Sunday, 29 June 2008

St. Peter and St. Paul

Today is St. Peter and St. Paul's day. It is interesting that two such prominent characters share a single day, and yet appropriate as, according to the New Testament, these two were the most influential in the formation of the early church. Today's church is the ongoing community evolving from the first disciple group, the first followers of Jesus, the first carriers-out of his mission. One of the meanings that we can give to the word 'church' is 'called out'. We are called out by God to engage with the world in his name. Of course, the church is not perfect. One commentator (Stanley Hauerwas) says: "It has been said that Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of heaven but instead we got the church." That may sound a note we can recognise, but it is actually the role of the church to struggle and be battered Hauerwas adds: "It is not Peter's task to make the church safe and secure .... rather, it is Peter's task to keep the church true to its mission." Peter and Paul certainly sometimes found themselves up against it, but they were clear that God's love is for everyone. The church ought not to be a place where barriers are erected.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Taking the Pulse

The Bible is clearly key to church life. In order to check how that works a recent survey has explored questions around the use and understanding of the Bible. [A summary of the report is available at] Writing about this in the Summer 2008 edition of the Bible Society's magazine Word in Action, Ann Holt comments: "At the Bible Society our aim is to show the Bible connects with those in politics, the media and the arts. We want to take people from just knowing of the Bible to making the most of its message in their daily lives." We certainly do need to discover the appropriate ways of making the Bible connect with all that is involved in life and church. It is encouraging that there is strong evidence with regard to people's positive attitude towards the Bible in many spheres, but we need to ensure that is carried into the practical and spiritual life of the church.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Mary or Martha?

I do like that little story at the end of Luke 10 which tells about Jesus calling at the home of the two sisters and the different ways in which they reacted. Time and time again the story has been used to comment on the relative merits of devotion and service as part of our response to God, the point being that we need both. Balance is what matters. However, maybe there is a case for pressing things a little further. I've been reading Susan Durber's book Preaching Like A Woman (SPCK, 2007) and was really struck by a brief comment at the end of a sermon on this little story. Of course we know all the kind of thing that we usually draw down from it. But Susan suggests: perhaps we need to tell the story differently - and so it might end - "As Mary sits at Jesus' feet, listening to his teaching, she suddenly says, 'Jesus, my sister Martha is busying herself in practical things. Tell her to come and sit here with us, so that she can listen to you as I do.' And Jesus says, 'Leave her alone. She is doing what is best. It shall not be taken away from her.' What is 'best' is surely what is right for us - for the moment.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Taking Risks

There can be little doubt that Jesus was a great risk-taker. We live in an age where policies and safeguards rule the roost. There is an amazing range of things for which we ought to have policies - and they are there to keep us right. However, I have to admit to being a little fascinated that I now can spend so much time thinking about risk assessments and like tasks when I have spent so much of my ministry commending the taking of risks as a Gospel attribute. But then, I suppose that a good risk assessment does not necessarily insist that you don't take the risk: it just likes to be sure that you know what you might be facing. In our insurance culture we try to put in place safeguards against almost any eventuality - but the Gospel encourages us to take the risk.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Travelling Light

One of the clear instructions Jesus gave his first disciples - as, for instance, in Luke 9 - was to 'travel light'. That seems to cause us some difficulty. We appear to like travelling heavily laden. We crowd the church programme with committees, workshops, reports and meetings. Sometimes I think that we need to just get on with being the church. One commentator (Richard Rohr) points out that: "he calls the Twelve to be dependent and needy, so they go as receivers and not just the guys with the answers - a very vulnerable and never very popular notion of ministry. Francis of Assisi was one of the few who took it seriously." Another commentator (Leith Fisher) helps to root this in our context: "The need for lack of 'baggage' for effective witness and mission is stressed more than once in the gospel. We carry so much deadweight from tradition, doctrine, practice and culture. How are we to let gospel simplicity judge, reform and energise us?" What a good question!

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Where is peace?

Yeserday evening prayers here at Corrymeela were led by Gordon Gray, a retired minister of the Presbyterian Church who has been associated with Corrymeela since its beginning. He spoke of his frustration that those who have worked long for peace have, in some ways, been bypassed in the recognition of what has been achieved. The perpetraors of violence have come in, achieved peace, and been praised for it. Does peace have to be brought about by those at the extemes? It is annoying, to say the least, to think it may be so. Of course, we all welcome what has been achieved, but it seems unfair that the long efforts of some seem unproductive and have not received recognition. On the broader spectrum that raises questions as to how we recognise and receive the contributions of those who have been long assoiciated with something, say a church, and those who are new. Sometimes it is difficult to accept that all are valued equally by God - but that is how it is!

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Place of Reconciliation

Love and faithfulness have come together, justice and peace have embraced - Psalm 85:10. I am currently at Corrymeela in Northern Ireland, so have been reflecting a lot on reconciliation, peace-making and conflict resolution. How crucial it is for the church to be a place where conflict is confronted and worked on! Too often we are too nice and sweep it under the carpet. We need to remember that Jesus was primarily concerned with the people at the margins. It is often not easy to work out the difficult issues. Justice, peace, mercy and truth all seem like good priorities. But which of the four should have priority in a given situation? What if they end up pulling us in different directions? Certainly they will not all always point us the same way. The church needs to face the challenge of these issues if it is to be authentic.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Creating Space

Fundamental to church is that it is there for people. The church ought always to be open, available. I don't mean we should leave our buildings unlocked, though sometimes some are too much locked up. But the church is the people and it is the people who should be open and available. I was at a consultation recently when the question was posed: how can we move churches towards being more hospitable, better able to provide that space in which people can grow and flourish? I do believe that one of the church's key task is to create space for people to encounter - and that can happen in a massive range of ways. The question arises as to what we are doing with the space that is our church - and I do mainly, though not only, mean the building this time. Is our space there for others? And what are the chances of them encountering God there, in the way that they need to do so?

Saturday, 14 June 2008


There is no doubt that there is a great interest in spirituality these days which needs to be juxtaposed with declining church involvement. "While only a tiny minority of people continue to practise formal religion in the developed nations of the world, huge numbers are keenly pursuing spirituality and individual pathways to sacred meaning" - David Tacey in The Spirituality Revolution (Routledge, 2004) p. 39. So how can we engage with this? It is true that a lot of it is nowhere near orthodox Christianity - but plenty of it is, or could be. I think that people do recognise their need of a spiritual dimension. They are just unsure as to how to relate that to conventional church. It is good that people have spiritual awareness - we need to make the most of it, and to encourage it. I think a lot of it is meeting people where they are - which is what Jesus did - instead of insisting that they come to us, and on our terms at that.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Servant Church

The notion of servant church is fundamental, yet challenging. It's not natural to want to be servants. We prefer to be 'top dog'. Yet service is what we are called to do. I was engaged in an interesting discussion at luch-time today about what this means - and how we can engage in effective ministry that serves in the midst of all today's pressures. It is too easy to become detached, or perhaps juggling too many balls. I like the little comment from John Proctor with reference to Matthew 23:1-12 - "Authority in the Church is always loaned and delegated ... Leadership is a temporary role. In heaven there will be no ranks, only worshippers." I can't help feeling that we are pretty good at 'ranks', even though many of us would claim not to be.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Nautical Images

One not entirely uncommon image for the church is that she is a ship or a boat. Indeed, precisely that symbol is used as the emblem of the World Council of Churches. Of course, boats vary a lot - so do churches - and a lot can depend on what kind of boat?! I always remember a friend of mine (Michael Jagessar) mentioning at a consultation that one of our mistakes is to think of the church as a tanker - difficult to manoeuvre and slow to turn round - when what we need is a canoe, portable and flexible. On Saturday I was at another consultation when one of the speakers suggested that we might use the ark, made famous by Noah, as an image of the church. There was room for all despite the immense diversity - but perhaps the biggest surprise was that some didn't eat the others!

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Church in Decline

It is so well documented that the mainline denominations in the UK are in decline that it would make no sense to suggest otherwise. However, I do think there are questions about what that decline really is and implies. On one hand, I think that a lot less people are willing to be nominally part of things and so there is a demonstrable decline that is not real. People who were not really part of the church are no longer shown to be so - nothing has really changed, despite the evidence that it has! On the other hand, it is also true that there is a strong interest in spirituality that does not necessarily manifest itself in commitment to the conventional church. People want to link to God, but not necessarily to the identifiable church. A third factor can also be brought into play, namely that people have a broader spectrum of interests, and so are more likely to miss church more often. The church needs to take its decline seriously, but I am not sure how worried to be about the rumours of the relatively imminent closure of certain denominations!

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Find Out What God's Doing

I finished reading Steve Stockman's "Walk On" (Relevant Books, 2005) today - and was struck by a comment near the end. The book explores the spirituality of U2 and a lot of it focusses on Bono. Near the end of the book - p. 205 - he quotes how Bono "recalled one pastor's recent advice: 'Stop asking God to bless what you're doing. Find out what God's doing. It's already blessed.'" Good advice, but needed advice. I think that the church is quite good at making plans and then asking God's blessing on the particular idea of the moment. We forget that the initiative lies with God. And I do like the notion that, if we find out what God is doing, 'it's already blessed"! The church needs to learn to mean it when it asks for God's guidance. It also needs to recognise that God's activity is not limited to the church. There's a lot happening out there that God's doing. Are we interested in getting involved?

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Imperfect Church

"The church is the concrete form in which men (sic) experience the history of Christ" (Jurgen Moltmann: The Church in the Power of the Spirit (SCM, 1977). It is probably thirty years since I read Moltmann's then newly published book - but it is was one of the first expressions of my interest in the theme of the church and what it's about, a matter that is of interest to all of us who try to follow the Christian way. For me, being part of the church has always been a mix of the exciting, the encouraging, the inspiring - but also the disappointing, the struggling, even the annoying! But surely that's how it should be. The church cannot be perfect - because it would not involve us if it was. Our challenge is to learn to live with and through the downsides. Of course, there's much in the church that frustrates me. There is a great deal in the church that I would like to see done differently. But the great thing about the church is that it is God's partnership with ordinary human beings, and so engages with the fact that God values us - and that is something that ought to enable us to see past all the difficulties. Of course, we should hope for - and work for - a better church. However, we can only do that when we value each other, despite all our weaknesses. In the end, I cannot be worried by the imperfections of the church - because it would be something else without them, and that 'something else' would not involve me.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Energy Efficient Church

Being Green is rightly at the top of many agendas these days. We are concerned about our carbon footprint. We take more care with travel plans. We recycle. We do a whole range of things that are concerned with taking care of the planet. One of the simpler things that many of us do is to purchase energy efficient appliances, even something simple like light-bulbs. As well as the value of such contributions to being green, I think there is something broader to learn about church life. How energy efficient is our church life? How much energy do we waste? Here I'm not thinking about electricity, gas etc., but about all the things that we do as part of being the church. I sometimes think that we waste a lot of effort. There is much to be said for being focussed and thinking about just what it is that God calls us to do. Perhaps we could achieve rather more in the Church if we were just a little more energy efficient?