Sunday, 20 May 2018

The Discipleship Challenge

Revd. Dr. Peggy Kabonde

One of the keynote speakers at the recent conference for United Reformed Church ministers held at the Yarnfield Conference Centre (Stone) was the Revd. Dr. Peggy Kabonde. Dr. Kabonde is the General Secretary of the United Church of Zambia. In three inspiring, and powerful, addresses she explored the challenge to discipleship that lies before the church. She reminded us that we face the very same challenge as that with which Jesus confronted four fishermen (Andrew, Simon, James and John) on the beach beside Lake Galilee – ‘come with me and fish for people’. We are called to go with Jesus and to tell the story.

She began by asking us to consider some basic, but important, questions concerning the church. These were:
What is Church?
Why is Church?
Who runs the Church?
Where is Church?
Why is there Church?

We live in a fast-changing world, especially in terms of technology and social media, and need to consider how we can engage effectively and appropriately with the context in which we are set. Importantly, she reminded us that “the starting point of the early church on discipleship was practical rather than theoretical.” That was a timely reminder for a church that is so good at the planning stage, but somehow seems to be so much less expert at moving beyond that. She encouraged us to look at ourselves as “people of presence, rather than agonising over how to make plans. Being contextual is critical, but not at the expense of the message.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

This Is Our Story

Recently we had a big conference to which all ministers of the United Reformed Church were invited and over half (a little more than 300) came. It was an inspiring opportunity to see the breadth of the United Reformed Church and to gain a glimpse of the variety of what God is doing through our denomination. It was encouraging that, despite some pre-conference misgivings, it received a very substantial ‘thumbs up’ from those who attended.

The over-arching theme was the URC’s current emphasis on missional discipleship under the banner of ‘Walking the Way: living the life of Jesus today.’

The Bible studies helped us get into this theme. Loveday Alexander, who led these, guided us through a whistle-stop tour of Mark’s Gospel, encouraging us to see the journey as a pilgrimage. She reminded us that the story is not just the story of Jesus, but also the story of the first disciples. The story of Jesus is lived out through those who follow him. Thus, Jesus’ story today is our story and it is our task to make the Kingdom live in meaningful ways.

She reminded us “Discipleship is not an autonomous goal nor an end in itself. Discipleship is part of a bigger story: the messianic community is called into being to act as agents for the Kingdom of God.” In the end we are, or should be, about doing stuff for God.

“Discipleship therefore cannot be divorced from ecclesiology. Disciples are called as individuals to be part of a community. A distinctive calling – to work together for the furthering of God’s Kingdom.” We each have our part to play. That is being a disciple – but we need to remember that we are part of something bigger. That’s a church!

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Lost and Found

The idea of being found is something very special and a key Biblical concept. There are, for instance, the three 'lost and found' stories - about the sheep, the coin and the son - but they are just some of the best known among many such examples. Brother David Steindl-Rast picks up this notion in his Gratefulness: the Heart of Prayer, writing: (p. 117) – “I find. But what I find is not what I was looking for. I find that what I was after, without knowing it, wasn’t finding at all, but being found. And at that moment I am found.”

Finding is something that produces great joy, as does being found. It is worth remembering how God comes looking for us.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Weather Report

I want to share another thought from Brother David Steindl-Rast's Gratefulness; the Heart of Prayer. The book helps us to see something of the way in which God takes things beyond our understanding In this particular passage he mixes two metaphors, food and the weather, and uses them to helpfully indicate the importance and value of recognising that different ways of doing things each have something vital to contribute.

Steindl-Rast writes: 
p. 110/1 – “The banquet of life is the challenge to cultivate and broaden our taste. Every one of us begins with a provincial taste. Life challenges us to acquire a cosmopolitan, a truly catholic taste. In this learning process, some of us falter at the simplest exercises. Think, for instance, of the weather. With every change of weather a new adventure awaits us; each new season has its own recipes for dishing up new surprises. And we? ……  to give ourselves to the sea breeze on a spring day is one thing; to step out into the mist and fog of a winter morning with the same sense of adventure demands more courage. Yet, if we draw back, how can we ever taste the unique flavour that only fog can convey to our heart, as it hides and reveals, conceals and shows again trees with dripping twigs and people in raincoats with dripping noses. How much of life is lost on us unless we can enjoy every kind of weather in its own way? How can we expect to find life in fullness unless we learn to live “by every word that comes from the mouth of God”?”

We need to experience and value the greatness of God - stepping out into the sunshine and the fog, in other words, whatever the weather.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

God's Message Hits The Spot

I have been reading Brother David Steindl-Rast's Gratefulness: The Heart of Prayer and was particularly struck  by a passage in which he explores how God speaks to us in different, but relevant, ways. Just as we think we have got things pinned down, God comes from another angle, challenging, encouraging, inspiring, whatever it is that we need.

Steindl-Rast writes: 
"p. 108/9 – “God’s faithfulness needs to be spelled out in ever new forms forever and ever. Everything there is in the whole universe exists for no other reason than to get this message across. In faith the heart intuits this secret. God’s message is always the same. But the way the message is expressed makes all the difference. You may perceive the message in an apple orchard in full bloom. But the same message is also there in a forest fire. The difference would be bewildering, but to discover the same message in different disguises turns it all into a delightful game, a spelling game. That horse frolicking in the meadow is one way to spelling out God’s Word; the cat asleep in my lap is another. Each is unique, untranslatable. Poems can’t be translated; they can at best be approximated in a different language. In a poem the language counts as much as the message. God is the poet. If we want to know what God says in a tomato, we must look at a tomato, feel it, smell it, bite into it, have the juice and seeds squirt all over us when it pops. We must savour it and learn this tomato poem “by heart.” But what God must say can’t be exhausted in tomato language. So, God gives us lemons and speaks in Lemonese. Living by the Word means learning God’s languages, one by one, a lifetime long.”

It is not that God gives different messages - but it is that God gives relevant messages.

Monday, 2 April 2018

An Easter Reflection

Mark 16, verse 8 – So they went out and ran from the tomb, distressed and terrified.They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. It is widely believed by scholars that this is how Mark’s Gospel originally ended, and that what follows is a later addition.

That describes an interesting response to Easter – and one that is somewhat different from how we expect to be marking this momentous point in our faith history. What are we about if we are not about Easter? Easter is the high-point. Easter provides our driving-force. Easter is to be celebrated – in a big way! But Mark tells us that those who first encountered Easter were distressed and terrified, saying nothing to anyone.

In a sense, this is not what we expect – but, on the other, we can very clearly see it as an entirely understandable reaction. Can you even begin to imagine what it would have felt like to be there with those women? You have gone, somewhat apprehensively, to pay your last respects. You have taken spices, a last demonstration of your love. However, you have wondered if it was all going to be pointless. How on earth would you get access to the tomb? Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb? You have wondered what you were doing, and yet somehow felt compelled to go. If the stone prevented you from doing all that you wished, at least you will have tried. So, anxiously, nervously, you make your way to the site of the tomb. And, when you get there, indeed it does prove to have been pointless to bring spices to anoint a body. But that is nothing to do with not being able to access the tomb. Instead, and this must have been so beyond what they were expecting, they see a young man, an angel, who tells them: Don’t be alarmed. I know you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is not here – he has been raised.

How would you have reacted? What would you have done with this information? It is so different looking back, once again, to a story that we know so well from how it must have been to actually be there receiving this unexpected news. No wonder they were distressed and terrified. No wonder they kept quiet.

It is worth remembering that Mark tells us about two other occasions when the disciples were terrified and silent in response to what Jesus had done. In Mark 4 we have the account of how Jesus calmed a storm. How did the disciples respond? With exultant joy? No! But they were terribly afraid and said to one another, “Who is this man? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” And there is a similar response to the incredible scene which we now normally call the transfiguration. The three disciples, Peter, James and John, have seen this amazing vision of Jesus alongside Moses and Elijah. How did they respond? Peter and the others were so frightened that he did not know what to say.

It is interesting that, throughout the Bible, the initial response of human beings who have caught a glimpse of the wonder and glory of God is one of a bit of wonder, yes, but strongly tinged with fear and confusion. The same could be said, for instance, of Moses’ encounter with God through the burning bush and Isaiah’s temple vision.

But, if we are a little disappointed in such responses, it may be that that is exactly what is wanted from us. Because it is surely when we see, no matter how much we understand it, how they reacted, and perhaps think that they should have responded differently, that we begin to realise that the call to discipleship, our call to discipleship, is serious and engages us deeply. Because the question of the moment in all of these situations is essentially – will you continue to follow Jesus? And, today, Easter, and every Easter but, more than that, every day, we are faced with the same question – will you, will I, continue to follow the Jesus?  Putting it differently, will we walk the way?

Brief address given at the early service on Easter Day 2018 at Grays United Reformed Church

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Keeping the Feast

I AM that I am. Tell them that I AM has sent you to them. – Jesus said to the servants, ‘Fill the jars with water.’’ And they filled them to the brim. With those two thoughts in the background, I want to reflect briefly on the matter of our encountering God, and all that does.

Recently I read a book entitled “Keeping The Feast” by Milton Brasher-Cunningham. Brasher-Cunningham was a cook and each chapter is based on a particular meal, followed by a recipe, and then a poem. I want to cite three comments in the book that particularly struck me and which I think have to something interesting to say on the theme of ‘keeping the feast’.

The first of these is this: “Communion is a meal on the go.  Whenever we share the meal, we do so in transition.  We need the time together to look at one another’s lives, to describe the ripples we see, and to remind one another that change is as basic to our diet as love itself. I believe that we are a travelling people, a journeying people, a pilgrim people – use whichever word you prefer. We are indeed in transition. One of our watchwords as a reformed church is ‘semper reformanda’ or, as Brasher-Cunningham puts it, change is as basic to our diet as love itself. I think that is really challenging. These days, I find that a lot of what I am doing is managing change, and that is probably true for most in ministry. And it’s difficult. No matter how loudly people say they are up for it, often they are not, or certainly only on their terms.

There are many parallels we can draw with the Israelite people in the wilderness, the place they were about to enter under the leadership of Moses, following his call from God to lead the people to a new phase. And all the jokes about changing lightbulbs spring to mind. But let’s put them aside and, with God’s help, continue on the journey to which we are called.

My second comment from Brasher-Cunningham is this: “It’s a stretch to think of the words wastefully and prodigal as descriptive of God, but then again look at the extravagance of a sunset or an iris or a bluebird. Whether as individuals or institutions, we are pointed towards self-preservation, yet we belong to a God who is not a save-it-for-a-rainy-day kind of God. Brasher-Cunningham goes on to refer to the story of the one whom we usually call the ‘rich young ruler’ and how, when he came to Jesus, he was asked to give away everything – but he simply could not face being such a spendthrift. Here is a clear and important reminder that God turns things upside down. What do we do with what we have and are? And what do we do when the world around us would say that we are wasting stuff, time, resource, whatever – but that’s what God seems to be telling us to do. Putting it another way, how do we respond to the need, and the call, to be counter-cultural?

Brasher-Cunningham’s third comment particularly reflects the way in which we most often celebrate Communion. I like to have a hunk of a bread and a chalice brimming with wine – but I have usually got bread cut into tiny cubes and tiny glasses of wine. By the way, despite my preferences, it doesn’t actually matter what are the elements we are using. I happily used coke and biscuits one time in a remote area of Panama. What matters is what we are doing. 

However, though I would want to state that very strongly, I also take Brasher-Cunningham’s point when he writes: “I wish we came to the altar expecting to eat more than a small hint of bread. What if we came around for seconds; we have plenty, come and eat again. Drink one. Drink two or three or seven. There’s enough to go around and then some, because we belong to God.

There is, of course, a concept of enough – and that is also we need. But we need to juxtapose that with a concept of abundance – because that is what God is like. You spread a table for me in the presence of my enemies; you have richly anointed my head with oil, and my cup brims over. My cups brims over. It’s those stone jars at Cana, filled to the brim, and filled with the best quality wine. Our God is generous, sharing abundantly with us.  He is the bread of life.  He offers the living water.  His hospitality, and welcome, and abundance is amazing.  That’s grace, God’s grace, there for us.

Address given at the Eastern Synod of the URC Ministers’ Gathering at Launde Abbey, September 2017 – with minor adaptions.