and a couple of articles grabbed my attention.  In the light of Justin Welby’s appointment a whole page was given over to assessing Holy Trinity Brompton, the church where Welby came to faith.  The general tone of the article was highly critical of HTB and the Alpha course.  Critical because, on Alpha, “people at a low point in their lives” find themselves “love-bombed” by “friendly, smiley, tactile Christians”.  The problem is that HTB flies in the face of the Church of England’s “national character”.  How?  Because, where the CofE is prized for its “reassuring – if marginal – presence in every community”, “HTB’s evangelical charismatic approach, with its declarations of beliefs and encouragement of regular Bible study, is at odds with all that.”  In other words, a church that actively loves people who are in difficult situations, has a clear sense of belief, and encourages study of the Bible, is at odds with what is valued about the Church of England!

Just last night I gained another insight from the same magazine in reference to an interview with Ian Hislop.  He described being ‘born again’ whilst at school in a time when “The evangelical message spread like wildfire through the school.  Membership of the Christian Union swelled from 12 to 300.”  The number of boys having prayer meetings in dormitories and talking about having found faith left the staff “terribly worried.  You know, being sort of Church of England, people want a very quiet and moderate faith.”  The article ends by describing how, today, “Hislop’s faith is of a more traditional Anglican hue. ‘I go through periods of lack of enthusiasm and increasing doubt’.”

I am in no way wanting to criticise the church or to judge someone’s faith – Ian Hislop shared what is personal to him.  However, perhaps because I grew up in a lively and growing Anglican church, I have never really viewed the CofE in these terms.  These articles in a sense put in writing the attitude that I have noticed and suspected is held by many people in towns and communities across the nation (if they even think about the church at all).  My reaction has been multi-faceted….

– On the one hand it is fairly depressing!  That we have a reputation for being marginal, quiet, unenthusiastic and doubting is not the greatest commendation for a people originally accused of “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

St Mary's Church– Yet, there is also an encouragement.  Colours show far brighter against a grey background; words are heard more clearly in a quiet room.  I’m encouraged because the truth of the gospel of God’s love is seen in the way we love one another and faith is seen in the way we step out trusting God to move.  When so little is expected from us, it doesn’t take much for people to take notice.  I’ve seen the power of simple actions even over the last couple of weeks at St Mary’s in Loughton.  We held a Christmas Fayre where everything was given away for free: quality items; services like nail painting, family photos and face painting; food and drinks; and prayer.  A number of people were deeply impacted because they simply don’t experience this kind of love or generosity in many other places.  The next day several people came to church for the first time and one even came to faith.

Simple acts become more powerful and simple words more audible against the background of the ‘national character’ of the Church of England.  What excites me, however, is that this popular perception of the CofE is quickly becoming out of date.  As I look at the members of my local church family, my other clergy colleagues, the leaders in each diocese of which I’ve been a part, I see a multitude of people with strong faith, deep love and a desire to demonstrate and show the truth of the gospel.  The reality is we will cause offence for some who simply don’t want the church to make a sound, but for many who are seeking love, truth and God they will more than want to listen.