Sunday, 31 December 2017

Chinhoyi


One of the interesting facets of our recent visit to Zimbabwe was going to Chinhoyi which I have only visited once before, back in 2010. Chinhoyi is about two hours’ drive from Harare and we went there having come from Bulawayo, on to Gweru, and then to Chinhoyi, where we stayed overnight prior to continuing to Harare.

The main purpose was to visit Lomagundi Uniting Presbyterian Church and see something of the excellent work that is undertaken by the clinic that is based there. This is an extremely good initiative that has now been in place for a significant number of years. It is a great example of the church engaged in practical action and popular in the local community because of the low charges.
 
It was also good to meet a number of folk from the church and hear something of their life and mission. One of their issues is the number of young people that they attract.


Alongside that, we visited the famous Chinhoyi caves – and were impressed by the interesting geological formations.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Bulawayo

Makokoba Church
I really enjoyed spending the first few days of my recent visit to Zimbabwe in Bulawayo. It was a long bus ride from Harare – about six hours – but good to be back in that part of the country.

On the Sunday I preached at Makokoba where my friend, Paul Neshangwe, is minister. It was a great service, with lots of good and lively music, and the well directed choir providing good musical leadership. It is so good to go to a completely different context, and yet still feel the strength of the Gospel.

Clearly their society has many challenges, as does ours, but that congregation is certainly approaching things with a vibrant faith. I was pleased to emphasise the importance of doing what God calls us to, whether it be large or small.

At Vimbridge
The following day we visited the developing agricultural project at Vimbridge. This is a new initiative, making use of a significant area of land owned by the church. A ‘greenhouse’ has been established where cucumbers and tomatoes are grown and they are beginning to cultivate parcels of land in order to grow corn. One area has been set aside for the building of a centre by the women of the denomination, and they have already erected a block of toilets and so were able to bring tents for a recent conference.
Growing tomatoes in the greenhouse

One interesting aspect is that part of the land had been ‘squatted’ by a number of families and so the church have decided that, rather than evict these illegal residents, they will attempt to work with them, inviting them to be partners in the developing agricultural project.





Being in Bulawayo was a good reminder of a faith expressed in vibrant worship, but also in practical action.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Holy Habits

Can you imagine being in the temple with Isaiah? What on earth was going on? I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. And then there are the seraphs calling to one another – Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty: the whole earth is full of his glory. There is what one commentator calls an “overwhelming sense of God’s holiness”. I rather like being overwhelmed by God’s holiness. I am inclined to consider it a very good thing.

In contrast, or so it seems, four fishermen wandering on the beach beside the lake encounter Jesus and he invites them, challenges them, encourages them – come, follow me. It seemed such an ordinary meeting, and yet it changed their lives for ever. I like it that God changes our lives for ever.

We are called to ministry, all of us. We are called to do all sorts of special things. We are called to be disciples. There is a lot talk these days about missional discipleship. That’s fine. It’s what we need to be doing. The only problem that I have with folk talking about missional discipleship is that I am not sure what other kind there is. If we are going to be disciples in any serious sense, how can we be other than missional? It should be in our DNA. We are called to proclaim the good news in action and in word. That’s being a disciple. That’s being a missional disciple. So, as we think about being called to ministry, being called to discipleship, we should think about what it means to be the church here and now, about what exactly it is that we are called to do.

Of course there are many different ways in which we could approach describing how to do that to which God calls us. One of the expressions that is being used in the United Reformed Church at the moment is to talk about developing holy habits. I like that idea. I think that it has got to be good for us to develop holy habits – and I think that if we do we will get it right so far as our calling to be God’s light in our community is concerned. The URC is using a list of ten holy habits. It is a good list, with good habits, but I am going to offer you an alternative list. It is not that it is a better list. It is just that it is a different list – and, in a few places, I really like the way it puts things. And it is a shorter list. There are only five on this list, but five habits that, I think, help us to respond in the same way as Isaiah did – here am I. Send me. Five habits that help us to heed those words with which Jesus challenged those who became the first disciples – follow me. 

The list is drawn from a book entitled “Surprise The World” by Michael Frost. Here are five behaviours, five things we can do, five things everybody can do. Some of them will perhaps push us a bit, but then what’s wrong with that? But none of them are difficult. Here’s stuff we can do, that we can challenge others to do, that will make a difference, at least I think it will. 

The first holy habit that Frost suggests is to BLESS. He writes: “The first habit I want you to consider embracing is that of blessing others.  In fact, I’d like you to bless three people each week – at least one of whom is a member of your church and at least one of whom is not.  The third can be from either category.” It all seems so simple, and yet couldn’t it make such a difference if we could motivate ourselves to adopt this suggestion? We are so good at identifying what is wrong with people. Here’s the challenge to celebrate what’s good, to encourage others, and, in so doing, share the love of Christ. What might it mean? Frost suggests that blessing another normally falls into one of three categories. In the first place you might say something to encourage the person you are blessing – what Frost calls ‘words of affirmation’ – send a card, an email, a note, text them. A second choice could be an act of kindness – cutting an old lady’s lawn, babysitting for an exhausted couple – doing a favour, offering some practical support. The third choice is to give a gift, just a little something to show someone they are appreciated. And we are not talking about birthdays or Christmas here. This is random gift-giving. A bunch of flowers is the most obvious. It might be a bottle of wine. Something to cheer up the recipient. So there is the first holy habit – to bless someone you encounter.

The second of Frost’s holy habits is to EAT. This isn’t, of course, about going and grabbing a bite to eat. What Frost says is: “If you eat with others, you’ll develop a greater capacity for hospitality.” He explains what he is getting at like this: “I want you to foster the habit of eating with three people every week. But I want you to know that this isn’t merely good missional strategy.  It is a way to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.  ….  It’s always interested me that the one thing Jesus actually told us to do every time we meet together was to eat” adding, “It’s not lost on me that his detractors regularly accused him of being a drunkard and a glutton.” I think I want to say a couple of things about this one. The first is that we might see it as saying something about church lunches or other meals together. We know all about lunch clubs for the elderly. Messy church has now introduced a new dimension to church meals. But what about just going out as a group sometimes. They started doing that at one of the churches I served in Birmingham. They just put up a sign-up sheet and a number of people would go out to one of the local pubs once in a while. My only complaint is that they only started it after I left. The second thing to say is that, if we are encouraging people to offer hospitality, and it seems that three a week is too many, and it probably is, then think a little lower. One a month would be good – and realistic. And remember, as Frost says, “The table ought to be the primary symbol of the Christian gathering.  It represents hospitality, inclusivity, generosity, and grace.” So that’s eating.

The third holy habit in Frost’s list is to LISTEN. This is primarily about listening to God, though it is perhaps worth throwing in a comment about the value of listening to other people. Frost says: “The third habit I want you to foster is that of listening for the Spirit’s voice. I suggest you find one chunk of time, preferably at the beginning of each week, to stop and create space to commune with God.” We need to listen for the voice of God. Here, surely, is something about prayer. I do think it is something that most of us too easily neglect. Frost says this: “When it comes to lifting or opening the heart to God the Holy Spirit, most people tend to do all of the talking and do not allow time for a reply. We have to learn how to listen.” I could, of course, go on and say a lot about prayer, but simply want to emphasise the importance of finding a way and a time to listen to God. It is crucial. It is the one holy habit that is going to be included in every list.

The fourth in Frost’s list of holy habits is to LEARN. Frost talks about being ‘immersed’ in the Gospels.  He says this: “The expression “to learn Christ” was a common one among the earliest Christians, but it’s not a phrase we use much these days. In the early centuries of the Christian movement, conversion involved denying the pagan gods and entering a period of catechism, committing oneself to an intensive study of the person and work of Jesus. We would do well to institute a habitual study of the Gospels.” There is no doubt that learning, Bible study, is a key holy habit. Bible study can be really exciting, learning about Jesus, learning ‘with’ Jesus can be really exciting – but too many don’t see it like that. What can, should, we be doing to promote this fourth holy habit of learning? If we are concerned with following Jesus, and that surely is the simplest and best way of defining discipleship, then we must get people to engage with Jesus, the Jesus of the Gospels, as well as the Jesus of today. As Frost puts it: “If I’m calling people to live an incarnational life, I’m asking them to pattern their lives on the Incarnation (with a capital I).  How are we to do that – unless we become avid students of the life, work, and teaching of Jesus?”

Then the fifth of Frost’s holy habits is SENT. I suppose we really need to say ‘being sent’. He comments: “you’ll increasingly see yourself as a sent one, or a missionary in your own neighbourhood.” At one level this appears to be stating the obvious, and yet it so crucial, and actually so difficult. We often think that we can’t do evangelism. Yet we can. It’s just a case of encountering people in Jesus’ Name. That is, in part, why I so like the first two of the holy habits that Michael Frost identifies. In the end it is quite simple. We don’t need elaborate programmes. We don’t need specialist skills. If we could just get folk blessing a few people, and eating with a few people, I think we would, very quickly, find lots of evangelism going on. We need to allow ourselves to be sent, and we need to encourage others in that direction also. That’s discipleship. That’s ministry. That’s mission. That’s a church.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Holy Habits in Lusaka

While in Lusaka as the guest of the United Church of Zambia, I was invited to speak at devotions at the Synod Office on the Thursday (7th Dec). It was good to be part of the office staff’s start to the day in that way. As the United Reformed Church in the UK is in the process of initiating a renewed emphasis on discipleship under the title ‘Walking the Way – living the life of Jesus today’, I took the opportunity to say something about that.

In particular, I spoke of the idea, very much part of the programme, of encouraging folk in the churches to develop a series of holy habits, using these as a means of focussed defining of discipleship – though I did depart from the ‘official’ list of ten, drawn from Acts 2.

Instead, mainly because I prefer a briefer list, I identified five ‘holy habits’ which I commended as a good way in to committed discipleship. The first was to ‘bless’ – to do something small as a means of encouraging someone; to ‘offer hospitality/be generous’; to ‘listen’, both to God, and to those we encounter in all sorts of circumstances; to engage in ‘prayer and Bible study’, ensuring these have sufficient priority in our lives; and to ‘celebrate’, giving the note of joy an appropriate place in our lives.

Having shared these thoughts at the Synod Office, I was then invited to go to the radio station run by the United Church of Zambia to be interviewed on what I had shared in devotions. It was an unexpected and enjoyable opportunity to share some of our emerging thinking on holy habits.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Mwenzo and Nakonde

Mwenzo Girls' Boarding School
Recently I had the opportunity to spend a great week in Zambia, my first visit to that country. Arrival in Lusaka was followed by a very long drive - about 15 hours on the road - to Mwenzo, which is very close to Nakonde which sits on the border with Tanzania. I went to visit a mission partner from the United Reformed Church who serves as headteacher of the United Church of Zambia's boarding school for girls at Mwenzo. It is a good school, doing very well on its results and working, as do all schools in southern Africa, with significantly limited resources.

On the Sunday (December 3) I went to a united service at Nakonde. We were there to honour the
Worshipping at Nakonde
With the Bishop and his wife,
also an ordained minister 
Presbytery Bishop, who is due to retire in a year, as well as celebrate the first Sunday of Advent. Lively singing was accompanied by a bit of dancing and a powerful sermon challenged the congregation who gathered in the grounds, as the building would not have been big enough, though under awnings as protection from the hot sun. Some five choirs all made their contribution and I was able to bring greetings from the United
Reformed Church. The service, which lasted about three hours, offered me a good reminder of the celebratory nature of African worship, something I think we need to capture.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Hilda of Whitby

Hilda of Whitby was clearly a strong character, as is evidenced from reading Ray Simpson’s book, Hilda of Whitby. She made a big impact. As Simpson comments, “More important than Hilda’s great energy and ability, however, was her management style of love.”

She was born in 614AD and died in 680AD. She became Abbess of Hartlepool Abbey before moving to Whitby to found the new abbey there in 657. This was a double abbey for both monks and nuns and Hilda’s position of leadership is an indicator of her abilities and the respect in which she was held. She also played an important role in the Synod of Whitby in 664, one of the great meetings of the Christian church in the British Isles.

Simpson suggests three key characteristics which demonstrate what Hilda was like and how she provided a helpful example:

-       Having a big enough heart without being anyone’s fool.
-       Enabling much to come to birth, without allowing that which has already come to birth to die out through lack of a secure, affirming framework in which to grow.
-       Maintaining consistency; standing with the marginalised without losing our own identity.

There is clearly a great deal to gain from reflecting on Hilda’s example.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

To Be A Pilgrim

I really enjoyed Charles Foster’s The Sacred Journey. It is part of a series exploring ancient Christian practices and how they can contribute to spirituality today. Foster is dealing with the practice of pilgrimage and, for me, does so in an engaging and innovative way.

He stresses that being on the move is inevitably part of who we are and he is not averse to learning from other pilgrims, including those of other faiths. I was impressed by his open approach which seems to me to be reflective of Jesus. I also agree that pilgrimage needs to be part of what we do, even though it may well not involve a literal and physical long walk.

Foster recognises that there are some who can’t walk, and the pain that produces, but he sees walking as, normally speaking, part of being human and contributory to how we deal with all sorts of things. “Humans have never forgotten that they were designed as walkers. When things go wrong, they go for a walk, and … that seems to make things better. When they want to feel what it is like to be a human being (instead of a lawyer, an academic, or an acronym), they lace up their boots. When they want to feel even more human, they take off their boots and walk barefoot.”

I was reminded, as I read that, of the five weeks I spent on the Valiente peninsula among the Guyami indigenous people, when ministerining in Panama, shortly before returning to the UK in 1994. For the most part, they went barefoot – and so did I, for some of the time. One of the things I failed to learn was the skill of barefoot. They never seemed to end with messy feet, no matter what the surface, but I certainly did, more than once. Somehow it seems wrong to think of pilgrimage as needing a skillset, but maybe that is not so. What are the skills needed by God’s pilgrims?

Foster also talks about the different ways in which we identify ourselves as God’s people and how sometimes it is not easy to find a good term. So, he asks: “how about “Jesus Wanderer”? or “Jesus Follower”? adding that he thinks God would approve of the concept – because “he, being God, is bound to be moving. He can’t keep still. And he has an alarmingly clear preference for people who can’t keep still.”

Life is, indeed, a journey; and Foster is clear, as I am, that it is the journey that is important. Arrival somehow is not part of what we are about on this journey. There is always somewhere else to go, something more to do. “Everything moves. We move too. Either willingly or unwillingly. Go willingly, and the business is redemptive and joyful. Go unwillingly, and the stream will dash and drown you.”

And then, I like this as a call to discipleship – “The Buddha’s last words to his disciples were, “Walk on.” The first words of Jesus to his were rather different: “Follow me.” Jesus said some other things, too, but as a summary of the four gospels, “Let’s go for a walk together” is not bad.”