What’s Your Word for 2021?

For the past few years I have been in the habit of using December as a time to seek God for a prophetic word for the year ahead – a personal word for my life.

  • A word that will have significance for the coming months.
  • A word that defines the theme of the next stage of my faith journey.
  • A word that will lead me into closer relationship with Jesus.

And it is usually – literally – just one word.

Sometimes the word has come straightaway; sometimes it has taken much longer to discern. But God has always been faithful in providing a word to guide me, strengthen me, and give me hope. After all, Jesus is my Good Shepherd who has promised to lead me by His voice (John 10:27) – a promise that is true for every single follower of Christ.

This year is no different. At the end of a turbulent 2020 I believe that now more than ever we need to be seeking our Heavenly Father for the words that will light the path ahead of us as we face all the uncertainty of the year ahead.

So here are some simple steps that we can follow as we “incline our ears and listen” (Isaiah 55:3) to the One who knows us, loves us, and generously pours out His revelation into our hearts:

1. Create space to listen

We first of all need to create an environment where we can pay attention, and engage with God’s presence and voice. It’s very hard to hear God when we’re busy and distracted, so we need to slow right down and listen from a place of peace and stillness. This won’t happen accidentally; rather it is intentionality that opens up the doors to revelation. So grab a coffee, go for a walk, retreat to a quiet spot – do whatever you need to do to get some precious time alone with God.

2. Ask

Sometimes we forget the simple step of asking God the relevant question. So go ahead and ask Him: “What is Your word of life and transformation for me for 2021?” And then listen for His answer, with faith and expectancy. Remember that God speaks in all sorts of creative ways. It may be through a dream, through a picture that pops into your mind, through a Bible verse, or through a conversation with a friend. But stay alert for the word that He has for you.

3. Weigh it

The Bible makes it clear that we should test and weigh prophecy. So, once you start to have a sense of what God is saying to you, write it down and pray about it. Does it resonate? Does it sound like the voice of Jesus? Have you got a friend or prayer partner that you could share it with to help you discern?

4. Say “Yes” to the word

God doesn’t force prophecies on us; rather He invites us to walk with Him to see the fulfilment He intends. Every word He speaks into our lives is an invitation to transformation. So will you yield? Will you say, “Yes”? Will you fully embrace all that He wants to do in you through this word?

5. Make a plan

An authentic prophetic lifestyle is as much about responding as it is about hearing. So what simple, step-by-step plan do you need to make so that you can respond with obedience to the word throughout the year ahead?

My prayer for all of you reading this post is that you will be able to lean into the heart of our Good Father and hear the particular word of life that He has for you in 2021. Happy New Year!

When Prophets Get Things Wrong – and How We Can Get It Right

“Was that really the voice of God?”

We all have moments when we question our own ability to hear God clearly; and in late 2020 many of us have misgivings about the ability of the prophets to have any kind of idea of what God may be saying about world events. How can we determine what an authentic prophetic ministry is, whether it belongs to us or someone else?

Doubt is a normal part of any exploration of prophetic gifts and ministry. For those of us taking our first baby steps in listening to God we are bound to question our own prophetic experiences until we become more confident in our ability to recognise the particular tone and content of Jesus’ voice. And even for those of us who have been using prophetic gifts for years, I believe that it’s appropriate and healthy to hold things lightly, to be cautious, and to ask questions of what we think God is saying. We are all learners. We should never assume we get it 100% right and we certainly need our Christian communities to help us with discernment and accountability; especially when we claim to be hearing God for other people.

I love prophetic ministry, which we can define as seeking God’s heart for those around us. The New Testament teaches us that we can all learn to use the gift of prophecy, and 1 Corinthians 14:3 is clear that this wonderful gift does so much to strengthen, encourage and comfort other people. But in pursuing this gift we also need to recognise the huge responsibility involved, particularly as we move from:

Hearing God for ourselves

To hearing God for someone else (personal prophecy)

To hearing God for the bigger picture (public prophecy)

If we claim to speak for God we have to ensure that we have been ruthless in setting aside anything that might conspire to twist, distort or filter the true word of God. In order to tune into God’s voice we have to learn to tune out all the other voices that are fighting for our attention, and some of these “other voices” are very subtle and deceptive.

  • They may be issues of the heart, such as emotional pain, fear, hurts, unforgiveness, brokenness, and trauma.
  • They may be issues of the mind, such as our mindsets, prejudices, world-views, belief systems, opinions, ideologies, judgments, and theology.

But these all have the ability to cloud our prophetic perception. If we are going to hear God clearly we have to surrender them back to God.

As I’ve observed many different expressions of prophetic ministry over the years there are two particular scenarios that concern me, ones where I see many mistakes being made:

  • Emotionally charged environments
  • Politically charged environments

It is really hard to hear God clearly and precisely in these contexts and even experienced prophets may miss the mark.

When a dear friend of mine is desperately ill in hospital, I know that the voice of my emotions is going to be very loud, and I’m extremely cautious not to confuse their voice with the voice of God. In any situation where there are a lot of emotions involved we have to exercise considerable vigilance when seeking to hear from him.

I believe that it’s even harder to hear God about some of the political issues that have dominated our collective consciousness in recent years. Not impossible; but it’s so hard because, certainly here in the UK, we cherish (and even idolise) our carefully nurtured opinions. Politics is a big part of life, and now, with social media, everyone has an opinion. Personal biases that have been shaped by our upbringing, culture, and experience can have a devastating impact on our prophetic perception. And the stakes seem so high. For those of us in the UK and US, as politics has heated up in recent years, it seems that any public prophecy, whether speaking into Brexit or American politics, is taking place in a context that is both emotionally and politically charged.

Getting our agendas, opinions and feelings out of the way is hard enough when prophesying over an individual. But it’s ten times harder when prophesying over a nation.

It’s not at all surprising that many “big name” prophets have got things wrong recently. I personally think part of the problem is that the rest of the church venerates them too much: we have slipped into an Old Testament mindset: “I can’t hear God for myself – I need a prophet to tell me what God is saying”.

If you want to be able to hear what God is saying about Trump, Brexit, Boris or the EU, please understand that you don’t have to go to a prophet. The remarkable Spirit of Truth has been given to you and you can ask him yourself. It is his delight to search the heart of the Father and make his thoughts known to you. But I’d strongly recommend you also follow these three steps:

1. Ask yourself “Why?” Why do you want to hear God about that particular issue? The main reason God speaks to us about global events is so that we will pray. So will you faithfully commit to pray about these things?

2. Stay rooted in love: love for God, love for his world, and love for our leaders – especially the ones we disagree with.

3. Ruthlessly and radically surrender all your opinions, agendas and feelings before God. This may takes days, weeks or years. Consider carefully the warnings in Jeremiah 23:16 and Ezekiel 14:3 which indicate the perils of inquiring of God through the lenses of our own understanding and our idols. The aim is to be an empty vessel that God can fill with his pure revelation. Humble yourself and remember the wisdom of Proverbs 3:5-6 “Lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him.”

As well as ensuring our own prophetic perception is untainted, we want to be able to weigh and discern other prophetic voices that we come across. The New Testament makes it clear we should test all prophecies. It’s hard to weigh and test strident prophetic voices when they speak so loudly about issues and claim the Bible backs them up. But we all have the Holy Spirit. And most importantly we all have the beautiful image of Jesus before us. As we seek to weigh other people’s prophecies we can ask, “Does this look like and sound like Jesus?”

Prophets will make mistakes. Well known prophets will get things wrong. We are all seeing through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12). But this should never be a reason to avoid the precious gifts of the Spirit. Prophecy has been used to abuse, manipulate and control people. It has been used to push political agendas. But the beautiful Spirit of Truth has never abandoned the church of Jesus. And he loves a humble heart.

            “But when he, the Spirit of Truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” John 16:13

Lessons from Nehemiah: The recovery phase

This blog has been written by Ceri and Simon Harris and is the second of a series of blogs on Nehemiah

We are experiencing tumultuous times.  We know that times of great disturbance or disaster follow three broad phases:

Response:  the immediate emergency response to the situation 

Recovery: the long slow period of getting back to a new normal

Reconstruction: the long term rebuilding, and protection from a future reoccurrence

We see that Nehemiah went through these same stages.  In this series of three blogs we are exploring his journey and seeing what lessons we can draw in being attentive and responsive to the voice of God. 

In the first blog in this series –The Response Phase – we saw how Nehemiah heard the voice of God in the midst of disaster. Now as the recovery phase gets underway and the task of building the walls of Jerusalem begins we see, in this second blog,  Nehemiah’s responsiveness to God’s voice. 

1. His active response was thoughtful 

I went to Jerusalem, and after staying there three days I set out during the night with a few others. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem. Nehemiah 2:11-12

Nehemiah’s response was thoughtful.  He didn’t rush but travelling around he made an honest assessment of the land.  Having allowed the full weight of God’s word to rest on him in chapter 1, we see in chapter 2 that he allows the true reality of the situation to sink in.  This will be no quick fix or shallow response but allowing the the truth about the situation to become clear.  

What do we need to be more thoughtful about?

2. His active response was in community  

Nehemiah knew that responding to God’s word needed to take place in community. 

Then I said to them, ‘You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.’ Nehemiah 2:17

Chapter 3, which follows, is a marvellous picture of a community hearing and responding to the word of God. 

Where are we trying to go alone when God’s plan is to go with others?

3. His active response was all in 

So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart. Nehemiah 4:6

Their whole hearts were engaged. This was no half-hearted, luke-warm response but in response to God’s word they gave it everything that they had.

Where are we going through the motions but our hearts are not engaged?

4. His active response was resolute

Nehemiah and the people were attacked from within and without. It’s always the same when we respond to God’s voice. Attack is near far away, but they were resolute in standing firm. 

They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. 9 But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat. Nehemiah 4:8-9

Where do we need to be more resolute?

5. He active response was compassionate 

Nehemiah was compassionate. When we are gripped by what God has said we can be aggressive and a little harsh in our desire to see it done. But Nehemiah allowed compassion to be at the centre of the community.

Remember me with favour, my God, for all I have done for these people. Nehemiah 5:19

Where have we developed a hard edge because we are trying to get the job done?

God is Closer

Right now, how close do you feel to God?

I was talking to someone in one of my huddles a few days ago and she was rejoicing in the fact that she has become so much more aware of God’s presence recently: she described it as being able to “feel God’s presence” all the time. That is definitely something to celebrate.

I love testimonies like this, from normal, everyday Christians, who are seeking a closer connection and fellowship with Jesus. Many of us would make the words of Psalm 42:1-2 our own:

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.

But I think a mistake we sometimes make is to assume God’s presence has to be hunted down or conjured up; and an even greater mistake is to think that we will somehow be blessed by God’s presence if we pray hard enough, worship hard enough or jump through other religious hoops. There is a mindset in some churches that if we are spiritual enough we get to earn God’s presence; that his tangible presence is a reward for good behaviour.

This is a mistake because the truth is that God is always with us. Even on a bad day. Even when we are overwhelmed by the state of the world. Even in the turbulence and uncertainty of a global pandemic. He has never left us, not for one minute. Jesus promised that through his Spirit he would be with us always. We are all offered life with God; in fact the Bible is all about God’s desire to be with people. The central promise in the Bible is “I will be with you,” and when Jesus came to this earth he was given the name Immanuel: God with us. It doesn’t get much clearer than that.

God is so much closer than we can think or imagine. His glory, light and kingdom are less than a hair’s breadth away. His very Spirit has taken up residence in our hearts.

At the end of the day I believe the key question is not about whether or not we can “feel” his presence. Yes, we all love those goose-bump moments when his presence seems tangible and our hearts sing at the joy of it. And most of us will be aware of those darker days when God “feels” a million miles away. But for me the key issue is about the way we think, about choosing to cultivate a mindset of God’s presence, one that is less dependent on our feelings.

There is much we can learn from the Contemplative tradition about developing such a mindset. This tradition emphasises that God is already present with us and that spiritual growth happens as we learn to attend to and practice his presence. Contemplative prayer is, at its basic level, openness to God who is always with us. At the heart of the Contemplative tradition is a call to focus our loving attention on God: to set our minds and hearts on him and attend to his presence. The word “contemplation” means to look at, observe, or gaze at attentively. To put it simply, this tradition is about contemplating God. As Richard Foster describes it, “the contemplative life is the steady gaze of the soul upon the God who loves us.” In gazing upon God we are concentrating all our senses on his majestic beauty and glory.

We hear the clear call to contemplative practice in the ancient words of the Psalms:

            Within your temple, O God, we meditate on your unfailing love. Psalm 48:9

One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple. Psalm 27:4

Meditating.

Gazing.

Seeking.

Contemplating.

A deliberate choice to fix our minds on the reality of God’s presence, whether we “feel” it or not.

God is closer than we think. Much closer. We all need to slow down a little bit and retrain our minds so that we can cultivate an ongoing awareness of his presence and start to live from this wonderful reality.

I’ll finish with a quote from Martin Laird from his book Into the Silent Land:

God does not know how to be absent. The fact that most of us experience throughout most of our lives a sense of absence or distance from God is the great illusion that we are caught up in; it is the human condition. The sense of separation from God is real, but the meeting of stillness reveals that this perceived separation does not have the last word.

What could you do today to help you focus on the reality of God’s presence in your life?

Lessons from Nehemiah: The Response Phase

This blog has been written by Ceri and Simon Harris, leaders of Burlington Baptist church in Ipswich. Ceri leads the Accessible Prophecy UK team.

We are experiencing tumultuous times.  We know that times of great disturbance or disaster follow three broad phases:

Response:  the immediate emergency response to the situation 

Recovery: the long slow period of getting back to a new normal

Reconstruction: the long term rebuilding and protection from a future reoccurrence

We see that Nehemiah went through these same stages.  In this series of three blogs we will explore his journey and see what lessons we can draw in being attentive to the voice of God.

In the midst of the disaster facing his people, Nehemiah heard the voice of God.  Chapter 1 of Nehemiah helps us understand the environment that enables him hear.

1. He was attentive with his mind

I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. Nehemiah 1:2

Nehemiah was quick to seek out news.  To understand what was happening.  To connect with the world around him.  We are reminded of how connected the prophets were with their culture and context.  Hearing God speak is never in a vacuum.  

What are we enquiring after?  

2. He was attentive with his heart 

This current crisis has caused many of us to shut out the daily news as its impact can be overwhelming.  But here are we are gently reminded that Nehemiah not only enquired but that he also engaged his heart.

When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. Nehemiah 1:3

We must be appropriate of course, and guard becoming overwhelmed, however for Nehemiah it was as he enquired his mind and engaged his heart that he began to hear the voice of God.

What are we weeping about?

3. He was attentive in prayer 

This seems obvious.  It is.  But it’s not easy.  The time stamp of chapter 1:1 and chapter 2:1 is a period of 4 months.  

For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Nehemiah 1:4

The voice of God can be a quick and instant reality, but at other times it is a growing conviction borne out of days, weeks, months of prayer.

What are we praying for?

4. He was attentive to God

We all have a history, a context, a reality.  Nehemiah certainly did.  Even though he was serving in a foreign land he kept his faith & God’s faithfulness at the centre of his focus.  This seems really important.  His prayer didn’t focus on the disaster, but rather on God.

Then I said: “Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments … Nehemiah 1:5

God was all powerful and able (v5)

God’s love was dependable (v5)

God’s promises were certain (v5)

God is merciful (v6)

God keeps his promises (v8-9)

Where is our focus?

5. He was attentive to God’s timing 

Four months!  That’s waiting.  That’s patience.  That’s a careful, poised, God is in control wait.  When exactly did he know that God was asking him to return to do the rebuilding? We might suspect pretty early on, although we don’t know.  God’s word though is never rushed.  We do well to sit with it, meditate on it and pray over it.  A little seed, a quiet whisper begins to grow.  God’s word grows in clarity, in depth, in richness as we wait. 

How long do you wait when we think we have heard God speak?

6.  He was ready to take action 

So at the right moment he jumped into action.  Looking sad in the King’s presence (risking his life if the king was displease) the thing was perfect.  God had gone ahead of his word, and may the way ready.  The king asked what Nehemiah wanted:

The king said to me, “What is it you want?” Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favour in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.” Nehemiah 2:4-5

He was an active responder.  Poised, ready to act on what God was saying despite the challenge and obstacles ahead, despite the ridicule and moments of self doubt. 

Such is the posture of those who faithfully hear the word of the Lord.

When we hear God speak are we passive receivers or an active responders?

Utilising Prophets in a Global Pandemic

Did you know that you have prophets in your church?

Ephesians 4 make it clear that the ascended Christ has gifted this particular bunch of folks to his Body, along with the apostles, evangelists, pastors and teachers. And these roles are not just for leaders, they are for every Christian.

Jesus has given prophets to his church! So even if you feel a bit uncomfortable about the idea of labelling someone a ‘prophet’ there are plenty of them around, and they are there for “equipping Christ’s people for works of service, so that the Body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph 4:12-13)

I really hope that’s your experience of fivefold prophets. (I’m all too aware that there have been plenty of prophets who have not lived up to these verses, who have not humbly equipped the church and produced unity and maturity – which is why I’m passionate about discipling prophets and helping them be all that Jesus intends them to be.)

In giving prophets to the church Jesus has given us a part of his beautiful and perfect ministry. After all, Jesus is the perfect prophet, the most complete example of prophetic ministry we have ever had, and the One on whom we must model our own prophetic lifestyle and call. The fivefold role of the prophet is fundamentally there to serve the Body of Christ and help it become mature. It’s a ministry that we should be celebrating and releasing, along with the other fivefold roles.

Unfortunately, not all churches know what to do with their prophets at the best of times, let alone when there is a global pandemic happening. So in this blog I want to share a few thoughts on how churches can best utilise their prophets at a time like this – a time when so much is being shaken.

PRAYER: Now more than ever the church needs to be praying – and prophets love prayer. They particularly love being alone in their own private prayer closets, so now is a good time to challenge them to share their passion for intercession with others and to think about how to get the whole church committed to praying. Welcome their insights into how your church can develop a much healthier prayer culture.

A couple of practical suggestions:

  • Ask your prophets to mobilize a 24-7 prayer event particularly focusing on the needs of the local community and the impact of Covid-19.
  • If you are a church leader then ask your prophets to be interceding for you and your ministry at this time. Choose some that you trust and get them praying.

LISTENING: This is a time of sifting and refining, when we need to be reimagining how we do church and where God is leading us. Prophets function as the eyes and ears of the Body, alert to the purposes of God and the promptings of his Spirit. They can bring both God’s words for now, speaking into the current situation, and God’s words for the future as we discern the way forward. They can hear God for both individuals, speaking much needed words of strengthening and comfort, and corporate words for the Body, city and nation.

A practical suggestion:

  • Gather your prophets regularly (online!) over the next few months with the specific purpose of giving them a safe space to share what they sense God is saying to your church at this time. They will need this space to process everything they have been discerning over the last few months. Give them permission to seek God’s heart for words of encouragement and direction for the Body.

ORIENTATE: Because of their passion for God’s presence prophets have an important role to play in re-focusing attention back on God and reminding people of his unfailing love and care for his people. Prophets strengthen the church by helping people draw closer to God and by supplying a life-giving God-awareness. This pandemic is increasing already record levels of anxiety, fear and distraction. We need the ministry of the prophets to help us stay centred on Jesus and the peace that can only be found in his presence.

A practical suggestion:

  • Get your prophets leading a daily online ‘drop-in’ session where people can come and be refreshed in God’s presence through stillness, quiet reflection, mediation on God’s love, and prophetic ministry.

QUESTIONING: Prophets live in a place of tension between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’, the ‘actual’ and the ‘ideal’. They are simultaneously focussed on the glory of God and, at the same time, sensitive to the existing reality in the world around them, with all its injustice and brokenness. This ‘gap-consciousness’ means they are wired to ask questions, to provoke, to confront, and to challenge the status quo. The prophet’s questioning can feel threatening for church leaders, but I believe that in this current season the church urgently needs the prophets to be bringing an alternative consciousness and helping us think outside the box. In a time of shaking we need to be alert to the new things that God is doing. The world right now is grieving, but it is also full of possibilities, and prophets are very much awake to divine promise and the newness that comes through godly questioning. They know that God is on the move and want the rest of the Body to catch up.

A couple of practical suggestions:

  • Commission your prophets to dream with God and to bring some grace-filled prayer-soaked questioning to the community. Allow them to reimagine what the church might look like post-Covid.
  • Ask your prophets to bring their prophetic imagination to the question of how, as we face a global recession, we can better offer support for the poor and marginalised in our city.

This is undoubtably a time of great shaking, for society and for the church. But there is something about the prophetic personality that relishes a bit of shaking and instinctively knows how to navigate a way through it. Fivefold prophets are alive and well in the church today. We need to find them, disciple them, embed them in community, and put them to work.

Hearing God’s Voice in a Time of Shaking

As someone who has sought after the voice of God for most of my adult life I know how comforting and reassuring it can be to hear the gentle voice of the Lord speaking to us in the midst of the storms of life. There are plenty of other ‘voices’ out there right now; voices of fear, panic and confusion that make it especially hard to connect with the ‘still small voice’ of God. This global pandemic has arrived at a time of unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression; so more than ever we need to be able to hear the kind and reassuring words of the Lord: his ‘now’ words that speak directly into our current, specific reality. We need to hear his voice in our hearts.

Jesus’ promise that his ‘sheep’ would hear his voice remains true, regardless of circumstances. This is a promise for every single one of us. The language of the Spirit – the spiritual, internal language that Jesus speaks to us through – is one of incredible depth and beauty, but so simple that a child can learn it. Through ‘listening prayer’ we can all learn to connect with the profound joy of God’s presence and the voice that speaks into our deepest needs. Even if you feel a long way from Jesus right now I want to reassure you that he’s so much closer and so much better than you can even imagine, and well able to pierce the darkness with his brilliant light and his words of love.

So – how do we tune in to God’s voice in a time of great shaking? If you are well practiced in listening prayer and the prophetic gifts, then you just have to do what you have always done, but with much more intentionality. If this is all new to you, I hope you find the following helpful:

1. Remember who God is

What better place to start than by reminding ourselves of the goodness of God! There are so many passages in the Bible that encourage us fix our eyes on God in a time of crisis and speak to us of his constant love and sovereign power. He is the Alpha and Omega who holds all things together. And to hear his voice we need to remember that it is his very nature to call us close and welcome us into his glorious presence. He is our safe place, our portion, and our delight.

God is the great Communicator, unlimited in the ways he speaks to us. He is our perfect heavenly Father who delights to talk to us. He is a relational God who speaks in order to make himself known, and to share his heart and mind with his people. Our Good Father is relentlessly good and kind, and he wants to encourage us and lead us through his voice.

2. Remember who you are

In order to hear God’s voice clearly we have to be secure in our identity as beloved children of God. We have to learn to think like a son or daughter of our perfect heavenly Father. The world around us is constantly trying to tell us that we’re not good enough, clever enough, attractive enough, successful enough. But we have to remember that we are God’s beloved children invited into the richest of relationships, recipients of unquenchable and unconditional love. He is already pleased with us and he calls us his friends. We can live in child-like faith and expectation that we’re welcomed into his presence and that we’ll hear his voice.

3. Prioritise stillness and rest

If there is one thing I’ve learnt about tuning in to God’s voice, it’s that you can’t hear him from a place of striving, stress and hurry. We can only hear him clearly if we’re listening from a place of rest.

Which is all very well, but how can we find that place of peace, stillness and rest when the whole world has gone crazy??

This is where good rhythms and spiritual practices come in. It’s possible for all of us to find simple ways to practice the perfect stillness that can only truly be found in the presence of God. We have to take on the discipline of rest.

There are many great books and resources out there to help, but here’s a simple ‘stillness’ exercise that I am regularly practicing at the moment. It helps me cultivate a God-centred peace and really helps me to tune in to God’s heart so I can hear his words of encouragement to me.

  • Find a quiet spot to sit in for a few minutes.
  • Give thanks to God that he’s here with you right now and that he loves you unconditionally.
  • Give him any worries or anxieties – he’ll gladly take them off you.
  • Practice Paul’s exhortation from 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18:
    • So, find something to rejoice in;
    • Choose something to pray about;
    • Be thankful about something – even if it’s as simple as being thankful for the cup of tea that you’re holding.
  • Finally, ask God if there is anything he wants to say to you. Remember that God speaks in many different ways. So you may find that a fleeting image pops into your head, or the name of a friend, or a verse from the Bible. It may be something as simple as a sense of peace or love. Just go with it; don’t dismiss it. Write it down and give thanks.

I want to finish with some words from Psalm 46, a Psalm that is very apt for the circumstances we all find ourselves in right now. It reminds us that no matter what is going on, God is the One who calls everything to stillness and to the knowledge of his reality and presence.

            God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea…

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is with her, she will not fall…

Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts….

He says, “Be still and know that I am God…”

Making Sense of the Old Testament Prophets: 2

As we saw in the previous blog, one way of making sense of the Old Testament prophets is to summarise their ministry according to these two dimensions:

  • Vertical dimension: focused on protecting and maintaining the covenant relationship between God and his people.
  • Horizontal dimension: focused on God’s concerns in the world.

In this blog I’m going to unpack the Horizontal dimension a bit more, and look at how the prophet’s passion for God was often channelled into a passionate engagement with the world around him. Because, at the end of the day,

You can’t worship God and be unmoved by the things that move God.

The prophets of old knew both the ecstasy of being caught up with the glory of God and the agony of seeing the broken world from God’s perspective. For many of them, as they encountered God they simultaneously encountered the divine pathos: the deep emotions in the very heart of God. And a common outcome of this was the prophet being used by God to challenge the various injustices prevalent in the society of the day.

The best place to start is with Moses. Thousands of years may have passed but his embodiment of the prophetic role, along both dimensions, still resonates clearly. Moses heard from God and became the Lord’s friend, and it’s Moses’ ongoing relationship with God that marks him out as the prototype for all other prophets. And when God was moved by the suffering of the Israelites and initiated his great rescue plan he chose Moses as his prophet:

“And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt”  Exodus 3:9-10

Moses stands as a towering figure over the Old Testament. The Exodus story is the narrative of the Old Testament and Moses is the protagonist of the Exodus narrative – the great archetypal story of an enslaved people becoming free. God raised up Moses as his representative, commissioned to lead his people, and to confront the evil regime of Pharaoh. Through Moses, the first prophet, God’s reality crashed headlong into the dominant imperial culture, into Pharaoh’s version of reality, so that the false gods were exposed and so that God’s people could break free from oppression and exploitation.

Moses gives us a great framework for understanding the Horizontal aspect of prophetic ministry and helps us make sense of how many prophets after him engaged with God’s heart for social justice. In the Old Testament we see that part of the prophet’s role was as political commentator and activist: concerned with challenging empire and society, and taking the side of the marginalised and vulnerable. They spoke truth to power, and experienced anguish at injustice and oppression. 

Amos makes this very clear:

Let justice roll on like a river…  Amos 5:24

The Horizontal dimension of the prophet’s ministry is about calling for change: for societal transformation so that the poor, downtrodden and marginalised are protected. This is about advocacy for the powerless and being prepared to stand with the oppressed. The Hebrew prophets were not afraid of emphasising the need for God’s people to live ethically and to love justice.

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?”  Isaiah 58:6

Something that has helped me make better sense of the ministry of the Old Testament prophets, especially in the Horizontal dimension, is Walter Brueggemann’s remarkable book “The Prophetic Imagination” and his insight into the prophet’s role of nurturing an alternative consciousness to that of the dominant culture. It’s a two-step process:

1. Criticise The prophetic task is to first of all name the realities of brokenness, exploitation and injustice. This means being able to stand apart from the prevailing culture and being able to speak to it, with eyes to see and ears to hear. The prophet has to be prepared to lament, to allow God to “break my heart for what breaks yours” and to then to name things for what they are.

2. Energise The second part of the prophetic task is to energise and empower God’s people by ministering hope and expectation, and propelling them into godly action. This is the prophet helping people to imagine an alternative to the status quo and anticipate God’s renewal of all things. The prophet helps us stay attuned to God’s promises and remind us that God is faithful.

In holding these two together – criticism and energising – the biblical prophetic tradition challenges the status quo of oppression and injustice and enables God’s people to embrace an alternative way of thinking and acting.

What does this mean for us?

One thing we can take from the prophets of old is that an embrace of prophetic ministry is not just about seeking God’s voice and presence, but also being prepared to represent his holy concerns. As we pursue God’s heart we will certainly encounter his heart for justice and righteousness. A mature prophetic lifestyle is about being first prepared to sit with God and lament, and then to rejoice with God and dance upon injustice.

Making Sense of the Old Testament Prophets: 1

The prophets of old are an interesting bunch. Their words are challenging and their behaviour is very strange at times. But we can’t ignore them.

The Old Testament prophets make up a sizeable chunk of the Bible; indeed a whole genre of biblical literature is devoted to them. If we include both the writing prophets who produced the Bible’s prophetic literature (Isaiah through to Malachi) as well as the additional characters identified as prophets (such as Elijah) their ministry spans virtually the whole of the Old Testament narrative. Thousands of years after they were recorded their writings and actions speak powerfully to the contemporary church and to the world around us.

But how closely related are the Hebrew prophets of old to the fivefold prophets of the New Testament and the church today. What can we learn from their lives, words and ministry?

There are two dangers in studying Old Testament prophets: at one end of the spectrum we ignore them completely; at other end we base our understanding of prophetic ministry wholly on them.

To properly take hold of the role and ministry of prophets we have to move away, to a certain extent, from an Old Testament perspective and grasp a broader paradigm more influenced by the new covenant we now live in. The church of Jesus is born into the age of the Spirit and we require new wineskins. But at the same time we have to find a way to allow the prophets of Israel to speak into the realities of the church today and to learn what we can from their ministry and their experiences of God. When we take time to understand their context they have much to teach us.

It’s important to recognise that the Hebrew prophets operated in a very different context compared to the New Testament church. In Old Testament times the ability to hear the voice of God was quite rare. We see a concentration of the prophetic gift in a small number of people. Most people couldn’t hear God’s voice, because they didn’t have the Holy Spirit. And without the Holy Spirit they couldn’t weigh and discern either. So the onus was on the prophet to get it right and deliver the prophetic word faithfully. Under the old covenant, the prophets were commissioned by God to speak his words with an absolute divine authority, and the people listening to these words were expected to treat them as the ‘very words of God’. There was no room for error and the response to a false prophet was to have him stoned (Deuteronomy 18:20).

So, if that’s the context, what was at the heart of their role and ministry?

As we seek to understand the breadth of their calling, a helpful framework is to consider the two primary dimensions of prophetic expression:

  • Vertical dimension: focused on protecting and maintaining the covenant relationship between God and his people.
  • Horizontal dimension: focused on God’s concerns in the world.

We see the Old Testament prophets engaging in both dimensions. In our next blog we’re going to focus on the Horizontal dimension. But here are some reflections on the Vertical dimension.

The Vertical: At the heart of the prophets’ message was the reminder of who God’s people really were. A people defined by their covenantal relationship with Yahweh the one true God. An alternative community to every other culture around them, shaped by God’s incomparably alternative reality.

The prophets held out hope to God’s people by reminding them that, at the end of the day, they belonged to Yahweh.

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am Yahweh your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour… Since you are precious and honoured in my sight, and because I love you, I will give people in exchange for you.” Isaiah 43:2-4

In communicating God’s heart to his people the prophets did all they could to keep the Israelites’ attention on God. They helped them understand their present circumstances through the eyes of God, and encouraged them with words of future hope: speaking of a time when he would bring restoration to all things.

But there was an ongoing battle – an internal battle – that overshadowed the prophets’ ministry and in some ways defined it: the relentless pull of idolatry.

Idolatry was the prevailing sin of the Israelites, the dark cloud they could never escape from. The idols they turned to held out a false promise and a quick fix. The prophets knew that these idols appealed to a distorted sense of identity: if I bow to this idol my life will be better and people will like me. In succumbing to idolatry God’s people were denying their true identity and living out of a false one. Jeremiah conveys this reality very powerfully:

“Be appalled at this, you heavens, and shudder with great horror,” declares the Lord. “For my people have committed two sins: they have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” Jeremiah 2:13

The agonising message that Jeremiah had to deliver was: in turning away from your true love, you are tearing up your covenantal identity.

That’s why the call to holiness is so central to the prophet’s message and they would constantly promote worship of Yahweh because worship is one of the best ways to stay true to the covenant and stay faithful to God.

The tragedy of the story is that the people of God forgot who they were. And under the old covenant the only response the prophets could give to an idolatrous people was judgement and death.

For us today we can celebrate our new and better covenant, but we would be wise to heed the warnings of Israel’s prophets: to stay true in our devotion to God and to pursue his heart and presence above all else. Let’s seek to grow a prophetic culture that helps ensure our eyes stay fixed on Jesus and him alone.

What’s Discipleship Got To Do With It?

Here at Accessible Prophecy we love our coaching huddles! This month I’m training up six new coaches who will soon be starting their own prophetic huddles: the multiplication process that this training represents is a core value for us and a great way to grow healthy prophetic culture in many different contexts.

As many of you know from first hand experience, at the heart of the huddle you find two questions:

            What is God saying to you?

            What are you going to do about it?

These two questions illuminate the fundamental process of discipleship that Jesus presents to us time and again in the gospels, and that he uses at the end of the Sermon on the Mount:

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.”

Discipleship is at the very heart of our faith. The call on our lives is not simply to believe in Jesus but to actively follow him as disciples. To be a disciple of Jesus is to be constantly looking to Jesus to hear what he wants us to do, and then living it out. Disciples intentionally choose to listen and obey.

Discipleship is intrinsically linked to the prophetic. To follow Jesus faithfully requires a sensitivity to his voice: that ability to discern what he is saying to us in the midst of many other clamouring voices fighting for our attention. So if we want to grow a discipleship culture one of the first things we have to do is teach the people of God how to hear him, both in the written Word of scripture and through the ‘now’ words of the Spirit.

But if it’s true that we need the prophetic in order for discipleship to happen, then we absolutely need discipleship for the prophetic to flourish. A mature prophetic culture is one that is thoroughly rooted in discipleship. Without an emphasis on discipleship the prophetic is highly vulnerable to all sorts of pitfalls and hazards, such as lack of accountability, isolation and judgmentalism.

I’m thankful that here in my church in Sheffield we’ve been able to develop a prophetic culture in the midst of a strong culture of discipleship. And this has been so beneficial. It’s meant that the prophetic is rooted in accountability, and done so much to ensure there is a healthy emphasis not just on “What has God said?” but also on “What are we going to do about it?”. It’s meant that even the most gifted prophets see themselves as disciples first, and has helped develop a culture where the prophetic is normalised: we can all learn to hear God’s voice.

A discipling culture brings with it a necessary emphasis on community – we can’t do discipleship in isolation! – and this is vital for a healthy prophetic culture. The New Covenant model of prophetic ministry is very much rooted in community, and we need to create environments where prophetic expression is embedded in strong accountable relationships.

As we seek to grow a discipleship culture in which the prophetic can flourish it’s very important that we don’t confuse the ability to hear God clearly with spiritual maturity. It’s all too easy to look at an anointed prophet who is getting accurate revelation and therefore assume that he or she is a mature disciple of Jesus. Anointing is not an indication of character. Putting the emphasis on discipleship above gifting helps us to embrace wholeness and maturity. It also helps to avoid any kind of spiritual hierarchy.

It’s worth noting that some leaders are reluctant to actively disciple people who are more prophetically gifted than them. The insecure leader is going to ask, “How can I lead this highly anointed prophet who hears God better than I do?” But this is not fully understanding the process of discipleship. Discipling others is not about hearing better; it’s about holding people accountable to what God is saying to them. It’s about calling people to fruitfulness and engagement with God’s Kingdom. It’s about allowing others to imitate us as we pursue relationship with Jesus.

So let’s celebrate discipleship! We can’t grow a healthy prophetic culture without it.