Today, January 6th, is the traditional Christian festival of Epiphany, marking the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas and celebrating the Coming of the Magi. I continue to pray that God would give you an ephiphany of your spiritual calling. Here’s a little of what God has been saying to me… about ‘playing with violins’.
Yep, that’s right, ‘violins’. When I sent out Habakkuk’s prophetic call to ‘Write the vision clearly, so that whoever reads it may run with it’, I was not expecting my own vision statement to include stringed instruments. Oh, hang on a minute. Did I just say ‘Playing With Violins’? Surely not. I said ‘Praying With Violence’. We’re talking about spiritual warfare: asking God with forceful faith and passionate intensity for His kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. Forgive my international accent, you must have misheard.
I sat down on Monday morning at my desk and decided that perhaps it might be appropriate for me personally to do that same exercise which I had just invited all of you to complete: to spend an hour considering my identity, calling, vision and goals for this coming year. I thought I already had the vision: ‘Sustainable Revival’ – inspired by John the Baptist’s picture of the Holy Spirit descending and remaining upon Jesus who promises to baptize all His followers in that same experience of sustained communion with the personal presence and power of God; and by our own eager desire to learn from our time in Cambridge. ‘Sustainable Revival’ – what would it look like to continue passionately contending for revival, but in a way that would be sustainable for us as a family. And I spent a fruitful hour trying to work out how the different desires and dreams that God has been stirring up in my heart might translate into a schedule for the coming year. But that evening our friend Simon Hales arrived to visit, for precisely 24 hours. Now Simon is one of our closest friends: of all the people on the face of the earth, one of those who knows us best. He was on our DTS staff team in YWAM Cambridge (where he remains), pressing on with us towards the prize of the upward call in Christ Jesus.
He helped defuse the sometimes explosive problems caused by my blundering relational bluntness; and was always ready to give us encouragement, edification and comfort. In short, he is a prophet to us (cf. 1 Cor. 14:1-3) – although it is his skill as a pastor of people that probably stands out most strongly when in contrast to my own set of abilities and gifts. And wanting to receive him as a prophet (cf. Matt. 10:41) we wanted not just to eat and talk and see the sights of Liverpool, but to worship together. So I picked him up from the station, we gave him some dinner, and was then itching to go up and sit around our piano and enter into the throne-room of the King of Kings. But Taryn hadn’t spent the car ride catching up with him, and had been putting Anu to bed while he was having his food, and so needed at least a few minutes of conversation first. No problem. They could carry on with conversation. I was going to start worshipping and they could join me when they were ready. Taryn and Simon continued talking for half an hour or so. And then they joined me and we had a glorious time of singing and prayer. But in the time I’d been waiting, me and the Holy Spirit (with the help of piano and Bible) had been having our own conversation. And now I had an unusual request for Simon: ‘would you buy me a violin?’
Worship is not, of course, merely singing. God is no longer interested in us going through religious rituals and offering ceremonial sacrifices. (Was He ever?) Rather, we are called to live every moment of our lives as living sacrifices. Nevertheless, there is a difference between those moments when you are able explicitly and intentionally to give Jesus your full attention, and those other bits of your day when you have to do the things that need to be done (Lk. 10:38-42). And music can be a helpful tool to help our hearts and minds tune into the sound of God’s voice (2 Kings 3:15). But it can also become a distraction and indeed an idol. God is not looking for us to worship with these instruments or that style of music. The Father is seeking worshippers who will worship in spirit and in truth (Jn. 4:23).
In this last month or so, I have felt like God is giving me my arrows back. ‘Arrows’ are a metaphorical image for ‘sons and daughters’ (Psalm 127:4), in that you sharpen them and then fire them out into the world. And ‘sons and daughters’ applies both naturally and spiritually – to children and to disciples. I have hardly spoken the word ‘ABLAZE’ — certainly I haven’t defined it (or, more honestly, interpreted it) — but already a team is rapidly gathering. Last month I mentioned some of the circles of people we’ve connected with, and asked especially that you’d pray for more labourers hungry for prayer, worship and mission to gather as part of an ABLAZE core team. Well, in just a few weeks we’ve had five more indicate that they’re keen to be fully involved: Alison Meek, Mark Nuttall, Mark’s cousin Bethany, Pete Clark (who is moving from York), and Abigail Bramble (who is moving from Wrexham). What might it look like to sharpen these arrows that I suddenly find in my quiver?
One of my favourite Bible stories (unfortunately I have yet to find a children’s Bible that includes it!) is that of Elisha and the king of Israel in 2 Kings 13:14-25. Elisha is on his deathbed, and the king comes to mourn the impending loss of the nation’s spiritual leader. Elisha knows that what the king is really worried about is the military threat from Syria, so he invites the king to fire an arrow out the window, explaining that it’s a prophetic picture of the victory the Lord will give him over Syria. He then invites him to strike the remaining arrows on the ground. But rather than forcefully taking hold of this prophetic promise of victory, the king half-heartedly taps the arrows on the ground: once, twice, three times. ‘Er, can I stop now?’ Elisha is furious. ‘If you had struck the arrows five or six times, you would have have made an end of Syria; but you will only strike three times–’ And before the king can apologise for his unbelief, Elisha is dead.
Strike the arrows on the ground. Not just three times, but five or six. The story of 2 Kings 13 is about taking hold of the prophetic word of the Lord with faith and persistence in order to contend for breakthrough, even when the direct relevance of that word makes no sense (cf. Naaman and getting baptized in the river Jordan, 2 Kings 5). When we were at David’s Tent in 2015, I felt God speak to me about how leading DTS was my ‘striking the arrows on the ground’. And I wondered if He was saying that we should press on to lead five or six R&R DTSes, rather than stopping after three. But by the end of that third DTS in Cambridge we were finished. Still, I think we were less like the king of Israel apathetically stopping after a few half-hearted taps, and more like the prophet on his deathbed. One could point out that the message of the story isn’t the precise number (do we obey God three times?, or five or six?), but that our obedience should be whole- not half-hearted. And whatever mistakes we made in Cambridge, no-one will suggest that we were half-hearted.
This drawing out of extended metaphors might seem a strange and tenuous way of engaging with Scripture. Surely this isn’t a responsible way To Read The Bible For All Its Worth? But I believe the Holy Spirit wants us to learn to see Scripture (and indeed all of reality) Through New Eyes: “The Biblical worldview is not given to us in the discursive and analytical language of philosophy and science, but in the rich and compact language of symbolism and art”. “Metaphor-misuse mitigators [comments Phil Pawlett Jackson] would caution us to see all other aspects of the parable as either incidental or hyperbole. But I am not a metaphor mitigator, I’m a parabolic realist, an allusive extremist, a metaphoric maximalist.” When you spend any time hanging around with Andy Henman (a founding member of the YWAM Cambridge team), then you come to realize that bad puns are a healthy part of any Father’s Heart, including God. (If you don’t believe me, read Jeremiah 1.)
So ‘arrows’, okay. But to fire arrows you need a bow. Could the metaphor stretch so far as to give some meaning to the ‘bow’? And the Spirit showed me that a bow is not just a weapon of war, but a musical instrument. Picture in your mind’s eye the opening scene of Second Samuel. An Amalekite arrives at Camp David with news of the death of Saul and Jonathan, claiming that he was the one who finished off David’s arch-nemesis.
In most cultures, such an unsentimental deed might have been commended – ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. But in the kingdom of God, no-one is allowed to stab a leader in the back. See David releasing a roar – of heart-broken grief, sorrow, rage and fury – just as Jesus would when he was confronted with the injustice of death (John 11:33). See David as he takes the bow and arrows that had been Jonathan’s very own (1 Samuel 18:4), a sign of their indestructible friendship and unbreakable covenant commitment to each other (1 Samuel 20:8, 23:18). See him putting an arrow to his bow and aiming it point-blank at the Amalekite, quivering with rage as he looks this bloodthirsty charlatan in the eye. Then see him lowering his bow and turning away, spitting on the ground in disgust as he commands one of his younger officers to execute him for treason. See him firing his arrow into the distance, just as Jonathan did on one of the last occasions they were able to speak together (1 Sam. 20:35-42), and then taking the rest of the arrows out of his quiver and striking them on the ground in violent grief, not just three times but again and again and again.
Finally, when the immediate shock had subsided somewhat, see David as he picks up his kinnor, his lyre. Until then he had played it with his hand (note the literal translation of 1 Sam. 16:23). But that day he took Jonathan’s bow, and gently played it across the strings of his instrument, lamenting that though ‘the bow of Jonathan never turned back’ (2 Samuel 2:22), nevertheless his mighty friend had fallen. And as he sang for one last time his chorus of prophetic grief – ‘How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!’ – David resolved that from that day Jonathan’s bow would never be used as a weapon of bloodshed and death, but as an instrument to create harmony. So David commanded the people of Judah to learn this ‘Song of the Bow’ (2 Samuel 1:18). Thus he invented the violin.
‘Um, Peter, I don’t think that’s really how the violin was invented…’ –What? Are you calling me a lyre?’ ‘Argh! Stop! You’re doing violins to the English language!’ Ahem.
On Tuesday morning we took Simon into the city centre and visited the two cathedrals. But before doing that we went into a music shop. ‘Er, hello. I’d like to buy a violin. No, I’ve never played one before…’ ‘–Of course, sir. New Year’s Resolution?’ ‘Um, something like that I suppose…’ So Simon accepted my invitation to invest in this unusual prophetic parable, and bought me a violin. And then we went and saw the cathedrals. And then we came home for lunch. And Isaac was eager to be allowed to play my new violin. ‘No Isaac, it’s not a toy, it’s a valuable musical instrument–’ ‘–But please Daddy can I play it?’ And the Holy Spirit gave me a little nudge: ‘This word isn’t just for you – it’s for you and your household!’ (Acts 16:31). So the next morning we were at the music shop again.
In our last letter, I explained how I was impressed by John the Baptist, and his clarity of identity, purpose and vision. In Matthew 11, we see Jesus was impressed too: ‘Among those born of women there has arisen none greater than John the Baptist’. But he continues: ‘Yet greater still is even the least in the kingdom of heaven’ – that is, whoever has been born again through faith in the resurrection of Jesus. And then, somewhat cryptically, Jesus adds: ‘From the days of John the Baptist, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.’ It is impossible to say for sure whether Jesus meant this violence to be interpreted negatively or positively. John the Baptist certainly experienced his (un!)fair share of negative violence: he was imprisoned by Herod for daring to suggest that the standards of biblical holiness might even apply to a king’s marriage, and was eventually beheaded (Mark 6:14-29). But he is also a positive example of what spiritual violence means: denying the desires of the flesh as he lived in the wilderness on a fasted diet of locusts (Mk. 1:6); fearlessly confronting the corruption and complacency of his contemporaries (Lk. 3:7); willingly dying to himself so that Jesus might be seen as greater (Jn. 1:15,30; 3:30).
In an age when the phrase ‘religious violence’ immediately conjures up images of terrorist attacks, some would say that we need to stop using military metaphors. And I admit that I have much to learn about how to graciously and winsomely communicate the blessing of Jesus to those who find the Bible offensive and incomprehensible. On the other hand, I suspect that the devil would be only too glad if we were to lose the confidence to use the language of Ephesians 6 and 2 Corinthians 10 – of waging war and putting on armour. Jesus prefaces his statement about spiritual violence by saying “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matt. 11:6). But maybe the peacekeepers are right. Maybe we should avoid the language of ‘violence’ as much as possible. So let’s talk about ‘violins’ instead of violence. Let’s learn to use musical metaphors rather than military ones. Let’s talk more about how David poured out his heart in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs; and then how he surrounded the Ark of the Covenant with singers and musicians worshipping night and day – and less about how he killed Goliath.
‘But Peter, you’re not really musical! You can’t play the violin!’ When I was at child at school, I was repeatedly encouraged to learn a musical instrument. And I refused. I suppose there were minor exceptions. At primary school, you of course have to learn the recorder – and try as I might to tell my mother how much I hated recorder class, there was no escape. I did also agree to try and learn the guitar for a term or two: long enough to deeply root within me the conviction that I should never play guitar again and I must never ever let anyone know I had actually had guitar lessons. (Guitar is the worst instrument to be taught through formal lessons, because you spend the rest of your life meeting people who say ‘Oh, I never really had any proper teaching’ and then skilfully and soulfully demonstrating that being able to learn has little if anything to do with being taught). And there was saxophone, which I took up (for the grand total of about two lessons) in order to convince the powers that be to let me drop a subject taught by a teacher whose classroom seemed too small for the two of us to happily coexist. But then at university, overwhelmed by the pressures of a difficult degree and the challenge of being homesick for a home I didn’t have in a country people thought was my own, I discovered the joy of extended times of worship.
Thank-you, Sunday night services at St Barnabas. That next vacation I found my old guitar in a forgotten corner of my bedroom, hiding under a thick layer of dust. I took it back to uni and discovered how helpful it can be to play even just a loop of two simple chords as you engage devotionally with Scripture. There was no need for me to lead others in worship though – surely that could be left to those with a little more musical skill! And then we joined YWAM. My first time leading public worship was at the London Olympic Burn, where we were leading a short-term outreach. It was late one evening, and I was about to head back to the house we were staying when the organizer came over to ask if our team could help – the musicians who were supposed to lead the next two-hour worship set had failed to arrive. Now it was about 11.30pm and most of our team had just headed home. ‘Sorry, all of our musicians have gone to bed… But I suppose I could do it, if you don’t mind it being really simple. Do you have a few chord-sheets somewhere?’ ‘–Simple is fine! That would be great! Here are some chords…’ And thus I was commissioned to be as a prophetic musician and singer, a voice literally crying out at midnight that the Bridegroom is coming (Matt. 25:6).
What was our mistake in Cambridge? That me and Taryn didn’t have the tools to give each other healthy feedback, and we weren’t able to maintain healthy boundaries, and our home stopped being a safe space and started feeling like a war zone. Eventually it seemed that either our home was too small for the two of us to coexist together, or Cambridge was too small for us to coexist together with our YWAM team. Marriage takes covenantal priority over ministry, so we had to leave. We had to find somewhere where we would have the necessary creative freedom to wholeheartedly pursue our missionary mandate and complete our apostolic assignment without putting any unnecessary strain on the foundations of our family. Since moving to Liverpool, God has given us some real breakthrough in understanding the relational tools to sustain a healthy culture of revival.
One of the keys for Taryn has been Danny Silk’s book, Keep Your Love On. I’m not a great fan of his writing style, and if you are interested in learning what he has to say about healthy relational culture I would say to avoid Keep Your Love On and Culture of Honour and cut straight to the chase with the Foundations of Honour Study Guide – but maybe that’s just me. Anyway pray for me (and Taryn), as we seek to avoid stylistic prejudice and learn all we can from him and whoever else might have the gifts we need. Maybe we don’t have to make the same mistakes again.
‘This word isn’t just for you – it’s for you and your household’. That includes everyone in the household of faith. This might include you. What might it look like for you to ‘pray with violence’ this year? To pray with clarity and boldness. To forcefully put your convictions into words and fearlessly announce them, in the confident expectation that as you do so, God will respond in surprising and supernatural ways.
What might it look like for you to ‘play with violins’?
- To learn a new skill?
- To break your agreement with the demonic lie that claims ‘I can’t sing’?
- To participate whole-heartedly in musical worship?
- To make space in your schedule for a little more playful creativity?
- To find covenant friends with which you learn how to be instruments of harmony and reconciliation in a world wounded from violence and aching with grief?
- To invest financially in those you know who are called to write songs and sing praise to the glory of God?
- To break out of dead literalism and embrace a little prophetic metaphor?
- To embrace simple literalism and actually buy a violin and sign up for music lessons – see what else God will teach you as you do so!
Strike the arrows on the ground. Not just three times, but five or six. What might it look like to sharpen these arrows that I suddenly find in my quiver? What might it look like to help them fine-tune the strings of their hearts that we might dwell in unity and pray in one accord and play in harmony? What might it look like to set ABLAZE these thirsty worshippers with the faith and self-control to sustain the fiery presence of the Holy Spirit? What might it look like to fire these fiery arrows out into the streets of this city; and into the cities of this nation; and into the nations of this world? What might it look like to make them into disciples who would make disciples of whatever other people or indeed nations they might encounter? Perhaps you could pray for us – for wisdom, for revelation, for discernment, for an understanding of times and seasons, for a healthy decision-making process.
Then I said, “Ah Lord GOD! They are saying of me, ‘Is he not just speaking parables?’” (Ezekiel 20:49)
I still have many things to share – but that is more than enough for now. (John 16:21)
Grace and peace be multiplied to you through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. (2 Peter 1:2)
Your friends in Christ, Peter, Taryn, Isaac and Anu