Saturday, 31 January 2009

In Bed with a Mosquito

There is a saying, ‘If you think you are too small to make a difference, then you have never shared a bed with a mosquito.’ And I can vouch for that. In the early nineties we lived for three years in Panama City in the Republic of Panama. Most of my time and work was in Panama City itself, but occasionally I would need to go to other parts of the country. I remember one particular occasion when I return to Panama City after being up country for a few days, and made the claim that I was absolutely covered with mosquito bites. My wife told me not to exaggerate, but I insisted I had got at least fifty bites and, to prove the point, started counting – and stopped when I got to fifty. I still didn’t get any sympathy – I was just told that it was my own fault for not doing the right things to prevent it from happening. But I can assure you – to return to the saying – ‘if you think you are too small to make a difference, then you have never shared a bed with a mosquito.’ There is, indeed, plenty of evidence around that little things do matter and that small contributions, of whatever sort and in whatever sphere, can make a difference. That difference can be for good and it can be a real irritation. In the Church we need to recognise the value of the little things we can do, and ensure that the difference we make is for good.

Friday, 30 January 2009


Ubuntu is a Bantu word which is to do with what defines us as human. It is in our relationships with others that we are defined and affirmed. It is about community and sharing. The concept has crept into various spheres, including that of computer software. Things that are ubuntu are readily available and shared. I am sure it would be good if there was more of UBUNTU in church life.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Yes We Can

'Yes we can' is a phrase that I most associate with Bob the Builder, the children's TV, book etc. character who is more than ready to take on any building project with supreme confidence. Faced with any situation and being asked the question 'can we fix it?' Bob and his colleagues will always answer, 'YES WE CAN.' But what a good motto for the church - Yes, we can! With God, Yes we can! I am convinced that we need to take a positive and confident approach to whatever challenges confront us - believing that, with God, all things are possible. You see, I do believe: yes, we can!

Monday, 26 January 2009

Staying Put

We tend to see mission as taking us places and, of course, frequently it does - but sometimes we are simply called to be. Some might call that presence evangelism. Just being around and standing up for what God calls us to can be the thing to do. It is even the case that we might sometimes then be led to some really good things. That is certainly what is going on in Iconium, as recorded in Acts 14:3 - "So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who testified to the word of his grace by granting signs and wonders to be done through them" (NRSV). Loveday Alexander comments ("Acts", BRF, 2006, p. 108): "Mission here is a matter of staying put in a difficult situation as long as one can, doing one's own part in 'speaking boldly for the Lord' - and, much more importantly, watching in awe to see what God is doing."

Sunday, 25 January 2009

It's Ahead of You

How good we are at looking back! We yearn for the 'good old days'. But we need to look ahead. One of the commonest messages that Jesus proclaimed was that 'the Kingdom of God is at hand'. What that meant was - you're approaching it! It's ahead! Too often we look for the Kingdom and think it must have been there back in Biblical times, or back when the church was doing things differently, as we tend to think, better. But Jesus' message was that we are heading for it. We just need to look out, see it, grab it, be part of it.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Gone Fishing

We are so good at avoidance techniques, at losing focus – and we find all sorts of good ways of doing that. Brian McLaren’s book “The Church on the Other Side” (Zondervan, 1998, 2000, p. 142) retells a story which I am sure I have heard in some form previously. It’s about a fishing club. Its members avidly studied fish, discussed fishing techniques, read books and magazines on angling, bought the best equipment, held meetings to indulge their fascination with fish lore and, in general, led active, fish-oriented lives. But after a while somebody asked, “Has anyone actually caught one lately?” The room was silent. Quite so! Let us always be ready to find the focus that God wants us to take for any particular moment of our lives.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Mission Is All We Do

Brian McLaren stresses the importance of reaching out and that we should have the capacity to do so. He offers this definition of church: "A self-sustaining organization that does ministry and produces a surplus of energy and money over time. In other words, it attends to its own needs and, in so doing, miraculously generates more than it needs, so it can give to needs beyond its own borders" (Bruan D. McLaren, "The Church on the Other Side", Zondervan, 1998, 2000, p. 140). I fully support that concept, but fear that, too often, we get stuck concentrating on our own needs. However, McLaren rightly presses the point, quoting Mike Regele - "We must be the church for others. If we embrace the notion that the local congregation is the front line of mission in the twenty-first century, then we must see mission as all that we do" (Mike Regele, "Death of the Church", Zondervan, 1995, p. 220, quoted in McLaren, p. 142). We certainly should be seeing mission in all we do.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Keep Pedalling

I have stuck up on my study wall a card which carries a comment once made by Claude Pepper: "Life is like riding a bicycle - you don't fall off unless you stop pedalling." I think the illustration can be carried across to church. God calls us to keep being church. If we keep up being what God calls us to be, then we will be church. If we stop, we won't be.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009


Passwords are a huge part of life these days. We need them in all sorts of contexts. I have certainly got several - the advice is not to use the same one all the time. We also have PIN numbers, security questions etc. What are the passwords to church? Are they words like welcome, hospitality, celebration, joy, hope? Or are they words like boring, dull, declining? And what are the security questions? Are they designed to let people in - or keep them out? Another of the many such challenges these days is the demand to do Risk Assessments? However, as a colleague recently suggested to me, perhaps one of the church's greatest risks is not being willing to take enough risks! We are called to a Gospel of risk.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

A Country Dance

There are lots of good ways of doing and being church around and there is no blueprint. What is important is to find the right way in each place. It is also important to look for ways in which we can work together. The way of a united congregation, which has been a big part of my experience, is certainly not the right way for everyone and every situation – but it is surely always right that we should be looking that we can and ought to be doing together. “Conversations on the Way to Unity”, the 2001 Report of the Informal Conversations between the Church of England, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church, uses a fascinating metaphor as it describes the process in which it has been engaged: "As in a country dance, there was a forward and backward movement of agreement and disagreement between the churches and among the representatives of each church. Partners changed according to the issue and as fresh light was shed on the matter under discussion. From time to time a harmonious circle was formed, foretaste of things to come." So where are we in the dance?

Monday, 19 January 2009

Power Plays

Martin Luther once said, "God made the world out of nothing, and it is only when we become nothing that God can make anything of us." Though we have probably said it often, I still think we need to learn that conventional expectaions around power don't work. The Church comes at things from a very different angle - or it should. The Bible has many usefully challenging comments on power. One of the most significant and well known is those words recorded in 1 Corinthians 1:25 - "For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength." Similarly, Zechariah 4:6 - "Not by might, not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts." We do all have power - which is precisely why we need to learn reliance on God.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Each Moment's Challenge

Sometimes we, in the Church, think we have to do and be everything. We need, rather, to learn to be a piece of the puzzle. God's picture is much bigger than the one that we can see. It is true that God has something, probably quite a bit, for us to do. But our task is to respond to God's call, without doing more and without doing less. Paulo Coelho has a helpful saying in his "Manual of the Warrior of Light" (HarperCollins, 2002) - "A responsible warrior is not someone who takes the weight of the world on his shoulders, but someone who has learned to deal with the challenges of the moment" (p. 133).

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Come and Celebrate

"One problem I failed to list .. is that we too seldom get to celebrate. Nehemiah's wall was finished, and they celebrated; David's temple was completed, and they celebrated; Moses' tabernacle was finished, and they celebrated" Brian McLaren, "The Church on the Other Side", Zondervan, 1998, 2000, p. 135. Celebration ought to be at the core of church life. If people are thinking 'it's boring' what's going wrong? Do we create enough opportunities for celebration? Do we see celebrating as one of the defining characteristics of the church?

Sunday, 11 January 2009


"Tell me the old, old story" - so says the old hymn - and, indeed, telling 'the story' is central to being church. Our task is to tell God's story, and to tell it in such a way that it makes a real impact. The story, to begin with, for us, comes from the Bible - and it has lots of exciting stories within the story. We can tell of Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Jeremiah, Esther, David, Daniel, Ruth, Peter and Paul, to name but a few. But the story doesn't end there. We can also tell of Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa and so many others. And we can tell stories of people we know and stories of today. It is all part of the church, and all part of God's wonderful tapestry. Sometimes we want to be philosophical and put things in the abstract, and there's a place for that - but nothing beats a good story. So let's find good ways of telling all the stories of the wonderful things that God is up to today, and working out through us who are today's church.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Turbulent, Seditious and Factious

At the moment I’m reading a biography of John Bunyan. It’s not a standard type biography. It’s written by the historian Christopher Hill and seeks to explore how Bunyan’s personality and writings were influenced by the context in which he lived. The sub-title of the book is “John Bunyan and his Church”. But the title is “A Turbulent, Seditious and Factious People”. Is that a description that we ought to seek to live up to. Are we a turbulent, seditious and factious people? Ought we to be so? It might seem the answer should be ‘no’, but I want to suggest a bit of ‘yes’. A turbulent people. I think that the church could do with a dose of turbulence. Now, of course, anything in the wrong measure is going to go wrong – but, in the right measure, I think we need this. Something that is effected by turbulence is something that is stirred up. And I think we could do with being stirred up. Wasn’t that precisely what the Spirit did on the Day of Pentecost? I have always seen that as a rather turbulent experience for the first disciples – and, precisely for that reason, it shook them into action. I don’t think we’ll come to any harm if we let God shake us into action. And then a seditious people. My dictionary defined sedition as ‘conduct or speech tending to rebellion or breach of public order’. Maybe we don’t want to engage in breaching public order – but would a little bit of rebellion move us in the right direction, sometimes. I believe that we can learn a lot from the way in which the church has been to the forefront of rebellions that have transformed history in a positive way. Wilberforce and others rebelled against slavery. Martin Luther King and others rebelled against racism. There are plenty of issues around still that need people to speak up – and I Christians are often to the forefront of those who do precisely that – examples include the Jubilee 2000 campaign and the ongoing programme to encourage the cancellation of debt, allied, for example, to ‘Make Poverty History’ and the 2007 Set All Free Campaign addressing questions of ongoing slavery. I think we need a bit of sedition. I think there are plenty of issues around that need the critique of a Christian challenge. And then what about the third element – a factious people. Here my dictionary definition is “characterised by or pertaining to a faction or factions”. Now again you might think that would be something I wouldn’t advocate – but it is all a question of what we mean. If our faction is a case of being faith-based, then I am all for it. If our faction is a case of being Christian, then I am all for it. Being an effective church in today’s society is not necessarily an easy task but, with God’s help, and that is always available to us, it is certainly a possible one.

Friday, 9 January 2009

The Church as River and Tree

Near the end of his book "Simply Christian" (SPCK, 2006, chapter 15), Tom Wright uses two images to describe the church. In the first place the church is like a river. This brings all the different elements into a single flow. All belong to one another, and go in the same direction. At the same time the church is like a tree. Jesus is the root, and from the root has grown an amazing plants, with branches going off in all sorts of directions. Interesting, challenging, and powerful images!

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Bible Based

“It’s a big book, full of big stories with big characters. They have big ideas (not least about themselves) and make big mistakes. It’s about God, and greed, and grace; about life, lust, laughter and loneliness. It’s about birth, beginnings and betrayal; about siblings, squabbles and sex; about power and prayer and prison and passion. And that’s only Genesis. The Bible itself, with Genesis as its majestic overture, is a huge, sprawling book.” So writes Tom Wright, making a comment on the Bible as 'the book God breathed' ("Simply Christian", SPCK, 2006, p. 148). The Bible is certainly crucial to Church, demonstrated for Reformed Christians in the centrality of the Word, and its preaching. Wright wants to stress the Bible as a source of energy for doing the work and the will of God. I think that is spot on - and how helpful to know where to go looking for some of the energy we need to do whatever it is that God is calling us to do for the moment. Armed with that energy, how can we help but be effective churches?

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Groups and their Advantages

In the Church we tend to put an emphasis on inclusivity, and rightly so. The Church is for everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, regardless of background, culture, education, interests and all the rests of it. God welcomes all. I love the concept of All-Age Worship, even though it is sometimes difficult to do it effectively. I am convinced it should be part of church life. But do we need to learn to put specialisms alongside the all-embracing concept? There is definitely a place for the "catch-all", but I am convinced that there is also an important place for targeting. Women's groups have long been an important part of the life of many churches. Men's groups have tended to be less prominent, but have also played an important role. These days I see targeting interest groups as a halpful way of focussed engagement. For instance, I have been involved in Book Groups and a Film Group where, on a monthly (usually) basis we have met to either discuss a very varied range of books or watch and discuss a film. It's amazing what comes up!

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Open Table

A very simple - but effective - initiative that I have heard of more than once recently is something I have heard named as 'Open Table' or 'TableTalk'. It is simply getting together round a table, with some refreshment, to talk. The refreshments could be pretty well anything - coffee and cake, soup and bread, whatever. The talk needs, at most, a light hand in direction. It is a chance to talk about anything and everything - and that tends to lead to all sorts of interesting places. The whole point is to be there at a regular time, whether it is weekly or monthly, and encourage others to come and join you.

Monday, 5 January 2009

The Carpenter's Arms

One of the good ideas for engaging with the local community that I have heard of happening in more than one place recently is an initiative known as 'The Carpenter's Arms', or something similar. The concept is to strike a deal with a local pub or restaurant - which gets renamed for the night, 'The Carpenter's Arms'. Choose one of the quiet nights of the week - perhaps Monday or Tuesday - and come to an agreement that you'll get them a full house if they will lay on a three course meal at a reasonable price. Agree the menu, then get inviting people. Everyone then meets fpr a good night out and, at one or two strategic moments, some discussion ideas can be fed in, perhaps having being left lying on pieces of card on the tables.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Worship as God's Initiative

"When we worship, God is the main actor. .... Worship is one of the main tools in God's workshop. It is God's gift, which God uses to refashion us in the divine image and to end our alienation" ("A Culture of Peace", Alan Kreider, Eleanor Kreider, and Paulus Widjaja, Good Books, 2005, p. 111). There are various things that we might regard as pretty critical to the life of a church, but we can certainly agree that a church cannot exist without worship. Indeed, though we may want to put other things alongside it, we would surely always identify worship as at the centre of church life. We are inclined to think of worship as something that we do. It is certainly something in which we have the opportunity to participate - but we do well remember that it is God who makes it possible, it is God who makes it happen.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

God's Perspective

In his book "Exclusion and Embrace" (Abingdon Press, 1996), Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf comments on how God's truth emerges - "We enlarge our thinking by letting the voices and perspectives of others, espcially those with whom we may be in conflict, resonate within ourselves, by allowing them help us see them, as well as ourselves, from their perspective, and if needed, readjust our perspectives as we take into account their perspective." Though it is obvious, this question of seeing things from others' perspectives is always going to be difficult, not least when we are trying to grasp that God's perspective is likely to be different from ours. For example, we would be likely to think that the church could do with less conflict whilst, in all probability, the church could really do with more conflict. The issue is not conflict of itself, but how we tackle it and whether we allow it to be a growing point. We will never be fully aware of all the aspects of God's bigger picture - but at least we can recognise that it exists!

Friday, 2 January 2009

Culture of Peace

"When Jesus talks about the Church, he says nothing about structure, governances, or style of worship. But he does talk about a community that is reconciling and reconciled. For Jesus, the Church is communities of his disciples who are being disciplined into communities of peace" ("A Culture of Peace", Alan Kreider, Eleanor Kreider, and Paulus Widjaja, Good Books, 2005, p. 68) We are so good at trying to define Church by all sorts of methodologies, most of which limit it needelessly. We need to learn that all that is needed by way of definition is that which is far more fundamnental, namely peace and reconciliation. The Church is not, fundamentally, about particular ways of doing things - but it is about making a real difference in the very essence of how life happens. "The Church is called to be a culture shaped by God whom we worship and by the story that we hear and tell .... we have an exciting destiny - to become not a moral majority .. but a prophetic minority" (ibid. p. 58).

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Touring Churches

Since taking up a new appointment at the beginning of last July, I have been trying to visit every church alongside keeping up the regular run of things. As Moderator of the Eastern Synod of the United Reformed Church, I have some responsibility for around 140 congregations of the United Reformed Church across the east of England - in Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and a bit of Hertfordshire. I've still got a good number to visit, but I am excited by what I have seen so far - and convinced that there is plenty of evidence that the church is alive and well. Yes, there is more we could be doing - that is the nature of things - and not the same as saying that there is more that we should be doing. Probably there is, but the gap is much less - as different church communities respond to God's call to them. For the most part I have simply visited the building and met a few folk to chat over the important things that are part of being church for them at the moment. In doing this I have heard many fascinating and encouraging stories. Too often we are worried about what we are not doing - when what we need is the confidence to do what God is calling us to do, sure that he won't call us to do something that we can't manage and confident that he has a call that is just right for us - and doesn't want us to be worrying about all the things that others are called to do.