Category Archives: The call of God

A brief history of civilisation

As we near the end of the City of God something of its epic ambition is really starting to hit me. It is a phenomenal book, charting history, philosophy, Greek gods, the rise and fall of Rome, the repeated conquering of the known world.

As we near the end (Book 18 of 22), you expect the pace to slacken off, easing into the final straight. Instead the 80 pages of Book 18 are encyclopaedically expansive. We are treated to a view from Augustine, probably writing in 426AD, of the entire history of human society since the founding of cities to his present day. The reigns of rulers and kings are recorded from Augustine’s extensive records and compared with the equivalent sequence of events in the history of Israel.

Rather than recount all that here, I want to focus on two key themes that emerge and have striking relevance for today. Firstly, our intrinsic desire to deify ourselves, and secondly the purposeful intermingling of the heavenly and earthly cities. These two themes shed light on the difference between the two cities.

In charting the origins of many of the so called Greek Gods Augustine shows how people elevate others who achieve some spectacular feat, incredible military victory of undertake some form of quest. He notes that “ceremonies in honour of false gods were established by the king of Greece” during the time of Joshua.

The recurring theme is that people want to be more than human. Whether it is an origin story like Romulus & Remus being raised by a she-wolf, or a mythical tale of “Gorgon with serpent locks and turned to stone those who looked upon her” there is the repeated desire to ascend from this mortal body and live forever among the gods. Often on pain of death societies would reinforce the divine nature of these ascended super-humans as they wrote plays and invented ceremonies to celebrate and replay the legends to rapt audiences.

It got me thinking how we still have this desire to ascend. It is perhaps expressed differently today but the impulse is still strong. Just today there was a football match where a successful player was retiring and the eulogies had religious undertones – how this legend would never be forgotten by the fans, effectively living forever, immortal in their collective consciousness.

Similarly hosts of actors are effectively immortalised through the silver screen by their work to live on beyond their years as downloadable content for fans not yet born. We cannot escape the human attraction of becoming like God, even after all these centuries since that false promise was made in the Garden of Eden. Then, as now, it is an empty aim, disappearing as quickly as grasping the morning mist. We just can’t lift ourselves up to become more like God.

By contrast the City of God is all about a people who are not being lifted up to possess unnatural abilities, but are being pressed down to experience pain and suffering as they go about their very human pilgrimage to heaven. This is our second theme. The intermingling of the two cities leads to the church suffering from outward attack:

In this wicked world, and in these evil times, the Church through her present humiliation is preparing for future exaltation. She is being trained by the stings of fear, the tortures of sorrow, the distress of hardship, and the dangers of temptation; and she rejoices only in expectation, when her joy is wholesome.

XIII.49

And inward division from false teachers:

There are those in the Church of Christ who have a taste for some unhealthy and perverse notion, and who if reproved – in the hope that they may acquire a taste for what is wholesome and right – obstinately resist and refuse…they become heretics and, when they part company with the Church, they are classed among the enemies who provide discipline for her.

XIII.51

This is profound teaching, and as someone who grieves for the state of the visible church in the west, I am greatly encouraged to read:

The dearer this name (Christian) is to those who want to live a devout life in Christ, the more they grieve that evildoers within the Church make that name less beloved than the hearts of the devout long for it to be.

XIII.51

It is ok to grieve for the state of the church – Augustine sees this as part of our persecution in this world – and have our hearts broken by the sinfulness within the church. Reading this book, I realise there would probably be something wrong with us if we didn’t care about the purity and health of the church. The key is to balance this with the the comfort of God and to draw deeply from the wells of salvation so that we can say with the psalmist “you’re consolations have gladdened my soul” Psalm 94.19. This will ensure our sufferings are redeemed for our good.

A message from the Oracle

In a scene from one of my favourite films Neo is anxiously waiting for a message from the Oracle – an all wise guru who he believes will tell him his destiny. It is one of the key moments in The Matrix and drives to the core of our hero’s self discovery. Is he really “the one” or just another wannabe?

As he sits in the waiting room surrounded by kids bending spoons he suddenly appears uncertain, inexperienced and bemused. What the prophet says to him only adds to his confusion. It appears the path of his destiny is not as clear as he thought it would be after meeting the Oracle.

If the focus of The Matrix is the self-discovery of the chosen one through a vague Oracle, the focus of the Bible is rather a decisive Oracle declaring great promises to chosen people. In Book 16 of the City of God Augustine traces the separation of the people of God from the people of the earthly city – beginning in Adam, to Noah and then Abraham and his descendants.

Augustine compares this period to “the boyhood of this race of God’s people from Noah down to Abraham himself. As the people of God began to be identified from their kin:

When we are studying the people of Christ, in whom the City of God is on pilgrimage in this world, if we look for the physical ancestry of Christ in the descendants of Abraham, we discount the sons of his concubines, and Isaac presents himself. If we look in the descendants of Isaac, we set aside Esau, and Jacob presents himself, who is also Israel. If we examine the descendants of Israel himself, we set aside others, and Judah presents himself, because it was from the tribe of Judah that Christ was born.

XVI.41

So we see this sifting of a family from among a people, of a brother from his siblings, and the younger being favoured over the older. To each is given precious promises of land, a people and prosperity.

Only in King David did this come to fruition, for “David marks the beginning of an epoch and with him there is what maybe called the start of manhood of God’s people, since we may regard the period from Abraham to David as the adolescence of the race”.

What strikes me about looking at these passages through Augustine’s eyes is the deliberate detail that he picks up in the ancient record. At one point he points out that the line from Adam to Noah to Abraham “does not include anyone without a statement of the number of years he lived”. God took effort to ensure there is an accurate and detailed history of the early growth of the City of God – names, ages, locations, promises and answers are all given in detail.

Looking back from thousands of years later, during what we might call the “setting sun” stage of our growth, it’s comforting to rest on the certainty of fulfilled promises from the original Oracle, and observe the global inheritance of Abraham now being displayed for all to see. There is no counting of the number of believers alive today – millions around the world who shine like the stars in heaven.

“He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”” Genesis‬ ‭15:5‬. Abraham believed the clear message of the original Oracle – the true hallmark of all those citizens of the heavenly kingdom who would follow in his footsteps down through the ages.

The right and wrong cause of conflict

Looking back over the last few weeks we have touched on some big themes – some of which we like to talk about, others we try to avoid. I’ll let you decide which is which!

I was struck when reading Book 15 of the City of God this week that there are really insightful lessons for us on a key topic that perhaps we don’t like talking about but is an inevitable part of being human – conflict.

In this section Augustine traces the early days of the earthly and heavenly cities, right back to their founding fathers Cain and Seth. He sees the conflict between Cain and Abel as a picture or symbol of the conflict that will always exist between the two cities.

As we trace Cain’s descendants they are the first to establish a physical city on earth. He compares this to how Rome was founded by two brothers, one of whom killed the other. Augustine contrasts the evil jealousy of both sets of brothers with the goodness experienced in the heavenly city:

Cain was the diabolical envy that the wicked feel for the good simply because they are good, while they themselves are evil. A man’s possession of goodness is in no way diminished by the arrival, or the continuance, of a sharer in it; indeed, goodness is a possession enjoyed more widely by the united affection of partners in that possession in proportion to the harmony that exists among them.

XV.5

He goes on to explain that the members of the earthly city “fight among themselves; and likewise the wicked fight against the good and the good against the wicked. But the good, if they have reached perfect goodness, cannot fight against themselves”.

Thus we see that there will always be conflict between the citizens of the two cities as well as conflict within the earthly city as it fights itself. Moreover, we know that no citizen of the heavenly city has reached perfection so “there may be fighting among them inasmuch as any good man may fight against another as a result of that part of him which makes him also fight against himself”. He goes on to say

Spiritual desire can fight against the carnal desire of another person, or carnal desire against another’s spiritual desire, just as the good and wicked fight against one another. Or even the carnal desires of two good men may fight.

XV.5

There is much more in Book 15 worth exploring, including a fascinating explanation of the long length of life before the flood, incest and giants. But that is for another day! The jewel that I would hold up before us is this brief dive into the types of conflict, summarised as:

  • Earthly city infighting
  • Earthly and heavenly city fighting each other
  • Individuals within heavenly city fight with themselves against their own sinful nature
  • Spiritual desire of one person fights against carnal desire of another (within the heavenly city)
  • Carnal desires of two good men fight against each other

While the first and the last in the list are ultimately ungodly conflict, the other three causes could have a godly purpose and motivation. Indeed, there can be no progress towards perfection without conflict – either in the individual or the church. There are remnants of the sinful (carnal) nature in all of us, even the most godly.

What this tells me is that in vain do we seek a life free of conflict, whatever city we belong to and whatever our need for peace and calm. We should expect conflict, welcome it (to some extent), and learn from it in order to grow in godliness and spiritual maturity.

Choosing a life void of conflict, with comfort or any other object as our goal, is choosing a life of spiritual stagnation. The key question I leave this section of the book with is this…will I live determined to be driven and controlled only and ever by my spiritual desires throughout any and all conflict I experience? Whilst I naturally avoid conflict, if when it comes, I can keep this as my spiritual north, then the conflict will be redeeming and healing whenever it arrives and wherever it leads.

“Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.”
‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭4:5‬ ‭NIV‬‬

The world in front of you is nothing like the world behind you

If there is one book that has incapsulated the journey I have been on in the last 15+ years it has been Canoeing The Mountains by Tod Bolsinger. I only read it three years ago, but little did I realise I had been experiencing the reality of its challenge long before Tod articulated it for me.

It was the summer of 2017 and I was sitting in Cafe Nero riveted to Tod’s description of explorers Lewis & Clark. They set out in 1803 to map the western part of America, an expanse previously unknown and assumed to hold a water course to the Pacific Ocean. Tod interlaces this analogy of exploration with the steady marginalisation of the church in western civilisation.

The beauty of what Tod does in this book is that he is able to draw insightful parallels from their unexpected adventures in the wilderness with the monumental shifts that have taken place in society’s relationship with the church.

The gems in this book are too rich to summarise in a soundbite, they reward the thoughtful. This book deals with how to lead transformational change within an organisation when all around us is shifting. In the military they call it VUCA – volition, uncertain, complex & ambiguous. How do we lead change in a VUCA world?

What kind of leader do we need to be in order to both care for people and lead them into uncharted territory?

I have found its wisdom has remained with me these last few years. It calls us to not remain in the shallows but cast out for deeper waters abandoning our preconceived assumptions of what life would hold. Complete surrender is the goal, letting go of the need to gain approval or acceptance.

Stepping in to the unknown will mean we let go of our human resource to find all sufficiency in God’s provision – often in the unlikeliest of places & the least listened to people.

Reflecting on this book helped me to see two things clearly that I will be forever thankful for:

I need to care less about what people think of me – I surrender my need for approval

I need to care less about the problems causing the decay – I surrender my need for control

This is the fifth book review ahead of Thrive Scotland 2020, a catalyst conference starting on 9th September for encouraging Christians in the workplace.

The father’s heart for authentic living

A review of Unravelled by Jon Peterson

Unravelled is the fourth book in my Recommended Reading ahead of Thrive Scotland conference in September 2020…and it is the most hard hitting so far. This book is part manifesto for a renewed vision for a 21st century way of being church, and part guidebook to experiencing unshakable spiritual security in the Father’s love.

This book came to mind as I was doing some amateur stone dyking in my garden. I wanted to jump straight to rebuilding the wall and filling in the gaps…but before I could do this I had to do the hard, boring, dirty work of removing soil, weeds and small stones from the collapsed section.

In exactly the same way Jon expertly deconstructs our false thinking about leadership, authority and spirituality in western church culture. As a master surgeon he splits our skin with his scalpel in order to extract the tumour. And some of it is close to the bone as a result – this is a deep examination of our motives and hidden drivers for how and why we do ministry.

If we would see churches and workplaces transformed by the power of the gospel some deep surgery may be required. We all know churches have individual characteristics that express the gifts and flaws of their family makeup…are we ready to put ourselves on the operating table in order to become more like Christ together?

One of the key questions I have found this book making me ask myself is how do shift from “attending” to “belonging”?

The first authentic step I found fairly painful was to examine my own heart and realise that I was putting the vision of what I thought God was calling me to do before the people I was doing it with. This vision-first dynamic creates dividing lines and weakens the family bonds.

The second step was realising I needed to deliberately put myself in a place of weakness and vulnerability to hear what God was saying to me through others. This Stumbling Edge, as Ken Janke (one of our Thrive speakers) calls it is the place of faith, failure and growth. Eventually, we can even come to enjoy our feet not being able to touch the bottom as we learn to live beyond the illusion of control.

There are many more lessons within these pages for those with the courage to walk this path with Jon. It was a blessing to meet him and Ken Janke in March 2019 – and then read some of Ken’s story in this book. My prayer is that God uses this book to help us become more humble, more real & more secure in the Father’s heart. Enjoy!

This book review series is in anticipation of the Thrive Scotland conference coming in September.

Embedding whole life discipleship into your church’s DNA

A review of Scattered & Gathered by Neil Hudson

This is my third book review on our Thrive Scotland reading list. If the first book (Thank God it’s Monday) helped us understand our work as a joyous calling to kingdom living, and our second book (Every Great Endeavour) helped deepen our biblical basis for whole life discipleship, then this book is our manual for embedding these truths in our churches.

Neil writes with warmth, sensitivity and empathy, learnt no doubt through years of helping church leaders wrestle with these meaty topics. He uses his experience to gently unpack our established expectations of church – what it means to be a gathered community.

Throughout this is a book of encouragement and exhortation for church leaders, who Neil wants to spur on rather than drag down. This is not a book selling a new formula for quick fix discipleship, or a list of new initiatives to do on top of our current activities.

Instead it is a realigning of what we are already doing across a broader canvas and with our frontlines in sharper focus

Each chapter starts with a reframing of testimonies from biblical characters – shedding fresh light on some familiar stories. After delving into key topics such as worship, preaching, small groups and fellowship from a whole-life perspective, he then identifies helpful examples of how it might look in practice, alongside advice on making a start on incorporating a wider kingdom perspective into our church rhythms.

This is a timely and practical book for church leaders keen to equip their church for life on the frontline. For those who have sought to create a church culture more supportive of our scattered lives, but seen it remain a fringe issue, this book provides the blueprint to moving from gesture to posture, for…

“Gestures are fine and are appreciated when offered, but a posture is permanent“

This series is in anticipation of the Thrive Scotland conference coming in September.

Essential reading for the Christian at work

A review of Every Good Endeavour by Tim Keller

It is a rare jewel of a book that effortlessly articulates and unpacks the complex struggles and dilemmas that those of us seeking to serve God in the workplace wrestle with, yet this book cracks the code of our unspoken questioning.

If you have ever wondered if your work is important to God; if God has a greater purpose in putting you in an organisation; or if your work can be meaningful in the midst of the mundane then read on.

Some of us are struggling just to survive in our jobs let alone thrive. How can I do what I do every day in a way that is more connected to God’s purpose of extending His kingdom? Throughout the book Keller explains the wrong thinking that has shaped our assumptions – like why society values certain types of roles over others and why work is so tough, even when you’re in the right role.

He meticulously unpicks our sloppy thinking around our subconscious spiritual hierarchy, and society’s beloved idols that unwittingly shape our thinking.

I found it a book of immense helpfulness in aligning my own job to how I can then serve others, serve society, model competence and witness to Christ – a formidable calling!

If you have all that sorted then feel free to skip this book, for the rest of us it is Induction Course 101 in essential frontline living – every Christian entering the workplace should digest its rich teaching before picking up your new lanyard and photo ID.

This series is in anticipation of the Thrive Scotland conference coming to in September.

A new perspective to start your week

A review of Thank God it’s Monday by Mark Greene

Have you ever found yourself lying in bed on Monday morning wishing that you had one more day of lockdown before heading back into the office? Wishing that you didn’t have to face the world of half asleep, mask wearing commuters on their way to another dull day in the office or factory?

Not many of us bounce out of bed on a Monday pumped full of delight at a new week at work. For the Christian this can present a dilemma – we know that we should be thankful for, and serve God, in everything, but why is it so hard to be satisfied in our efforts to serve God at our workplace? How can we flourish in the workplace?

This book from Mark Greene is the metaphorical light switch to help illuminate our thinking. If you want to see your work from God’s perspective and how we can thrive at work you will love this book.

Central to the book is establishing a new context for our service, using real life stories told with Mark’s irrepressible wit and charm. It’s a funny, compelling, warm-hearted exhortation to see the kingdom of God as it touches every aspect of life.

Can we see with new eyes what God wants to do through us?…through you…with that difficult to deal with boss, or dismissive colleague? Or lonely neighbour. This easy to read book is littered with real examples to connect what we think with how we act.

Mark’s aim is to not to give us a new To Do list everyday, but a fresh way of approaching our everyday lives. One of the key questions it raises is: Who are our hero’s? This book is jam packed with real heros from the Frontline, people who won’t have their biographies on Christian bookshelves, but who have their deeds etched in heaven’s annals.

If we are willing to see it, God is inviting us to bring His peace, His Shalom, to our broken world, and this not through perfect people but through the frail and faltering steps of His children who really do thank God it’s Monday, and Tuesday, and Wednesday…

This book review series is in anticipation of the Thrive Scotland conference in September.

Reviews of this book from other Christians in the workplace can be found here

Calm in the storm?

For many of us this moment in our life could well be the most uncertain and fearful we have ever been. Not only is there an oil price shock destroying global markets, but much of the world is sitting it out in the their living rooms, hoping and praying they stay safe and health. I remember living through the oil price crash in 2014/2015 (my first one), and the massive impact this had on people. What we are facing is on a totally different level.

We all deal with fear and anxiety in different ways. Before I was a parent I used to be very laid back, but now I know that their is a time to panic!! (I still remember the feeling of seeing one of my kids uncontrollably vomiting due to an unknown allergic response, and when they wandered too close to a flooded river at the bottom of our garden.) Some of us are natural worriers, others more stoic. Being alone for a long time is probably not helping us to remain positive, as our fears often grow when we are alone too much. I don’t have the cure to such problems, but I do believe this crises could change us for the better, if we allow it.

This lunchtime a small group of us within Wood were praying for our company, the employees and our leadership. We shared examples from history in how God has helped in the midst of previous disasters, reminding ourselves that we are not alone. One of the team shared this insight:

Faith and fear have one thing in common – they are both concerned with things we cannot see

It got me wondering whether the forces that shaped our society – materialismconsumerism and individualism, that I have grown up with for four decades, could now be on the brink of crumbling? I know people are grabbing toilet roll like its going out of fashion, but underneath the legalized looting I also see communities reconnecting in ways that they haven’t done for years. I see people stepping up to serve their neighbours, and WhatsApp groups springing up so people can still touch each other digitally.

Could these seemingly invincible forces be infected with a new perspective? Is it possible that this societal shock could enable us to break from our past, to create a different future? All my life I have lived in a society where we have assumed more is better, where my choices out-trump everyone else’s needs, and only the latest phone upgrade is good enough. We have been given a chance to hit the pause button. What story will play out when we hit record?

On Friday 6th March I was at a McKinsey meeting on Climate Risk & Response in London. At that meeting the speaker said this was “the decisive decade“. (Maybe he should have said the decisive month!) As he talked about the impact on the world if we take no further action to reduce our emissions he focused on systemic thresholds where we reach points of no return and experience catastrophic failure of infrastructure, agriculture and the human body.

At one point he asked the question “what defines a crises?” Little did we realise that we would find out by the time I had logged into my computer on Monday morning

After the presentation I was reflecting on the urgent need to change our lifestyle in order to try and deal with the climate emergency we face (seems like a distant memory now!). This is what I wrote down that day as I asked myself if the world could finally be ready to make the necessary changes in our shared mindset that are required to write a new narrative:

  • From being focused on the the needs of “my” people (in the wealthy west), to also considering the needs of the foreigner (in the exposed east)
  • From being focused on the desire to create wealth for myself, to the desire for creating wealth for my children’s children
  • From living as I want as long as I don’t hurt anyone, to living with the knowledge that every choice has unintended consequences
  • From using our good intentions as a cover for sloppy choices, to every choice and decision being accessible (and Tweet-able!)
  • From authenticity being a choice, to a world of digital transparency

It was Winston Churchill who said “never waste a good crises“. This is certainly a bad crises, but it still presents an opportunity for systemic change. Perhaps I am fortunate that I am used to exercising the muscle of faith. As a Christian you are used to going against the flow and believing the (seemingly) impossible.

Could this global reset be an opportunity for more of us to start believing that change is possible?

There is no vaccine for fear, but one thing I know, the only way we will ever accomplish what needs to be done is by first believing that it is possible to achieve it. For the first time in a long time I can see the powerful forces that have shaped western society for decades are crumbling. What happens next is up to all of us.

This post was published on my LinkedIn account yesterday, you can access it here.

A refreshed vision

For the last few years a small group of us have been sowing into the Aberdeen business community, with a heart to bless the city. We are refreshing our vision for 2020, you can read more below:

The Business Connection 2020 – Refreshing Our Vision

The Business Connection (http://thebusinessconnection.org/) exists to equip, encourage and empower people in the corporate sector in Aberdeen city and shire. We are a not-for-profit charity (SC045163) run by four trustees from within the business community for the benefit of the business community. All Trustees are volunteers, sourcing their income from professional employment or leading their own business or social enterprise. The charity is self-funded and relies on the donations of supporters to fund our activities. The charity’s activities have progressed over the last seven years:

– Since 2013 we have been hosting fortnightly breakfasts for workers to make friends, share stories and build relationships.

– Since 2016 we have also been hosting monthly talks on the last Friday of the month aimed at supporting the business community with helpful, thoughtful presentations on local and national issues across a range of topics.

– In 2019 we hosted the first Thrive Aberdeen conference along with 12 other Christian organisations (including Evangelical Alliance, LICC; Transform Work UK and many others) aimed at calling, gathering and celebrating those of a Christian faith in the workplace.

As we begin a new decade, we are relaunching the charity with two new Trustees – individuals of deep faith who bring significant experience across the public and private sector in Aberdeenshire.

Together we have sought to discern what the needs of the city and shire are at this moment in time. We believe that now is the time to sharpen our focus on the specific challenges facing our historic city. In order to ensure we invest the right resources in our vision we are stopping the fortnightly breakfasts for the foreseeable future.

We see that the forces that have shaped Aberdeen to be the city it has become are shifting and the city has entered a period of reinventing its identity. This change in direction has a knock-on impact on those of us employed in the city. We are asking ourselves: “How can those who care about the health and well-being of the Aberdeen business community help them influence the future direction of the city and shire?”

Alongside this focus on providing an intentional platform for influencing executive decision making, we also want to support the business community in having a more direct impact on helping organisations seeking to bless the neediest in the city and shire. So, we are also asking ourselves: “How can those of us who have benefitted from the prosperity of the region bless those who have not?”

We believe this dual pronged approach enables those in business to be a force for good – helping connect the decision makers to the workforce; and helping connect some of the most fortunate in society with some of the least fortunate. We are proposing a two-pronged approach in 2020, with a series of thought-provoking sessions from key organisations both within and outside the Aberdeenshire region on these two themes.

We invite those of you within our 280 strong network to come along and engage with our guests. We invite the key decision makers and culture shapers in Aberdeenshire to come and share thoughts on how the workforce in this region can help contribute to a better future for everyone.

We very much look forward to the year to come.

The Business Connection Trustees: Barry McAllister; Jim Grimmer; Martyn Link; Smart Masoni