Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Clues to the Kingdom

Last night I was playing Cluedo, working out by a process of deduction "whodunnit". It got me thinking about the importance of deducting what it is that God wants us to do towards the growth of his Kingdom. Sometimes it seems as though we just don't know - and yet the clues are there if only we look. God certainly has stuff he wants us to do but it is also true that God doesn't expect us to do everything nor does God expect us to do things that we can't manage.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Reflecting on Christmas

So what is Christmas all about? What is the real meaning of Christmas? In the church we want to stress the nativity. That is Christmas. That’s what it’s about. But in the wider world all that has got mixed up with jingle bells, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman. Christmas specials on TV abound – and so many things are done just in time for Christmas. The X factor winner is crowned and, this year, makes it to be the Christmas number one. The Strictly Come Dancing Winner is announced. Pamela Stephenson and Matt Baker came so close. But Kara Toynton it is – even though some of us might wish it had been Ann Widdecombe. That would have been akin to Joe McElderry being pipped at the post for Christmas number one last year. The BBC Sports Personality of the Year has been named. And so it goes on. And meantime we have been doing all the shopping, wrapping the presents, the tree was decorated long since and the holly and the mistletoe are up. And none of this is bad. Traditions and celebrations are there to be enjoyed. But Christmas trees and Rudolph don’t have anything to do with the birth of a Saviour. So let’s enjoy all the stuff we have added on to Christmas – but let’s catch up with the first, the real, Christmas. Let’s reflect on what Christmas really means.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Joseph's Dilemma

We need to appreciate the major dilemma that faced Joseph – and how interesting that Matthew largely tells the story from Joseph’s perspective. Let’s put this into the context of the times. We need to do that to understand what is going on. Though Mary and Joseph have only reached the point of being engaged, their relationship has reached the point of no normal return. It was the custom of the time for women to be married at a very early age, even around 12. They would then often spend a further year or so in their family home because they were so young before moving to that of their husband. During this time, even though they were not living together, the couple would be regarded as man and wife, not merely ‘engaged’ in our modern sense. So, when Mary turns up pregnant, there is only one conclusion that Joseph can reach – that Mary has broken the marriage bond – in short, that she has committed adultery. And we shouldn’t gloss over the implications of this situation. Mary is in a dreadful position. She is a young girl, 14 or 15 at most, about to get married, leave her family home, and she’s pregnant – shamefully pregnant, it would appear. If the full rigour of the Law is applied, she is liable to be stoned as an adulteress. Except that an angel appears to Joseph to explain that things are not as they seem. Why are we so afraid of angels? You might think we are not – but we seem to be. So often the angels who appear in the Bible begin by telling those to whom they have appeared not to be afraid. Angels, by definition, are messengers from God. Why are we so scared of God’s messengers? The angel in Joseph’s dream tells him, ‘don’t be afraid!’ But here it is not about not being afraid of the angel appearing. It is about not being afraid of marrying a pregnant woman – Joseph, descendant of David, do not be afraid to take Mary to be your wife. For it is by the Holy Spirit that she has conceived. As the Gospel continues, this is a theme that recurs. Jesus has things to say about fear and courage – and the words ‘do not be afraid’ are spoken at least five more times in Matthew’s Gospel, and four of those times it is Jesus speaking these words. He speaks them to the disciples during a storm. He says them to Peter, James and John during the Transfiguration. He says them to the women outside the empty tomb. And, encouraging the disciples as they are being sent out on mission, he says: do not be afraid; you are worth much more than many sparrows. Like Joseph, we are waiting for Christmas. I wonder what we wait with. Is it with excitement? Is it with trepidation? What will we experience? Will it be wonder? Will it be love and forgivness? The Christmas story, with its donkey and stable, with its angels and shepherds, with its wise men and their gifts, is one that we know so well. And, yes, we know that, in many senses, Christmas has been hijacked, taken over – because now it is also about a rotund man dressed in red, and reindeer, and tinsel, and mistletoe – and turkey and mince pies, and so many other things. I don’t like it when the baby at the centre of the celebration gets lost – but I don’t mind that there are lots of things that we do to celebrate his birth. After all, what bigger event could we be celebrating? And I do want us to remember that, as that newish carol written by John Bell and Graham Maule puts it, “God surprises earth with heaven, coming here on Christmas day.” Do you like Christmas surprises? For sure, let’s be ready for those surprises that God springs on us. And the one other thing I really want to take from this particular bit of the story is the need to hear and apply to ourselves the words of the angel to Joseph in his dream and of the angels to the shepherds, ‘don’t be afraid.’ Christmas is all sorts of things – but it is, most certainly, God saying to us: ‘don’t be afraid; I’m with you!’

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Some Biblical Examples of Call

Jeremiah: Robert Carroll explores how we might understand the call concept with respect to Jeremiah in his comments on Jeremiah 1:4-10 in his commentary on Jeremiah: “Many exegetes treat vv. 4-10 as the ‘call’ of Jeremiah to be a prophet. Such a ‘call’ makes Jeremiah a prophet and authenticates his ministry. However, the story is better read as an account of his commissioning to a specific task: being a prophet to the nations. This interpretation fits the pattern of the commissioning narratives and it is more appropriate to describe such commands as commissions to perform certain tasks (e.g. Moses is sent to Egypt to confront the Pharaoh and deliver the people from there; Gideon is commissioned to defeat the enemy; Amos is sent to prophesy to Israel; Ezekiel is commanded to go and confront the rebellious house of Israel). Being a prophet may be a by-product of obeying such commissions or a perspective introduced into the stories by the editors, but a ‘call’ does not make a prophet. What makes a prophet is the possession and delivery of the divine word at the divine command. The distinction between a commission and a ‘call’ may be regarded as rather subtle, but a commission is a very specific task whereas a ‘call’ is an abstraction.” Samuel: Walter Brueggemann makes a similar point with reference to 1 Samuel 3:1ff. in his commentary on 1 Samuel, suggesting a distinction between the fundamental call and the call to an actual role: “The dream report … is too often taken simply as an idyllic account of childlike faith. It is that, but it is much more than that, for the dream narrative is used to articulate a most disruptive, devastating assertion. The form of the narrative is a dream theophany in which a decisive word is given from outside conventional human experience. …. The roles between the two (Eli & Samuel) are then reversed. …. While the response is the same and Samuel’s deference to Eli is consistent, there is no doubt that the power has shifted. The young innocent one is now authorized; the old knowing one has become fully dependent upon Samuel. The reversal of roles is not stated directly, but the narrative is formed so that the point becomes unavoidable. Yahweh does indeed “raise up and bring down.”” Elizabeth and Mary: The difference that God’s call makes is reinforced in the stories of Elizabeth and Mary (Luke 1). Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s blessing is to sing the Magnificat with its clear message of standards’ reversal. Although the best manuscripts attribute the song to Mary, as has the Church traditionally, some suggest the song may be Elizabeth’s and that ought to be considered possible. The form and content of the Magnificat closely resemble Hannah’s song (1 Samuel 2:1-10) with its implications for Samuel’s call and it is Elizabeth’s story that parallels that of Hannah. The Magnificat is a radical reflection of the call to which both women responded, despite potential damage to their status, in view of Elizabeth’s age and Mary’s singleness. Their specific call is to motherhood, but it has wide-ranging implications. As Sharon Ringe points out, in her commentary on Luke, this song could “never be confused with a calming lullaby being rehearsed by two pregnant women. …. God’s faithfulness to God’s promises, and to those people or peoples with whom God is joined in covenant, is at the heart of Luke’s theology.” This then raises the question of the link between call and covenant. Jesus’ Call to Discipleship: When we consider the call of Jesus to the twelve disciples we see that the original call is to the whole, unqualified, task of discipleship, but authenticated in terms of specific calls to specific tasks. This is well demonstrated in the passages recording the call to discipleship. In Mark 1:16-20, 2:13-17, 3:13-19 (and parallels) the general call to discipleship is made, but is subsequently particularised in various ways, for example in the sending out, recorded in 6:7-13. The original call is to commitment. As Ched Myers, in his commentary on Mark states: “The call of Jesus is absolute, disrupting the lives of potential recruits, promising them only a “school” from which there is no graduation. The first call to discipleship in Mark is an urgent, uncompromising invitation to “break with business as usual.” The call to specific tasks is the means of practising the general call to discipleship, but offers the possibility of variety in response whilst the general call requires only an affirmative commitment. The call described in Mark 6 is different from that in the earlier passages which we have mentioned in its particularity. As Edwin Broadhead says in his commentary on Mark, referring to this section of chapter 6: “Their mission and message stands, in essence, in the place of Jesus. …. The Twelve have thus been elevated to a decisive role in the arrival of God’s Kingdom; through their ministry the work of Jesus is multiplied and is broadcast to the villages of the Galilee.”

Monday, 13 December 2010

God's Enabling

One of the ideas that is around a lot is that God calls us and that we, hopefully, choose to respond to that call. Of course, there is a degree of truth in that - but we also need to recognise how that kind of notion limits our perspective. What is essential is that God comes alongside us, enabling us and resourcing us. It sometimes even seems that we need to go looking for God. Not so! God comes looking for us, not because God wants to hunt us down, but wanting to support and encourage us. Benignus O'Rourke says (Finding Your Hidden Treasure DLT, 2010, p, 39): "Many of us have been brought up to see God as one who chooses us, or who calls us, a demanding God who selects us for some purpose. We are not sure what his plan for us is. We worry about our response. We worry about becoming indifferent. We worry about thwarting his will for us. But we always feel there is an insistent call: to improve our lives, to change our ways, to be of more service to others." BUT ".. God is simply the God who comes to us .. to give rest to our troubled hearts and minds."

Friday, 10 December 2010

Light, Salt & Added Value

It is always good to remember how Jesus used everyday objects to describe how we should be. Light and salt are both things that make a significant difference. Light shows us the way. It illuminates. Salt makes things taste good. Are we performing those roles within the context in which we are set? What way are we showing? Are we making things taste good? To use another phrase that is around: how are we adding value? God adds lots of value! How are we participating in letting that be seen?

Thursday, 9 December 2010

McChurch, iChurch etc.

Branding is big business. When we hear certain names we get an immediate picture conjured up for us and these pictures have a variety of accompanying connotations. Supermarkets, banks, sportswear and so many other things have their brand leaders. Some brands become very all-embracing. It is difficult to find somewhere with no coca cola. What kind of brand picture does the church give? Is it one that pulls people in to the picture, or one that drives them away? We may think we don't want McChurch or iChurch - but we do need to get people in our culture engaged with church.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Golden Rules for Prayer

I have just begun reading "Finding Your Hidden Treasure" by Benignus O'Rourke (DLT, 2010). It explores the value and the place of silent prayer. Too often, as for other parts of life, we make prayer too busy. In the Introduction O'Rourke suggests two golden rules for prayer (p. 11) - "One is that we have to pray as we can in the way best suited to us, not in the way we think we ought. .... And the other rule is: the less we pray, the harder it gets."

Monday, 6 December 2010

Sacramental Church

An important aspect of the role of the church is to link the world and God. Simon and Garfunkel famously sang of a “bridge over troubled waters”. I think that is what the church is called to be and do. One of the words that we sometimes use to describe things that convey the special from God to us is the word “sacrament”. Sacraments bring us special things from God. In my tradition, on the whole, we only recgnise two sacraments, Holy Communion and Baptism, though there are other things that bring us the sheer joy and wonder of God’s presence. This is certainly superbly demonstrated in these two sacraments which offer us something, which we sometimes call “grace” from God. In “A Generous Orthodoxy” (Zondervan, 2006) Brian McLaren reminds us that: "A sacrament .... carries something of God to us .... all things ... can ultimately carry the sacred: the kind smile of a Down's syndrome child, the bouncy jubilation of a puppy, the graceful arch of a dancer's back, the camera work in a fine film, good coffee, good wine, good friends, good conversation" (p. 254). Let’s be ready to see the special things of God in a wide range of places!

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Justice Matters

For me, for several years, one of the driving forces of my engagement with justice matters was work with and for asylum seekers. It began one Sunday afternoon in the latter part of the 1980s. I received a telephone call. I was, at the time, minister of two tiny inner city URC congregations in Islington. My caller said: we’ve got a problem. There’s a big influx of Kurdish refugees from Turkey to this part of London and we don’t know what to do with them, where to accommodate there. Is there any chance that your church could house a group while we sort things out? The lettings policy, not that we probably had one, went out of the window, as did some elements of Health and Safety, as I said ‘yes’. By the time the evening congregation were arriving, so were a group of approximately 30 Kurdish men, non- English speaking of course. And all credit to that congregation, which didn’t bat any serious eyelids. And so began a period of about, in the end, three months that some of them stayed.It was a fascinating time and experience. It taught me a lot about hospitality. It taught me a lot about welcoming the stranger. It taught me a lot about justice. I spent quite a bit of time fund-raising, and quite a bit just going and do the practical things – accompanying them to Sainsbury’s and buying food, driving down to Burton’s in Oxford Street who offered a car load of clothes. I was part of a group of local church people who did a bit of crisis management and campaigning. I also used to just sit and drink tea with my new Kurdish friends – and that probably achieved as much as anything. I saw, in some cases, the marks left behind by torture. I saw photos of family left at home. I shared the frustration of their not being able to work. One of the great joys later on was to accept an invitation to share some food at the home of a couple of these men once they had been rehoused.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Discipleship's for Life

Discipleship is for life, not just for Christmas, not just for Easter, not just for Advent, not just for .... At the moment I am reading John's Gospel alongside Richard Burridge's "John - the People's Bible Commentary" (BRF, 1998). Commenting on that great passage about freedom in John 8 - you will know the truth and the truth will make you free - Burridge says: "Discipleship is not a single event, an instant reaction to someone speaking; it is a life of constant listening and learning" (p. 116). Discipleship is ongoing. It will take us different places. We can't be doing all our discipleship all the time, but should always be looking for the discipleship call of the moment.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

God's Agenda

We tend to be good at agenda setting but sometimes - perhaps often - need to step back from that and rather look to follow God's agenda. Equally we talk about our mission or the mission of the church - actually it's God's mission. Sometimes we get frustrated because we don't seem to be achieving what we want - when it might be that we should be looking for what it is that God wants us to do. Let's find ways of listening for what God is calling us to do. Let's remember that God doesn't call us to do things that are impossible for us. God will ensure we have the available resources for what we are called to do. Let's discover God's agenda and follow it!

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Beehive Principle

I am not sure where I got this idea, but I think it's a helpful one. Honey bees have a highly developed social structure. A beehive may house as many as 80,000 bees, each of which performs a specialised duty. Some are forager bees, flying great distances to collect food. The guard bees protect the hive entrance from intruders. The scout bees alert the hive to opportunities and dangers in the outside world. A few bees serve as undertakers, responsible for removing dead bodies from the hive. Others are water collectors. They bring in moisture to regulate the hive's humidity. Some are plasterers, making a cement-like substance to repair the hive. The scent fanners station themselves at the hive entrance and blow the scent outward so that disorientated bees can find their way home. The Bible illustrates this "beehive principle" several times. In the Old Testament, Moses is overcome by the burdens of his office and appoints others to help him. In the New Testament Paul says to the church at Corinth that there are varieties of gifts, varieties of service, and varieties of working, each inspired by God for the common good. Every Christian has received gifts and has a role to play in the beehive of God's Kingdom.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Tell Me

When I lived in Panama in the early nineties, the normal way to answer the phone was with just one word ‘digame’. After being used to giving either my name or my number, it was something different to learn to use just this word, the same word that everyone else would use as I rang them. As my Spanish left quite a bit to be desired, it also took a while before I realised what was being said – ‘digame’. Literally it means ‘tell me!’ I suppose our equivalent phrases would be somewhere around ‘what’s up?’, ‘what’s happening?’, ‘what’s the news?’ But I grew to like that Panamanian response. For me, it expressed immediate interest, a wanting to know, a readiness to listen. It also meant that the reason for phoning was that you had something to tell. Advent 2010 takes us into the third year of the United Reformed Church’s Vision4Life initiative, the Year of Evangelism. Evangelism can happen in all sorts of ways, but it always involves us telling the story, our story and God’s story – and even those of us who are sometimes scared by evangelism can do that! Christmas is the time when we especially tell the story of the nativity – God coming to earth in human form. It’s one of the best chances in the year to tell the Christian story. Let’s grab it with both hands. I am convinced that lots of people in their own ways, and often without really knowing it, are saying “digame”. Let’s tell them the Good News!

Monday, 29 November 2010

Don't Keep God Indoors

God is great - and we need to remember that. I have been reading Calvin Miller's "The Path of Celtic Prayer" (BRF, 2008). Miller reminds us of the mistake we often try to make of domesticating God. God is beyond that. P. 86 - "... we who serve an entirely indoor God have lost a great part of our faith. We must break through the cold, hard walls of our institutionalized worship and reach for the soft, warm reality of God that is found out of doors. It is impossible to imprison God within the walls of a church and yet claim that Christianity brings light, growth and life." When we try and pin God down, he marvellously breaks out beyond our attempts.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Hitting the Ground Kneeling

Yesterday I was at Chelmsford Cathedral for the installation of the new Bishop of Chelmsford, Stephen Cottrell. It was an impressive occasion with lots of different elements to the service. It was particularly good to see him being "drummed" into the cathedral. As it happens, I have been reading one of his books "Hit the Ground Kneeling" (Church House Publishing, 2008). In it he tries to offer a different perspective on leadership, suggesting that we, who follow God, ought to be providing a different kind of leadership from that conventionally found elsewhere. He makes the point that - p. 4 - "creativity is usually cultivated in the soil of contemplation." Leading up to that conclusion he says: "Whatever sort of leadership we exercise, indeed, whether or not we think of ourselves as leaders, time spent in reflective attentiveness, what the Church calls contemplation, makes for healthier and more fruitful living. But I say this against the backdrop of a world of remorseless and implacable busyness. We seem hell bent on filling every waking moment - and most of the sleeping ones as well - with noise and activity. Time for reflection is squeezed out. In fact sleeping moments are harder to come by. We sleep less than we did 40 years ago. We work longer hours. And we are constantly chided and chivvied by the chatter of the TV, the chirping of the mobile phone and the clamour of email. We are tied to the trees but more and more cut off from the wood." I absolutely agree that we need more contemplative leadership. I did hear about a minister who gave up meetings for Lent. My response was that I was going to give up email for Lent - but I didn't have the courage to follow it through.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Niche Church

We tend to think that church should be for everyone - and, of course, it is. Ideally, any given church will have the full range of ages - but many don't. I don't believe that we need to think that we have failed when that is the case. We can't all reach out to everyone all the time. We live in a world of consumer choice and of highly specialised interest groups. I think that the church needs to be there sometimes. Of course, the church, in the broadest sense, is for everyone. But certain congregations may be being called to address particular target groups. None of us can do everything. We ought to be looking for what God is calling us to do. If God wants us to serve in a particular niche, let's do it effectively and willingly. Then, together, we will see the Kingdom being built.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Ministry of Stories

An item on today's UK news concerned the formation of a new Ministry of Stories, not a new government department, but an initiative by Nick Hornby and other writers to encourage story-writing amongst children and young people. The centre in East London will offer a range of opportunities to get involved in writing stories. What a good idea! Stories are so much part of life. I think there is a comparison to be drawn with the United Reformed Church's Vision4Life Evangelism Year, due to begin in nine days' time, on Advent Sunday. One of the key emphases of the Vision4Life Evangelism Year is to be encouraging each other to tell our story, and the hope is that helpful resources will be provided to enable that. Of course, we can enjoy the imagination and fantasy of creative writing. But the real stories of real people are normally incredibly fascinating and frequently have new things to say to us. Let's look for good ways of sharing the exciting story of what God has done for us!

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The Clock

This comes straight from Mission-Shaped Parish (p. 8) - but what a great image. "What goes to make up a clock? Just about anything - sand, water, sunshine, springs, gears, quartz crystals, gold, silver, plastic, steel. Yet underneath all the diversity, every clock has two essential components. One is the bit that knows the time - the mechanism, the bit that makes the clock tick. The other is the bit that tells the time - digital numbers, a sundial arm, a voice, hands on a dial - in short a clock face, the bit that you need to see or hear. Any clock needs both components, a mechanism and a face. Otherwise it will not be right, or it won't be helpful. In local church life also there are two essential components - the bit that knows the good news for its community, and the bit that tells the good news to its community."

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Mission Shaped Values

Mission-Shaped Parish suggests there are five mission-shaped values (p. 6) which we need in order to be effective, but warns against these being left in the abstract. It only works if they are each being exercised in concrete ways. But what are they? These five mission-shaped values are: 1) A missionary church is focussed on God the Trinity. This is essentially to do with worship. 2) A missionary church is incarnational. This is about relating to the cultural context. 3) A missionary church is transformational. This is about transforming communities. 4) A missionary church makes disciples. This is about calling people to action. 5) A missionary church is relational. Welcome and hospitality are key.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Big Pictures, Little Pictures & Bandwagons

Thank God for those who, like Desmond Tutu, have engaged with the evils and challenges of racism. Thank God for those who, like Mother Teresa, have been ready to care for the desperately poor. Thank God for those who, like William Wilberforce, were willing to challenge the very fabric of society and contribute towards essential change.
But, though most of us won’t reach such dizzy heights, that doesn’t mean we are not to bother about such things. All the little bits that we can do build into things that can really make a difference. There is still a long way to go but movements like Jubilee 2000, Make Poverty History and Fair Trade have done a lot of good. And it is not just because someone has had a vision, important though that was. It is because lots and lots of people have jumped on the bandwagon.
Don’t be afraid of jumping on bandwagons. Just make sure you are on the right one.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

The Friendly Church

I am often struck by the number of churches I encounter that claim to be friendly. We are a welcoming bunch of folk - that's what we have got going for us. Happily there is a lot of truth in the claim, but we also need to recognise those places where it fails to work out. It is also true that too many churches work on an "in crowd" model. We don't make our churches accessible - and here I am not talking about ramps, rails and loops, important though they are. I am talking about the accessibility of our worship, the accessibility of the conversation around coffee after the service, the accessibility of the different activities. How do things work out if you are not "in the know"? We do well to note Robert Warren's words (in "The Healthy Churches' Handbook", p. 41) - "Real welcome is what happens after we have said, 'hello'."

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Going for Growth

I have just finished reading Mission-Shaped Parish and was struck - inevitably - by the need to engage with our community. We need to get round the fact that "evangelism is a reluctant guest on the agenda of many churches." (p. 101) Often, I think, we give it too much hype. We think we can't do it. We forget that evangelism is just encountering people and telling the story - and we can. We need to be looking for where we are doing it - "The question each church needs to ask is: 'Where is our church's spiritual growbag? Where is the place for new life?'" (p. 101)

Friday, 22 October 2010

It's God's Mission

It's stating the obvious - but we do need to remember that mission belongs to God. It is not the church's mission. It is God's initiative. "Mission-shaped parish" quotes David Bosch - "It's not the church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission who has a church in the world." "Mission-shaped parish" also suggests "God's mission is the chisel that shapes the church" (p. xi). I hope so!

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Sycamore Theology

In Luke 19 Zacchaeus is transformed, and this has no small effect on his life. In Jesus’ words, today salvation has come to this house. And he further explains: The Son of Man has come to seek out and to save what is lost. We need to permit the story the opportunity to make its full and radical impact. We do an injustice to it if we just talk about the wonder of the conversion without bringing out the radical implications of that transformation. This story starts with a wealthy tax collector. At the end of the story, which takes just a few hours at most, he ends up with virtually nothing. This is about revolution with revolutionary implications. This is about the cry for justice. This is about the need for transformation, and that need has not gone away. We need to retell this story which goes against the grain of prevailing values today, as it did then, and I guess we just need to hope that people do still climb trees.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Yes We Can!

The context in which we live, and the context for our mission and evangelism, is a context in which people struggle with questions. It’s a context in which people often feel defeated. The politicians, of course, make their attempt to offer a positive spin and to explain how that relates to their particular policies. Recently I was reading the autumn newsletter of Cambridgeshire Chaplaincy to People at Work which has a picture of Barack Obama on the front with the words, and the message, emerging ‘yes we can’. The text attributes the coining of that phrase to Obama. Actually, I thought Bob the Builder had it first – but never mind. That’s the spin. Similarly David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is about all that can be achieved. The Big Society website uses the words of Gandhi: “We must be the change we want to see in the world.” Well, I’ll buy that. But then I read on: “The Big Society Network is an organisation being set up by frustrated citizens for frustrated citizens to help everyone achieve change in their local area. ....Our aim is not only to create the largest co-operative or mutual in Britain, but to create a mutual that is Britain. Every citizen can be a shareholder, contribute, receive help and rewards.” It sounds great, but. But .... in the context of the promised massive cuts, and the rest of it, I wonder. But maybe I should give them more of a chance because I, too, want to offer a positive spin – only my spin is God’s spin.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Mangrove Theology

When I was in New Zealand in the summer of last year, amongst the people I met, and stayed with, were Dave and Bev Mullan. Dave is a retired Methodist minister. His big thing is local leadership, or what he calls local shared ministry, but he has also done some thinking around what he calls mangrove theology. Depending on where we have been, I guess we will have seen mangroves in different places, but I always particularly think of sailing between the mangroves in particular bits of Panama. Anyhow, Dave writes, and this is an extended quote, but he says it better than I could: “On one side of the mangroves below our home there is the sea. Even on the calmest days it is always moving, alive. At different times it is restless, threatening, challenging; but always beautiful, seemingly never-ending, infinite. On the other side of the mangroves is the land. By comparison it seems thoroughly immovable, resilient and clearly finite. It seems as if it has been there for ever. Yet the land is very vulnerable to the effects of the sea. Erosion can change the land beyond recognition, damaging its contours, stealing its contents and converting earth and clay into the sand and mud of the beaches. In this process the sea can drag great trees to their death and can overwhelm the land in its powerful action. But where there are mangroves there is a protective barrier that keeps land and sea apart. .. The mangroves, by their role of separation, help to define both land and sea. In a sense, the mangrove community’s capacity to keep these two elements apart is what defines the mangroves themselves: they are, by their very nature, separators. Mangrove communities remind us of the church which itself is a zone of separation. It is placed along a dividing line between the everyday and the eternal. One of its most essential purposes is to find and keep a place that enables it to separate – and thus define – the everyday and the eternal. It treads a tightrope from which it may easily fall off to one side or the other but when it does that it ceases to exercise its most central role.” We sometimes talk about thin places - Iona, Holy Island, Taizé. How can we make the church much more "thin"? Mullan explores this by developing the mangrove theology concept a little further as he reflects on the cleansing element of the mangroves. “One of the primary roles of the mangroves is to cleanse run-off from the land. Mud and debris arising from storms and heavy rain are often absorbed .... Instead of polluting the ocean environment they contribute to the growth and strength of the mangroves themselves. ... Part of the role of the church is to be able to absorb some of the painful effects of human dysfunctioning; it offers itself as a haven in which the hurt and the weak may be comforted and protected and “takes on” some of their burden. It creates an environment in which the effects of evil may be tempered and even redeemed.” Yes, and so how can we move into that role?

Friday, 8 October 2010

Christ the Calypsonian

George Mulrain, currently President of the Methodist Church of the Caribbean, talks about Christ the Calypsonian. Like calypso music itself, George originally comes from Trinidad and the concept emerges from his recognition of how calypso songs provide commentary on society in a way that illuminates and critiques culture and daily life. Calypso originally evolved as a way of spreading news around Trinidad. It pushed the boundaries of free speech as it was used to speak out on any and every topic. A Calypso Christ, suggests George Mulrain, can provide a fresh and relevant new image of Jesus that speaks to the realities of life.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Economy of Abundance

Ann Morisy, writing in “Foundations for Mission”, part of the preparatory work for the Edinburgh 2010 conference talks about the need to have confidence in what she calls the “economy of abundance” in order for mission to do its transforming work. She recognises that we have tended to be committed to the “economy of scarcity” – and that has been to the extent that we find it hard to believe that there is also a reliable economy of abundance. But how can we work this out in an authentic way – because we surely don’t want to go a prosperity gospel route that tells us that God will look after us, and hard luck, everybody else? And, of course, all these things need careful defining, for us to be pointing in the right direction. Ann Morisy suggests that this looking for how mission authentically transforms things will brings us to Jesus. Jesus shows us how to live. Jesus points to the right kind of abundance and she suggests that Jesus lived his life in a very distinctive way and identifies six particular contributing elements. First, we see Jesus eschewing power. Jesus was aware of how easily he could have sought power and, on occasion, the disciples tried to push him in that direction. But he made a point of resisting the world’s kind of power. Secondly, we see Jesus being willing to risk being overwhelmed. He didn’t always choose the safe option. In fact, far from it. Often he lived dangerously. He was willing to take risks. Then, thirdly, we see Jesus subverting the status quo. He wasn’t one to accept things because it was always done that way. Even clearly established religious practices could be subject to his challenge. Just because everybody else took something for granted didn’t mean that Jesus would support that perspective. Fourthly, Jesus engaged in wide what we might call ‘fraternal relations’. Jesus refused to conform to the social and cultural taboos of his days. He was not willing to restrict his circle to those who would be seen as fitting in. He looked beyond his immediate groupings and was ready to offer God’s love to all and sundry. Fifthly we see Jesus avoiding ‘tit for tat’ behaviour. This seems so obviously a part of our Christian ethos and yet an area where it is so difficult to emulate Jesus’ example. We live a culture of revenge. We want to get our own back. Walking second miles or offering other cheeks is so alien. But so often we see Jesus avoiding escalating differences when we would be left trying to get our own back. We would want to have the last word. And yet it is not that Jesus allows folk to walk all over him. He knows when to stand his ground. And then, sixthly, we see Jesus investing in the most unlikely. Look at the twelve disciples. That is the obvious place to start here. Is that the kind of group you would choose if you wanted to entrust them with a world-changing mission. Probably not. Indeed, Jesus often went for folk whom others had written off. An economy of abundance is about making a difference – and these six characteristics point to how that might happen in a surprising, yet powerful, way. We are called to follow Christ. We are called to follow Christ’s way. Here are some big challenges as to how that might effectively happen.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Praying with the Pope

Last Friday I shared evening prayers with the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury. We were in Westminster Abbey - and so were a few hundred other people. I guess it was very much trad church, rather than anything of a fresh expression. However, it was an important reminder of the value of the tradition and the need for a range of things to take their place in being church. We certainly need to find new and different ways, but there is immense value in the traditions and in the news that such occasions generates.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Church Unplugged

I have just finished reading David Male's Church Unplugged (Authentic, 2008), a fascinating account of his involvement in the formation of the Net, a fresh expression of church in Huddersfield. Here is a description of church with a difference, and in a way that works and engages with culture. It is an illuminating account, packed with constructive suggestions, but not ignoring the difficulties. Male identifies ten 'essentials' that need to be engaged with in this kind of challenging, but exciting, work. He also offers questions at the end of each chapter, so the book really works as a kind of manual which could well accompany a serious consideration of setting up a new form of church. As he himself concludes - p. 169 - "I hope that in some way this book will act like a handle that will enable you to open the door for the gospel to a new place, community or group. I do believe God is calling us, his church, to find ways to release the good news into our neighbourhoods, communities, networks and nations."

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Emmaus Road Type Evangelism

Part of what is fundamental to the Gospel is that we are called to share it. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations. But how are we to understand and expand all this in terms of mission and evangelism? How, in particular, can we define evangelism? The Bible says a great deal about evangelism and there are many examples that we could cite. Stephen Cottrell suggests, and I agree, that for many of us, for a long time, the controlling Biblical paradigm for evangelism has been Paul’s dramatic conversion on the Damascus Road. We do say that it doesn’t need to happen quite like that – but that story and that encounter between God and Paul have described the essence of what we have thought needs to happen. Even for Paul, of course, this moment was one step on the journey – but an extremely significant one and so this has been the example and the effect, as Cottrell says, is that: “it encouraged the church to think about conversion in terms of a moment of response, and evangelism as somehow catching, or even creating, that moment” From the Abundance of the Heart, Stephen Cottrell, Darton, Longman & Todd, 2006, p. 35). I do believe that such moments can, and do, happen, and it’s great when they do. But, sadly, I also agree with Stephen Cottrell that this has “meant that many churches didn’t really engage in evangelism at all: we just couldn’t imagine being involved in this type of ministry.” Of course, there are plenty of churches that can imagine just that and they do it well. But is there another Biblical model to be used? The one I want to use at this point is the story of the Easter Day encounter on the Emmaus Road. Again I should admit to drawing on Stephen Cottrell who comments: “This story also contains a dramatic encounter and a real turning around, but it is more obviously a story of gradual transformation within the context of an accompanied journey” (p. 36). These two disciples were on the rebound. It had all gone wrong, so horribly wrong. Their hopes, along with those of so many others, had been dashed. Jesus was dead. How could this have happened? In their conversation they went over the events of the last few days, struggling to understand what had happened. As the conversation continues, they are joined by a stranger. We are let in to the secret. They don’t know it’s Jesus – but we do. They go through it all. They get involved in some quite deep theology. In due course they arrive at the village. The stranger makes to go on. But they invite him in – and in the breaking of bread the light of realisation dawns. Stephen Cottrell again: “People are waking up asking questions about where life is going and what it is about. Many people don’t feel as if they have any sense of belonging in a confused and frantic society. People long for community but don’t know their next-door neighbour’s name. They are having dreams of another way of living. They are having nightmares about where the world is going” (p. 37/8). We are called to be, in the words of Richard Gillard’s hymn ‘companions on the road.’ That’s evangelism. If you happen to have the opportunity of some Damascus Road evangelism, and you feel called to it, great! But, with God’s help, may we all engage in Emmaus Road evangelism.

Thursday, 16 September 2010


In 2004 the Church of England produced the report ‘Mission-Shaped Church’. Though, in the first instance, an Anglican document it has proved to be extremely useful across the board and has provoked a whole range of further publications, like Mission-Shaped Spirituality, Mission-Shaped and Rural, Mission-Shaped Youth, Mission-Shaped Children, Mission-Shaped Evangelism, and Mission-Shaped Questions. The fundamental thought is that we need to do things in a mission-shaped way. I agree. As the report comments: “If the Church is not missionary, it has denied itself and its calling, for it has departed from the very nature of God.” The Mission-Shaped Church Report reflected on fresh expressions church – different ways of doing things – and gave them the fresh expressions name leading to the formal launch of the fresh expressions initiative in 2005. That was initially an Anglican and Methodist initiative, but now the United Reformed Church and the Congregational Federation have joined in. And lots of things have been happening. The Mission Shaped Ministry course is offering a valuable resource to those who want to engage in this ministry with a difference. Training of pioneer ministers is taking place – and a whole range of different ways of being church are developing.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Missionary Character

“If Christianity loses its missionary character anywhere in a civilization, or at any time in a given era, or in any society, it is forgetting its origin and surrendering its identity.” So says Jürgen Moltmann (in Mission - an invitation to God's future, edited by Timothy Yates, Cliff College Publishing, 2000, p. 19). Part of what is fundamental to the Gospel is that we are called to share it. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations. That, of course, happens in many and varied ways. When I was in Zimbabwe in March I saw people sharing the Gospel by running schools, operating HIV/Aids clinics and leading playgroups. In Taiwan in May I saw the Gospel shared through engagement with the indigenous communities and their culture. Last year in New Zealand I saw people engaging in encounter with schools and immigrant communities and so sharing the Gospel. And as I travel round the United Reformed Church's Eastern Synod I see the Gospel shared in all sorts of ways – through playgroups and lunch clubs, through messy churches and cafe churches, in one place by providing a home for the post office, in another a home for the local library. And so on. Every church needs to consider the question of its missionary character and what it is being called, for the moment, by God to do.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Essex Country Show

Yesterday I went to the Essex Country Show at Barleylands near Billericay. It was fascinating - lots of stuff to see, do and buy. There were many stalls - food stalls, craft stalls, stalls demonstrating various activities etc. etc. There were lots of engines and vehicles. There was a small fun fair. There were demonstrations of various crafts. There was live music. And there was the Churches' tent - which was the main reason I went. I am currently Chair of Churches Together in Essex and East London and we are responsible for the tent, though most of the work is done by Churches Together in Billericay. We were giving away free tea and coffee. We had a couple of clowns who engaged with our visitors, particularly the younger ones. We had a few stalls - and offered the opportunity to just sit down and chill out. And once an hour our lively puppets performed. How valuable to be present at such an event - and with a range of creative things happening!

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Olympic Games 2012

Last Saturday, together with a group from the United Reformed Church, I went on a tour of the site for the London Olympic Games in 2012. Already things are moving towards a recognisable stage. We drove round the site in a coach, seeing the main stadium, the broadcasting centre, the swimming pool and the accomodation taking shape. It is a large site taking shape and everything is currently on target or in advance. We then spent some time considering the implications and impact of the Games coming to the UK, in particularly hearing about the 'More Than Gold' organisation which supports the churches in using major sporting events, especially the Olympics, as an opportunity for encountering the community. In some senses this is the biggest thing to come to the UK since the Olympics were last here - and the vast majority of people will have some interest in something Olympic. Sport, culture and religion are the main three things in which people have an interest, but sport undoubtedly tops the list. Here is a chance to engage.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Taking It In Stages

I have been reading Steve Hollinghurst's book Mission Shaped Evangelism (Canterbury Press, 2010) in which he explores a whole range of issues around the crucial matter of evangelism. One thing that particularly struck me was his suggestion, near the end of the book, that effective projects tend to operate on three levels - p. 242. First "build relationships in the wider community on their territory." Second, "create or find places where Christians and non-Christians build relationships and explore issues." He suggests social action projects and book groups as two possible examples of this. Then, third, "establish discipleship groups explicitly aimed at those who want to explore and deepen Christian faith." Hollinghurst suggests that much of our mission falters because we ty to jump straight from stage one to stage three. We move immediately from encounter to the attempt to disciple those we have encountered - and it doesn't work because we have missed out the need to build relationship.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Playing the Game the Right Way

At the moment I am reading a book called “Balti Britain” by Ziauddin Sardar (Granta, 2008). Sardar is a British Asian and the book takes him in search of his roots. I am finding it fascinating because it offers many links with my time in Birmingham and indeed that city is not infrequently mentioned in the book. The book is very much about identity. At one point Sardar recounts a conversation with his then 13 year old son concerning the boy’s love of cricket – and the dilemma of whether to support England or Pakistan. Sardar introduces this with a reference to what he calls the Tebbit test – pointing to the time when Norman Tebbit made the rather surprising suggestion that who you support in cricket indicates where your loyalties lie. 13 year old Zain Sardar suggested to his father – “What if I choose to support both England and Pakistan?” “That,” responded his dad, “would be a wise choice. But does that mean you will always be hoping for a draw?” “It means,” Zain replied, looking rather thoughtful for his age, “It doesn’t really matter who wins. What matters is how the game is played.” I hope you can make the link. Winning and success aren’t really church terms and yet, in a sense, they are what we so often want and are looking for. But what matters, and what we are called to, in whatever sphere our service may lie, is to play the game the right way.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Scarecrow Ministry

Scarecrows are both strange and useful and dressed in whatever comes to hand. Is that a good description of ministry? Perhaps not. Scarecrows have a role to scare, but they also have a role to protect. Perhaps that gets us closer. We might not want to stress 'scaring' as an aspect of ministry - yet there are things we should scare off - hatred, injustice, greed etc. There is certainly much that we need to protect and which we might describe in terms of love, goodness, kindness etc. Barbara Glasson develops the concept of scarecrow ministry in Mixed-up Blessing (Inspire, 2006). She talks about it as "believing in the possibility of something yet unknown" just as a scarecrow "stands over an empty allotment" (p. 91). We often don't know where our ministry is taking us and the call may well be to just hang in. We certainly don't always know what fruit is going to appear in a particular place. Often the task, like that of the scarecrow, is one of watching and waiting. Often we are rushing round doing things, when we would do a lot better to just wait and see what emerges. "Scarecrow ministry is less about planting something and more about looking lovingly at an empty patch, hoping for signs of life, staying with the belief in the invisible things God has sown" (p. 92). What else can we learn from the scarecrow? Its arms are wide open. That is a symbol of acceptance and welcome, and can be demanding in terms of energy. The scarecrow's task is to scare away the birds. What are the birds that we need to be scaring away? The scarecrow often looks ridiculous, dressed, as it usually is, in random clothes. Are we prepared to look ridiculous when that is what's needed? One is reminded about that stuff around the foolishness of the Cross. The scarecrow gets to the point where it needs to be dismantled. We are much better at beginning things than we are at ending them. We need to remember that what we are concerned with is God's story. Certainly we are part of the story, but the story is always bigger than us. "Scarecrow ministry is only a means for the seeds to grow. When the seeds have taken root and are growing then the scarecrow has done its job. All ministry is about facilitating God's work, participating in God's story, nurturing God's people" (p. 103).

Saturday, 7 August 2010

The Bread Church

In May I visited Liverpool and went to the premises of 'the bread church'. Nothing was happening bread-wise or church-wise because we were just there for a meeting, but it was interesting to see these particular premises. People meet there just to make bread and chat. There is often some sharing of food and some worship. The fascinating story is told in Barbara Glasson's Mixed-up Blessing (Inspire, 2006). It's a new way of church which Barbara describes as scarecrow ministry - "like a scarecrow I felt that my job was to watch and wait" (p. 88/9).

Friday, 6 August 2010

Zimbabwe and Taiwan Reflections

Earlier this year I was fortunate to visit, first, Zimbabwe in March and, then, Taiwan, in May, in both cases going with United Reformed Church colleagues. Those two situations were very different, but one thing that they shared in common and that spoke to me was a concern to discern what God is telling them, as a church, to do.
We saw some amazing projects in Zimbabwe where there is great poverty and a huge challenge from HIV/Aids. For example, we visited Highfield Uniting Presbyterian Church on a Monday morning. We met with a group of lively women who form the nucleus of the HIV/Aids project that is linked to the church. They told us how they make peanut butter and floor polish in order to sell these goods so that the small profit can sustain the work they do in support of each other and others.
The creche that also uses the church premises was in the church along with a number of other local creches as some local dignitaries were visiting for a presentation event. This meant that we were able to go and look round the room where they usually play which was set up for their return. In many ways it was not unlike a UK nursery with a hospital corner, shop corner, nature corner cafe corner and so on – except that the things with which they could play were all home-made, though creatively so. But thank goodness health and safety hasn’t kicked in – as most of the things they play with would be condemned in this country.
In Taiwan we spent quite a bit of time visiting some of the indigeneous groups and seeing how the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan is working in those areas. One particularly impressive project was at Bunun where the minister, himself from the local indigeneous group, got so concerned about the migration from the area and the lack of opportunities for work that he has created a major cultural project, with local crafts made and sold, a restaurant and cafe, accommodation, a regular cultural show and a whole complex that showcases the Bunun culture and keeps it alive. And all this is done from a Chritian base and as part of the mission of the church.
Sometimes we get concerned about what we can do as a church. I understand why that happens, but I’m not sure that we should. What we need to do is to listen for what God is calling us to do – and we can be confident that God won’t call us to something that is beyond our capability.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

(Don't) Touch My Mess

There's a picture of a dolphin on my office notice-board with a couple of divers in the background and the caption - Don't touch my mess - you'll screw up my world! That is often how I think, and yet is it not true that the church's task is precisely to touch other people's messes? The Bible is certainly full of stories as to how God 'screwed up' various individuals' worlds. A flood did it for Noah. For Abra(ha)m it was a journey into the unknown. Isaiah saw a fantastic vision, S/Paul a blinding light. God is certainly good at turning people round. It is also interesting that people often don't find God where they would expect. I don't believe that God calls us to leave other people's worlds untouched. God wants to make a difference, and does so through us. There is a crucial question for the church as to what we are doing to really make a difference. People need help with their messes. What are we doing about that?

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Defining Fresh Expressions

‘Fresh Expressions’ has developed a definition of new forms of church – “A fresh expression is a form of church for our changing culture established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church. • It will come into being through principles of listening, service, incarnational mission and making disciples. • It will have the potential to become a mature expression of church shaped by the gospel and the enduring marks of the church and for its cultural context.” This offers some key indicators. First, it is important to recognise the context in which we are looking to engage. Being “a form of church for our changing culture” requires the making of appropriate links with culture. Just as Peter needed to respond to the challenges of taking the Gospel to a Gentile culture (Acts 10), so we need to adapt to today’s society. Secondly, we need to learn to reach out to “people who are not yet members of any church”. Jesus was clear in his refusal to recognise the barriers that divided up people in his day, thus offering us a model of inclusion and going, rather than waiting for people to come to us. Thirdly, we must recognise that God takes the initiative and is already present in any situation that we might enter. Listening and service are prerequisites for effective engagement with any whom we might encounter. Fourthly, we should accept that we have a mission. The common usage of mission statements in a huge range of contexts should help our understanding, and perhaps our description, of our mission. We certainly need to find good ways to tell the story. Fifthly, we need to ensure that what we are looking for is ‘real church’. “The goal of beginning a fresh expression is not to create a permanent shallow place of faith or ‘Christianity-lite’. The goal is to create a context and community where mature disciples are formed and flourish.”[1] All encounters with people in God’s name are good, and we may not know what has been achieved, but the task is to make disciples. When we talk about disciples we are talking about growth in our faith. The way and the end are Christ shaped. Fresh Expressions are not about new products but transformation of individuals and church to a more open and accessible way, rather than an unmoving model. Church happens when Jesus Christ is around, a verb rather than a noun. [1] Steven Croft’s chapter ‘What counts as a fresh expression of church?’ in “Evaluating Fresh Expressions” ed. by Louise Nelstrop and Martyn Piercy, Canterbury Press, 2008, p. 11.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Emergency Planning

Today I was at a meeting which was considering questions around planning for emergency incidents in Norfolk. We all hope they won't happen, but know they can, and some will. It is good - and right and proper - to be ready. That got me thinking about all our planning. What planning do we do for church life? How effective is it? How well do we carry the plans out? (Sometimes I fear that we get stuck at the planning stage!) And how is our planning for mission? What is that achieving? Planning is good and vital - but a waste of time unless it delivers.

Monday, 2 August 2010

To Pray Is To Change

"To pray is to change" - so says Richard Foster (Prayer, Hodder & Stoughton, 1992, p. 5). How right that is, and how challenging! How often do we pray hoping that our prayers will keep us in just the same place? As I noted three posts ago, Foster also quotes Dom Chapman saying: "Pray as you can, not as you can't" (p. 7). That, too, is good advice. Prayer plays a key part in all we do - if we let it.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Addressing the Moment

Paulo Coelho's Manual of the Warrior of Light (HarperCollins, 1997, 2002) is packed with words of wisdom. For example (p. 133), "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." We can't do everything, and we shouldn't try.

Monday, 26 July 2010

What Kind of Church?

I have just finished skimming through the Study Guide that accompanies Ian Morgan Cron's Chasing Francis and was struck by a couple of the questions posed near the end. -- If you could stand in front of your church and speak from the heart about anything you wanted related to its mission, what would you say? -- If you could design and start a church, what would it be like? What would its mission be? Whom would you try to reach? How would you do it? What would worship look like?

Sunday, 25 July 2010

God Welcomes Our Prayers

Often we are not sure whether our prayers are hitting the spot, but so long as they are freely offered, we can be sure that they are. I like the way Richard Foster expresses it in his book entitled “Prayer”. He begins by quoting someone else: “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” But then he goes on to comment: “We today yearn for prayer and hide from prayer. We are attracted to it and repelled by it. We believe prayer is something we should do, even something we want to do; but it seems as if a chasm stands between us and actually praying. We experience the agony of prayerlessness. We are not quite sure what holds us back.” Foster goes on to say: “Our problem is that we assume prayer is something to master the way we master algebra or motor mechanics,” and he goes on, “We will never have pure enough motives, or be good enough, or know enough in order to pray rightly. We simply must set all these things aside and begin praying. .... What I am trying to say is that God receives us just as we are and accepts our prayers just as they are. In the same way that a small child cannot draw a bad picture so a child of God cannot offer a bad prayer.”

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Chasing Francis

I have just finished reading Ian Morgan Cron's Chasing Francis (NavPress, 2006). It is a fascinating account of how the pastor of a large successful (whatever that means) American church has a crisis of faith which sends him on a trip to Italy to visit his Roman Catholic uncle. Uncle Kenny is a Franciscan and he and his friends introduce Chase (him of the crisis of faith) to the delights and challenges of the way of St. Francis of Assisi. To begin with it is all so strange, but gradually it begins to make sense. Chase returns to the States to present a new vision of church and see if his former congregation (which, incidentally, he founded) wants him back. But he doesn't want the job unless it is going to be very different from the one from which he was asked to take leave of absence. Francis may have lived in the thirteenth century, but he certainly places some very twenty-first century challenges before Chase. And I guess we, too, need to consider what type of church we want to be. What are our priorities in being church? How are we going to use our resources?

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

God gets there before us!

Another quote from Donald Eadie's Grain in Winter - "The craft deployed by Jesus was to help people discover in their own circumstances and events God's presence and goodness. This is evangelism." (p. 27)

Monday, 19 July 2010

Eucharistic People

I have been reading Ian Morgan Cron's book "Chasing Francis" (NavPress, 2006). It is a novel in which the main character loses faith and goes off to rediscover it in a a very different context. He leaves the large American church he has founded to go and spend time with his Roman Catholic priest uncle in Italy - and Uncle Kenny takes him in search of Saint Francis of Assisi. It's a great story, but also a story with a message. At one point the central character, Chase Falson, is writing in his journal, addressing St. Francis. He comments on a book he is reading about the Eucharist: "The guy who wrote it says we're not just Homo sapiens (knowing people) but Homo eucharistica (Eucharistic people) as well. In other words, we need more than reason or information to nourish our faith; we're built for firsthand experiences of God through things like the Eucharist as well." Another comment in that particular journal entry that I like is: "Some time back I heard someone say that the Bible is less a book that tells us what to do than a story that tells us who we are." (p. 96) That's a thought that's well worth pondering.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Vive la Difference

I have been reading more of Donald Eadie's "Grain in Winter" and was struck by a section in which he recognises the value of difference - and makes mention of the damage we do when we pretend it's not there. We are not all the same, and how boring life would be if we were, but we do share a common humanity. As Eadie writes: "I have been slow to learn that we are not all the same, despite having been exposed to people whose experience of life is so different and whose language and culture and educational experience is so varied. We are profoundly different yet we are held in the hands of God. And in a polarizing environment this is gospel. The testimony is to more than tolerance, it is to an openness to search for truth, an openness to generosity and an openness to rigour within the roots of the common life. The craft is to seek the common good within our acknowledged differences." (p. 75)

Friday, 16 July 2010

The Vitality of Prayer

Prayer is so crucial to all that we do. We cannot help but use it, and rely on it. Donald Eadie reminds us how vital it is when he writes: "Prayer is much more than withdrawing into a corner and screwing ourselves up to think godly thoughts for as long as we can manage! Prayer has to do with seeing deeply into things, paying attention to where our creativiy lies: what we experience in life that brings us to life. Prayer is about engagement as well as disengagement, about wonder as well as failure." (Donald Eadie, "Grain in Winter", Epworth, 1999, p. xvi.) Prayer is not just for emergencies, but a crucial part of every situation.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Evangelism Matters

Yesterday we had a Synod event taking the theme 'Evangelism Matters'. We wanted to stress that evangelism important and to offer some tools for engaging in it. When we talk about mission, that usually offers a much broader canvas - and the church is called to mission in all sorts of ways. That's important, but we should not use other parts of mission to evade the challenge to evangelism. Our guest speaker was my predecessor, Revd. Liz Caswell. Liz challenged us to consider the how, why, when, what and who of evangelism. She stressed that everybody is valuable to God. Liz told us a little us a little story about something that had happened to her, and then got us - in pairs - to tell each other about something interesting, amazing, important, whatever, that had happened to us. She then asked us how readily we would tell that story, whatever it was, to folk we encountered. Next she asked us to consider how equally, or not, ready we are to tell those we meet something of the story of Jesus and how we have engaged with it. It is interesting to consider how readily we share our faith stories.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Mission and Discipleship

Mission is what the church is called to do. We are supposed to engage with other people - but what we are about is bringing them in to full particpiation in (and enjoyment of) kingdom things. As Stephen Cottrell says: "Mission .. can never be reduced to proclamation; it overflows into discipleship. It begins with our longing to share with others all that we have received in Christ, but it cannot end with initiation. .... The missionary church is the church that participates in God's mission, by enabling all people to become disciples of Christ. And by disciples I mean people who work toward the building of God's kingdom by responding to human need in loving service, and seek to transform the unjust structures of society. Therefore, the first task of a mission-shaped church is to ask how it can serve and be a blessing to its local community." (Stephen Cottrell in his chapter "Letting your actions do the talking" in "Fresh Expressions in the Sacramental Tradition" ed. Steven Croft and Ian Mobsby, Canterbury Press, 2009, p. 70). Going and telling is important - and it is the starting point; but we are not about something superficial. Jesus said, 'go!' But he said, 'go - and make disciples!'

Thursday, 1 July 2010


The United Reformed Church General Assembly starts tomorrow - so I have actually been reading the Book of Reports. I am, of course, biased - but one of the best bits is the report from the Synod Moderators. This Assembly's report takes the theme of 'accompaniment'. It recognises the challenge of life in today's church and that a wide variety of styles is needed in the accompanying. It recognises how vital it is that Christ accompanies us - but suggests that we, in our turn, are called to a ministry of accompanying. So much of what we do is, or should be, working alongside.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Four Ways

Alison Morgan, in her chapter in “Mission-shaped Questions” (Church House Publishing, 2008), entitled “What does the gift of the Spirit mean for the shape of the Church”, suggests “four ways in which we might think about the gift of the Spirit and the shape of the Church.” The first thing is that we need to focus on Jesus. The Church is about following Jesus, or it should be. The story that we have to tell is the Jesus story. Jesus calls us to an alternative way, and that is what we should be focussing on. Secondly, we need to stress unity. What Christians share is far more important than the things that divide us. We need to be open to the contribution of other Christians. “It means sharing ideas, exchanging stories. It means being willing to take risks, to trust one another, to be humble.” Third, we need also to emphasise diversity which is not the opposite of unity, but part of it. We might define diversity as “letting a thousand flowers bloom”. “We live in a pick ‘n’ mix age, and we have an astonishingly diverse spiritual heritage to draw on. Let’s borrow from one another and borrow from the past. We have much to learn and much to share.” And, fourthly, we need to depend on the Holy Spirit. Too often we are concerned about what we can do, instead of relying on the God-given resources that are available to us.

Monday, 28 June 2010


I have been reading Gordon Brown’s book “Courage” (Bloomsbury, 2007). In the introduction he comments: “Stories of people who took brave decisions in the service of great causes entralled me, especially when more comfortable and far less dangerous alternatives were open to them.” He goes on to explain the inportance and role of courage as he re-tells eight remarkable stories. His chosen eight are Edith Cavell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Raoul Wallenberg, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, Ciceley Saunders and Aung San Suu Kyi. Courage is not about the absence of fear, but about coping with it and overcoming it. These stories certainly demonstrate that and each one offers a great deal of inspiration. It set me wondering whose eight stories would I tell if I set myself a similar project. Inevitably, there are many possibilities and I guess I would choose some of the same people as those chosen by Gordon Brown. I guess I might choose three of the same, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. But who else would I choose? Possibly Therese of Lisieux who gave herself to a ministry of prayer and devotion despite incredibly poor health. Possibly Dr. Kao, General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan at a time when human rights were at a low ebb in that country and who was arrested and jailed for over four years for speaking out as to what was right. Possibly Ephraim Alphonse who gave years to work with the Guyami indigeneous people in Panama and who was the first to write down their language as part of offering God’s love to that people. Possibly Laszlo Tokes who as a minister of the Hungarian Reformed Church in Timisoara in Romania was a big part of the resistance that sparked the Romanian revolution. And who would get the last place? Mother Teresa? Oscar Romero? Desmond Tutu? Eric Liddell? Or someone else? Or, to take another line, what about eight people from the Bible, who offer stories of courage? That might be Abraham, Ruth, Esther, Jeremiah, Daniel, Mary, Peter and Paul. Who would you choose – and how do they inspire you?

Saturday, 26 June 2010

It's About God!

This morning I was at a consultation day for Churches Together Groups in Essex where our keynote speaker was the Revd. Dr. David Cornick, General Secretary of Churches Together in England. David was reminding us that it is God who takes the initiative in mission, but that God is a sending God - and God sends us to do mission. We may find ourselves engaging in all sorts of good things, and that is fine so far as it goes, but mission needs the God bit. Mission connects us with the Kingdom of God. Jesus proclaimed God's alternative way. This is what we need to engage with. Being engaged in mission is being under the rule of God. It is about being part of God's alternative way of life. David suggested three Biblical passages from Luke-Acts that offer pointers for mission. First, the Annunciation. Mary could have said 'no', but she didn't. Eastern tradition has given her the title 'God-bearer'. What might happen if we all had the courage to be God-bearers? Second, the mission of the 70 (or 72) in Luke 10. They are sent out with no visible means of support. Their task is to encounter people. Mission is about encounter. Every encounter has missionary potential. The problem is that we like to be in control - but mission only happens when you are not in control. Third, the story of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10. God is for all - and God is already in every culture. Mission should not be saying 'come and be like us.' Rather, the call is 'come and follow Jesus in ways that are appropriate to your culture'.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Visiting Taiwan

In May I was fortunate to go on a United Reformed Church ‘Belonging to the World Church’ programme trip to Taiwan. We received a superb welcome and had a fascinating time which offered us a wide range of experiences of life in Taiwan and especially of church life in Taiwan. What an amazing experience – and such a reminder of the wonder of being part of the world church. The hospitality we received was incredibly generous and we were fortunate to do a good bit of travelling and see different aspects of church life. In particular we visited three of the indigenous groups within Taiwan and saw something of the churches where they worshipped and the mission in which they are engaged. In one place we were able to have a conversation with the pastor about the challenge of working with particular groups and how we identify with a group to which we do not belong. We visited a church-run farming project. Elsewhere we talked with the pastor in the midst of the amazing cultural project that has been developed under his influence – and then went to enjoy a cultural programme of music and dance.
It was particularly interesting for me to visit Taiwan because it so happens that I was ordained in 1979 and that was the year in which the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan came very much in to the news and offered us all much cause for concern and prayer. It was a time when human rights in Taiwan were at a low ebb. There was a great deal of persecution and oppression. The Presbyterian Church of Taiwan has always been active in issues of justice and, at that time, paid the price for speaking up. The General Secretary then was Dr. Kao, a name that I remember being much mentioned and prayed for in those days of 1979 and beyond. Dr. Kao was imprisoned in 1979 – and we were reminded during the visit that it is easy to remember how long he was in prison. Just think of 4, 3, 2, 1 – it was four years, three months and twenty one days. One of the places we visited was the Chi-Lin Foundation in Ilan County which offers a fascinating insight into the history of Taiwan’s Democratic Movement. It has become a repository for all sorts of interesting and relevant material. It was founded by Lawyer Lin and his wife in an attempt to bring something positive out of the murder of his mother and their twin daughters, then aged 7, on 28th February 1980.
The foundation was established in 1991 and at the ceremony to mark its opening Mr. Lin told a story that bears repeating. At the base of the Himalayas there is a bamboo forest in which many birds and animals live. One day, a strong wind made the bamboos scrape against each other, resulting in a fire. The fire grew larger and some of the animals started to run away. A parrot flew into the sky and could have escaped the forest fire. However, he loved the bamboo forest where he grew up and appreciated the forest for offering him shelter. In addition, he could not bear seeing his companions suffer. Thus, he soaked his wings in a nearby pond and then flew into the sky to spread water on to the fire. He continuously repeated this seemingly ineffective action.
The compassion of the parrot and his sacrificial spirit moved God. God descended from heaven and said to the parrot, ‘Your actions are praiseworthy. But how will you extinguish the fire with the drops of water collected from your wings?’ The parrot answered, ‘appreciation and compassion guarantees success,’ In the end, God was moved and helped put out the fire. However, if there were 100,000 or a million parrots that simultaneously performed the same act, perhaps God’s help would not have been necessary to extinguish the fire.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Glimpses of Zimbabwe

LOVEMORE HOME Lovemore Home is a good place to be – especially as the alternative is to be on the streets of Harare. The home accommodates twelve orphan boys of primary school age, supporting them in every way. Unlike most projects within the Presbytery of Zimbabwe, which are run by individual congregations, Lovemore Home is run directly by the Presbytery. It was one of many projects we visited during a nine day visit to Zimbabwe in March 2010. The boys proudly showed us round. Their rooms, with two, four and six respectively sharing, were in good order, part of the garden is given over to growing their own food and television and football are amongst the activities most enjoyed. The boys attend a local school and will normally move on to the presbytery’s boarding school when they reach secondary age. BACKGROUND The visit, undertaken by Revd. John Marsh (Moderator of General Assembly 2008-10), Mrs. Linda Mead (Commitment for Life Programme Co-ordinator), Revd. Jane Rowell (Secretary for World Church Relations), Mrs. Mary Jeremiah (Commitment for Life Advocate for the Synod of Wales) and Revd. Paul Whittle (Moderator of Eastern Synod), was designed to strengthen links between the United Reformed Church and the Presbytery of Zimbabwe within the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa. It focussed on three aspects of that relationship – a desire by the General Assembly Moderator to focus on Zimbabwe, a strengthening of the links with Christian Aid-supported projects especially through the Commitment for Life programme, and exploring how best to develop the specific link between the Presbytery and Eastern Synod. We were given an extremely warm welcome by the Revd. Jonah Masaka (Acting Moderator of Presbytery), the Revd. Tinashe Chemvumi (Acting Clerk of Presbytery), Mrs. Norah Zidyana (Presbytery Administrator) and others – and left with just one regret, that the visit wasn’t longer. LOMAGUNDI Another visit was to Lomagundi Uniting Presbyterian Church in Chinhoyi – and what a breath-taking example of a church engaged in wide-reaching mission. The church’s last minister left over eighteen months ago, but that clearly – and rightly – has not impacted their mission. They run a school with the different forms meeting around tables in a large hall. Conditions are less than ideal, but far better than the ‘no school’ alternative. Allied to this, though reaching a broader group of young people, they run a sports ministry which aims to bring young people together through sport. The premises also house a clinic with staff being funded by the Presbytery of Denver (USA). A big focus at the clinic, as in other clinics we visited in Zimbabwe, is the care of patients who are HIV positive. The church has a vision to turn the manse into a cottage hospital – and purchase a new manse for a new minister in a new location. The manse garage is currently being used to keep chickens! And all this goes alongside a growing congregation.