Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Facing Decline, Finding Hope

I recently read “Facing Decline, Finding Hope: New Possibilities for Faithful Churches” by Jeffrey D. Jones. We are in a situation where, for the most part, the traditional mainline denominations of the church are in decline in the UK and in western society. That is, of course, nothing new, and sometimes we do well to remind ourselves of that. However, there is no doubt that it poses a challenge. One thing that strikes me is that we can mourn the decline and get caught up in questioning why it is happening, when what we are actually called to do is to bear witness – and leave the rest to God.

One important point to note is that sometimes we are called to lay things down. On the whole we are not good at that. We want to sustain things. But, as Jones reminds us: “This is a time in which we need to face the difficult, often painful reality that new life comes only when we die to the old life. Too many renewal efforts seek to avoid this practical and theological reality, and because they do so, they are unable to address the true nature of our situation and offer a solid hope for the future. We need to be more concerned about resurrection than renewal.”

Alongside that he encourages us to look to get involved in what God is doing – “What matters is that we are convinced that God is up to something in this time, as much as in any time the Bible talks about, any time in history. What matters is that we are determined to be part of that thing, no matter what it is.”

The important thing is not to be concerned about what we might all ‘things going wrong’ but to be faithful to what God is calling us to be and do. There lies hope.

Jones reminds us that our focus needs to be mission. “Letting go of the congregation’s focus on its own concerns may be essential. Many congregations, especially those that are struggling, develop an inward focus. They are concerned about financial viability, maintaining programs, filling offices and boards. This is quite natural, but it is also deadly. Refocusing the congregation on what God is up to in the world is difficult, but essential. Simply asking the question may create resistance. Both practically and theologically this shift is needed, however. Chances of survival are greater if a church has a strong mission emphasis.”

We cannot ignore the challenges of decline, but we should not be focussed on them. What we need to do and be is missional disciples.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Discipleship in the Modern City

One of the key speakers at the recent Yarnfield Conference fior United Reformed Church Ministers was the Revd. Dr. Rowan Williams, Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and former Archbishop of Canterbury. Dr. Williams retold the stories of three faithful women - Maria Skobtsova, Dorothy Day and Madeleine Delbrel. He used their lives as models of discipleship under the general title of ‘Discipleship in the Modern City’. Dr. Williams’ use of the stories of ordinary people who did remarkable things must have set many of us wondering as to who are the people we know and encounter who do extraordinary things and so live out an amazing discipleship. His talks were a reminder of the importance of faithfulness and that we can often find special things going on in the most unexpected places.

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.