Friday, 25 July 2008

An Emerged Community

Questions of relevance are always critical for the church. How can we effect - for good and for God - those whom we encounter? There is an increasing awareness around of the importance of giving 'community' its desired and necessary precedence. These days there are many ways in which churches seek to be appropriate and these seem to work best with this emphasis on community. I was interested in some comments on these ideas by Duncan MacLaren (in "Mission Implausible") - “In recent years .. there has been much talk of ‘emerging church’. The term is in danger of becoming meaningless if it becomes entrenched (a church cannot ‘emerge’ for ever), but for the moment it seems to be a good way both to capture the sense that established patterns of being church are increasingly moribund, and to give space for experimental patterns of church life to emerge unhindered by premature definitions. ‘Networks’, ‘Cell Church’, ‘Liquid Church’, ‘Transforming Communities’ and ‘Small Christian Communities’ are all ways of articulating what is emerging. .... What all of them seem to agree on .. is that community must take priority over congregation if the church in Britain is to have a future. In one way, this sounds radical; in another, it seems obvious .... ” I hope we can do the obvious so far as being church in an effective - and community-minded - way.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Love Changes Everything

I want to put two things together. The first is that God is love. There are many ways in which we can describe God, many things that we can say about God but, arguably, the most profound is that statement, drawn most obviously from the first letter of John, that God is love. The second thing is that the church is, or should be, about change. That change may come in all sorts of ways and at all sorts of levels, but the church should be bringing God's transforming power to bear on the world. Having made those two points, I want to put them together and use Michael Ball's song "Love Changes Everything" as a commentary on the resultant mix. "Love, love changes everything Hands and faces, earth and sky Love, love changes everything How you live and how you die Love, can make the summer fly Or a night seem like a lifetime Yes love, love changes everything Now I tremble at your name Nothing in the world will ever be the same Love, love changes everything Days are longer, words mean more Love, love changes everything Pain is deeper than before Love will turn your world around And that world will last forever Yes love, love changes everything Brings you glory, brings you shame Nothing in the world will ever be the same Off into the world we go Planning futures, shaping years Love (comes in) and suddenly all our wisdom disappears Love makes fools of everyone All the rules we made are broken Yes love, love changes everyone Live or perish in its flame Love will never never let you be the same Love will never never let you be the same" If you look in detail at some of the things the song says, and apply them to church, I think you will find a very useful challenge emerging.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Putting Peace Around

The Church needs to do all sorts of things. That is clearly so, and any church will engage in a range of activity. However, one thing that we all ought to engage with is the promotion of peace as a way of operating. We live in a world where conflict is often the name of the game - and part of the church's task is to offer the peace alternative. I love the way Fred Kaan sums it up in his hymn "Put peace into each other's hands", especially the third verse: "Put peace into each other's hands like bread we break for sharing; look people warmly in the eye: our life is meant for caring." If we can "look people warmly in the eye", then we are doing something right. If we can't, .......

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Stand Tall

At last weekend's General Assembly of the United Reformed Church in Edinburgh the new General Secretary of the URC (Revd. Roberta Rominger) urged the church to take seriously its potential, saying: "if we can get the glue right between us, we have the capacity for a perfect combination: support and mutual accountability and support on the one hand, freedom for local imagination and initiative on the other". Roberta urged us to get on with the task to which God has called us saying that knowing that God's backing is there should enable us to "stand tall". Too often we lack confidence and fail to reach the prominence we ought. There is nothing to be gained from being a "well kept secret". The church is called by God to be the church. We ought to take that calling, that role and all the possibilities it offers seriously - instead of worrying about what we can't do!

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Mission Implausible

In many ways the task before the church seems an impossible one. How on earth can we engagingly relate with a fast-changing world? What are we to do to demonstrate that the church is a point of resolution for society's struggles? Duncan MacLaren, in "Mission Implausible" (Paternoster, 2004) certainly recognises the problem - p. 22/3 - “Against the gleaming backdrop of cutting-edge technology, Christian faith looks a little tired. Its homely doctrine of providence – God is working his purpose out as year succeeds year – cannot compete with the adrenaline-rush injected by scientific and technological progress. Nor can its story compete with technology’s underlying evolutionary narrative. More than that, whereas progress exalts the idea of the ‘new’, Christianity trades on the value of the ‘old’, the traditional and the authoritative. In a world bewitched by progress, Christianity suffers cognitive dissonance; it tries to tell the old, old story, but people think they have heard it before. Who wants to hear the obsolete, obsolete story? In the modern world, then, while science, ‘is a culturally successful – or rather, perhaps better, confident – form of practice, in the West the church is not’.” So what are we to do to make this implausible mission plausible and effective in the communities in which we are set?

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Bus Timetables and Beatitudes

One challenge for today's church is to deal both with the hugely practical and very specific whilst at the same time engaging with the spiritual and those things that drive us from inside. Today's society knows all about practical issues and wants them addressed, often in a public way, but we tend to keep those things that drive us from inside private and to ourselves. Duncan MacLaren summarises this - "Although the majority of people in Britain continue to believe in God, what they think they know of God they do not feel permission to treat as real knowledge. In the modern world, the bus timetable counts as real knowledge: the Beatitudes do not. Christian beliefs constitute a second-rate, privatized form of knowing.” ("Mission Implausible", Paternoster, 2004, p. 19) Faith and church ought not to be privatised as they should belong to everyone - to the community, but too often, I fear, they are. The church needs to engage with the issues that matter whilst, at the same time, helping people to find that spirituality which brings meaning to life and being.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

On the Way

I returned yesterday from a long weekend in Edinburgh at the United Reformed Church's General Assembly. The Moderator, Revd. John Marsh, took 'pilgrimage' as his theme. Amongst many good things in his moderatorial address he commented: "We're to sustain this pilgrimage journey, walking together through thick and thin, continuing a pilgrimage of faith, during which we share gifts from each other's experience, consider wounds whether suffered or inflicted, and allow visions and nightmares to be expressed and understood. On this pilgrimage there'll be serious giving and receiving; mutual accepting and challenging - to an unsettling degree. And it's a process, a journey. Today's pilgrims are not where they were yesterday - and tomorrow they'll be somewhere else." I like - and support - this idea of not being static. We do need to be on the move, whatever that may mean. I also like the recognition that it's not all good, but a mix. The dream of the moment may be a vision, but it may, also and alternatively, be a nightmare. That is actually worth recognising.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Ragged Trousered Philanthropy

I have been reading Robert Tressell's "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists" (about survival on the underside of Edwardian life) in odd moments, a fascinating look at times past but with, as so often, specific polarised perspectives. It is true that we often fail to interpret Jesus' words as we should, even if we are not as extreme as some of the examples in the book, referring to "disciples" who reinterpret some of those inconvenient things that Jesus said. For instance, "... when Jesus said, 'Resist not evil', 'If a man smite thee upon the right cheek turn unto him also the left', He really meant, 'Turn on him a Maxim gun; disembowel him with a bayonet or batter in his skull with the butt end of a rifle!' When He said, 'If one take thy coat, give him thy cloak also,' the 'Christians' say that what He really meant was, 'If one take thy coat, give him six months' hard labour.' Let us be sure that we are sufficiently radical in the opposite direction!

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Challenging Church

The Shaftesbury Society Report "Challenging Church" offers loads of encouragement for churches to engage with their local community, but stresses how that engagement will be weakened if we do not so engage in partnership. We need to work together. Near its end, the Report says: "The church is facing a challenge. We are failing to tackle the real and often desperate needs of our neighbours with strategic, sustainable solutions. It’s not that we’re under-resourced – although in some local churches it may often feel like that. And Christians are not short on innovation, passion and commitment. The barrier hindering us from really making a difference is our reluctance to work together for the sake of our communities, our towns and cities and our nation. Duplication and competition have a detrimental effect on church-based community work right across the country. In order to be able to challenge the inequalities at the heart of our neediest communities, the church itself first needs to be challenged: as local congregations, are we guilty of putting our own agendas ahead of our mission? If we want to see God’s transformation come to our neighbourhoods, we must address the duplication and competition that exists between churches in local communities. These issues not only reduce our impact, but our disunity brings dishonour to God. It is only when we start to pray, plan and work together, as the body we are designed to be, that the church will be in a position to make a creative, radical and prophetic impact on the deep-rooted issues facing our society today." There's a lot of good stuff to think about there.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Hungry for Spirituality

"Spirituality is about the hunger in the human heart" - Joan Chittister. "Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit" - Galatians 5:25. There seems to be a great hunger for spirituality - but spirituality needs to link to the Spirit. There are many places people look to find whatever it is that they need. Do I need more books, more music, more travelling, or whatever - or do need more means of connecting with God? Do I need more spirituality? The world is full of things that demand attention. Shops and advertisements tell me what I need - but what I need is to stand back from that. I enjoy reading a range of books about people's experiences. Some are biography, but some are more anecdotal - but they tend to intrigue, and encourage, me. Stories of people's experiences are stories of what is possible. Stories of the church, wherever we find them, are stories of what God has done and what, if appropriate, God can do again.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Prisoners of Hope

'Prisoners of Hope' is the title for the Synod Moderators' Report to the United Reformed Church General Assembly, due to start in Edinburgh on Friday. The report sounds the importantly optimistic note that life (and church) is full of hope and possibility. Putting it another way, there is always more to do. One of the notes the report sounds is of the need to branch out - Maybe we need to give ourselves permission more often to think the unthinkable; to go out on a limb, recognising when vision is being submerged in the principle of conciliarity, and to trust each other and open ourselves to the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit. Standing in the Reformed tradition it should be of no surprise to us that 'God has yet more light and truth to break forth from his word.' We can be bold. It's in our genes. There are some fascinating ideas there. Can we suggest - in a Reformed context! - that vision might be submerged by conciliarity. That seems to undermine one of our central modes of operation, and yet it is surely true. We need to recognise that God reveals the 'more light and truth' in a whole range of ways, some of which might just not fit our presuppositions. Are we ready for that? It's all bound up with being 'prisoners' of 'hope'.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For

This U2 song title provided the theme for tonight's Cafe Church at The Cotteridge Church. It says something quite profound. We live in a world where we like to arrive - while the Christian reality is of being on the journey. Indeed, the earliest Christians were sometimes called the 'people of the Way'. We need to recognise the value of the search and that there is nothing wrong with the continuing journey. I have climbed highest mountains, I have run through the fields, only to be with you .... but I still haven't found what I'm looking for ... The Church is a place of searching and of journeying far more than it is a place of solutions and arrivals - at least, I would dare to suggest it ought to be.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Pilgrim Church

Today I went on the Bradwell Pilgrimage. Sponsored by Churches Together in Essex and East London, the Bradwell Pilgrimage takes place on the first Saturday of July each year. The "pilgrims" (maybe 500 - at a very rough guess) met at St. Thomas's Parish Church in Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex for a brief act of opening worship. We then walked the two miles or so (about the last quarter mile in silece) to the ancient chapel of St. Peter-on-the-Wall. The chapel is on the site believed to be that where St. Cedd, who originally brought the Gospel to the Dengie Peninsula, built a church around 635. St. Cedd originally came from Lindisfarne in Northumbria, from where he sought to bring the Christian message. The theme of the 2008 Pilgrimage was Water - and we thought of the impact and use of water in a range of ways. There was a variety of activities around and near to the chapel, and the event finished with a wonderful act of worship. It was good to go for a purposeful walk and to use a day to reflect on God's wonderful creation and particularly the impact of water. It was also a good reminder that we are pilgrims, and called by God to walk for him through the world.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Nehemiah - Chapter 4

There are two key points to stress with respect to what began to happen to Nehemiah and his colleagues, as recorded in the first nine verses of chapter 4 which have, I believe, something significant to say to the question of being Church. The first thing is that conflict is inevitable. Sanballat had his indignation roused and he jeered angrily. Now you might well not expect me to start talking about conflict on such an occasion as tonight. But I wonder if one of the problems in the church too often is that we try to sweep conflict under the carpet and pretend that it doesn’t happen to us. We are surely far too nice! What we need rather is to be using conflict creatively. Conflict can, and does, happen – and it needs to be worked through and not ignored. The second point to make is about the importance of prayer. And that’s very interesting – because I actually fear that one of the problems in many churches today is that prayer has lost its centrality. Actually, it’s a fascinating prayer that we have here which doesn’t leave room for any niceties – Make their derision recoil on their own heads; let them become objects of contempt in a land of captivity. Clearly Nehemiah and his colleagues didn’t feel any need to not let God know exactly how they were feeling. And maybe there’s something for us to learn there too. And maybe part of the problem we have with prayer is that we don’t just take things how they are to God – because we can. Nehemiah prayed honestly. He prayed passionately. He prayed realistically.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

I was recently reading some material from the USA about valuing church and was struck by one particular comment: I love my church because it's sort of like the Wizard of Oz - it's about having a heart and a brain. And courage! That may not be the most obvious way of expressing what we need in order to be an effective church, but I think it sums it up. Too often we find ourselves struggling, unsure, making excuses. I understand why that happens - but I want to encourage you to grab the opportunities that God puts your way, and not to worry about those that don't arise.