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.