Friday, 30 December 2011

Jericho

A brief visit to Jericho got us thinking about those times when Jesus would have visited that city - and also its place in the broader history of the people of Israel.  As we visited the remains of the walls we thought of that time when the walls came tumbling down and the role that Joshua had in the history of the city.

It was in Jericho that Jesus encountered Zacchaeus - and we were shown some ancient sycamore trees that served as a strong reminder of that story. 

Jericho is, more or less, at the edge of the wilderness and it struck me as a place where you were either arriving at or leaving from all the facilities that would be needed by any traveller.  There was a fountain with water pots, indicating the presence and importance of water.

Jericho spoke to me of God's enduring care and love.  Just as Zacchaeus found what he needed there, just as Joshua was able to lead the people to a place of safety, so God's love is present and available to us.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

River Jordan

On our way to Galilee we stopped off at the River Jordan to see the baptismal site, the place where, approximately, John baptised Jesus - just a fairly narrow strip of river separating Israel and Jordan.  It is well supplied with infra structure to keep it safe these days and - on the Jordanian side, a range of churches, and even a mosque.  Each main denomination has been given a piece of land to build a church, part of a marking of this place belonging to us all.  It must have been different in John and Jesus' day, but it was not too difficult to imagine John there in the water, encouraging his listeners to step forward and symbolically demonstrate their repentance for all their wrongs.

We were able to dip our hands in the water and we had a brief, but very moving, service of renewal of our baptismal vows.  What a wonderful place to be to take the opportunity to remember God's grace and our Christian commitment. 

It was also a significant opportunity to remember the importance of water.  There were some monks filling up water carriers as this operates as their water source.  Admittedly, they didn't have to lift the containers on to their head and walk back to the monastery - they loaded them on to a truck.  Water is crucial to our human survival - and so its use in the sacraments that signifies our entry to the church is indicative of so much, life itself, as well as cleansing.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Cana

When we visited Cana it was pouring with rain.  Hopefully, the weather was rather different at the time of the story that has made this place so famous - though, in fact, Cana has moved - lock, stock and barrel - so the location is not precisely the same in any case.

However, that does not prevent there from being an attractive church to commemorate Jesus' first miracle and, just across the path, a souvenir shop that features tastings of Cana of Galilee wine - which was very sweet.  However, this visit was an opportunity to reflect on the impact that Jesus made in so many different ways.  Jesus was - and is - concerned with everyday things, the things that matter to us, and helps us respond to the situations in which we find ourselves.

When Jesus turned the water into wine at that wedding, that must have made a real difference to the lives of the families and friends at that particular social occasion.  It is important to remember, as we were frequently reminded during our trip, that we are not just dealing with a historical Jesus but relating to a living one.  It is not that he was in these places.  He is in these places!

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Capernaum

It was very interesting to visit Capernaum and to be able to focus on this as being the place where Jesus spent a lot of his time and did a lot of his teaching and performed a lot of his miracles. We were able to see some of the ruins, including the ruin of the Synagogue that will have been the one that Jesus taught in. We were reminded that to start praying in a Synagogue you need ten men - you can’t start the prayer without that but Jesus said “that where two or three are gathered”.  There is no gender requirement and a much lower number - he says where there are two or three “I am there”.  God is of course ‘I am’ and we might compare Paul’s comment that we are all one in Christ Jesus.

As we looked at the Capernaum ruins we could imagine such incidents as the man being lowered down through the roof in order to get close to Jesus.  The houses were clearly very small and it would not take many people to fill them up.  There were also the remains of an adjacent army barracks, a reminder of the proximity of the occupying forces, with all its negative and positive connotations.  The Capernaum synagogue was sponsored by the Roman centurion whose servant Jesus healed, a story that reminds us of the inter-action that would be necessary between different communities, no matter what they thought of each other.  Capernaum was also where Simon Peter's mother-in-law lived and this may well have been his base, adjacent, as it is, to the lake.  Capernaum would have been an ordinary villages that played host to some extraordinary events.  That's what happens when God engages with humanity.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Kursi

Kursi has been a place of pilgrimage since the 5th century, as it is regarded as the place where Jesus met and healed the demoniac, sending the demons out of the demoniac and into a herd of pigs which then cast themselves over the cliff.


This is an interesting site out in the countryside with the ruins of a monastery there today. There was a little chapel on what was presumably the site of the cave where this person had lived. When we visited this site we were led in a reflection asking the question as to whether, just possibly, the prodigal son was the demoniac. This is pure speculation but is it just possible that the prodigal’s father asked Jesus to go looking for his son and, if so, this shows the lengths to which Jesus would go in order to look for someone. The link between the two stories is possibly the pigs, and it is certainly true that Jesus went out of his way to encounter this man.. Jesus found the demoniac who recognised him. How interesting that the demons often recognised Jesus before everyone else did. Jesus then asked the question “what is your name?” and the response came “my name is Legion”. This man has actually lost his name, has lost his identity, but Jesus restores him. It is an interesting question as to what a pig farmer was doing in a Jewish country - was this man smuggling hams across Galilee for those who would buy them? We don’t know, but possibly so!

At the end of the story the demoniac wants to stay with Jesus, but Jesus tells him to go home. The question arises as to where did Jesus get his stories Was, for example, the story of the prodigal son drawn from a real-life situation? Whether or not it has anything to do with the parable, Jesus certainly came a long way to find this man.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Mount of Beatitudes

Two weeks ago today we went first to the Mount of Beatitudes, the traditional site from which Jesus taught the disciples and others the Sermon on the Mount. We had an interesting reflection on this in which we were encouraged us to look, firstly, at the word but then, secondly, to look at the metaphor behind the word. Thirdly we should look at the morality of what is being said and, fourthly, we need to go and live it. We were focussed particularly on the first beatitude, ‘blessed are the poor in spirit’, asking the question “who are the poor in spirit?” Perhaps it means that blessed are those who know how much they need God. Jesus often spoke of Abraham and we might suggest that Abraham is the classic example of one who recognised their need of God. We can also see water as a symbol of need. We need water in order to survive. The Biblical message is ‘to leave and to go’ and Abraham is certainly the big example of that.


It was good to be up on the mountain and to look down and across and imagine the people there, listening to Jesus and being inspired by his challenging words – and to hear something of that same challenge from those same words today.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Nazareth

Arriving in Nazareth, as we walked up the hill, we were immediately met by a sign outside the mosque declaring Islam to be the one true faith. This served as a reminder of the contemporary challenges to inter-faith dialogue. We were told, on other occasions, that the Holy Land has good relationships and regular meetings between Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders. There are many good engagements undertaken with great integrity, but all the major faiths have those who want nothing to do with anyone else. It also served as a reminder of the challenges which Jesus faced in his earthly ministry, not least when he came to Nazareth.


According to Luke, Jesus was brought up in Nazareth – though Matthew suggests that his hometown was actually Bethlehem. Walking through contemporary Nazareth, with its stalls and shops, selling the same kind of fruit and vegetables that would have been around in Jesus’ time, but also the electrical adaptors and pre-Christmas Santas of the 21st century, it was not too difficult to imagine Jesus and his family and Jesus and his disciples, walking an earlier version of these streets, looking for the things that they needed and encountering friends and acquaintances. For all of us most of life is lived in an ordinary context, our context for the moment. The question is as to how we engage with our extraordinary God in our particular context.

We all need to consider our particular calling which may, from time to time, vary. It was fascinating to look in to three 21st century carpenters’ workshops and remember how Jesus worked on the wood with his father Joseph. You might think that Jesus would have rushed into the preaching, teaching and healing ministry, that was his main calling, but that needed to wait for the right time. Patience is a good lesson to learn. There are times when we need to wait and prepare ourselves. We may not always understand God’s timing, but we can know that it is right.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Shepherds' Field

A little way out of Bethlehem we went to visit the field where the shepherds were watching their sheep when they saw that dazzling light and heard that angelic choir. Well, actually we saw a field somewhere around where that might have been. There are, at least, three fields that make the claim to be the one, a Greek Orthodox one, a Roman Catholic one, and a YMCA one. It was the YMCA one we visited. Nobody can be sure just where the shepherds’ field was, but then that doesn’t really matter.


What matters is that there was a shepherds’ field, that were shepherds, and that they had this amazing experience. The field we visited had some large caves and it would seem that the shepherds may well have ushered the sheep into the caves at night as a means of keeping them safe, different from the picture I have had, but there you are. And then there were burn marks on one of the large rocks at one of the entrances. It is not suggested that these marks go back to Jesus’ time, but I could well imagine the shepherds there at the entrance, keeping the sheep penned in and safe for the night, chatting and cooking something to eat, when suddenly that heavenly choir appeared – Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth. They must have been scared stiff – but are told, don’t be afraid, and are despatched to Bethlehem, maybe five or seven miles away, to be the first visitors to a very special baby.

Shepherds did not fit the bill of those likely to be chosen for such a task – but that didn’t matter to God. Are we willing to recognise God’s unlikely choices? And are we ready to recognise the surprises that God has in store for us?

Monday, 19 December 2011

Bethlehem

What a joy to visit Bethlehem just ahead of Christmas! I was there twelve days ago. Just like that first Christmas, as Luke tells it to us, there were lots of visitors in town – only these visitors were not there on business, needing to register themselves for the census that was being undertaken. These visitors were pilgrims, wanting to see the place where Jesus was born, marked now, not by a stable or any other form of domestic or farm building, but by a church. This is an interesting church, not just because of what it marks, but because there has been a church on this site from very early times, and we were able to see something of the indicators as to how it had been adapted and added on to down through the ages.


We were able to imagine a very tired Mary arriving in Bethlehem, desperately wanting to find somewhere to rest and then, almost immediately, discovering that the baby was on its way. We have sanitised the story and made a pretty picture of it, but giving birth in a draughty and, almost certainly, messy stable, cannot have been something anyone would have wanted for their child and themselves.

Being in Bethlehem and thinking back some two thousand or so years was very interesting. There were lots of folk wanting to see the place where Jesus was born. We only queued up some ten minutes or so, but I am told it can take an awful lot longer. Why are there so many twenty-first century pilgrims who want to encounter this spot, when it was just a few shepherds in the first century? One of the things to learn is not to be in a hurry, and to realise that God’s time is always best. People were selling all sorts of things, but mainly souvenirs. I suspect there were lots of people selling things in Jesus’ time too, but they would more likely be food and the basic necessities of life. What do we spend our money on? That is always an interesting question to ask. What are the priorities for us? And perhaps we are helped to work that out when we pause to ponder where it is that God would have us be, what it is that God would have us do?

At Bethlehem that first Christmas, that great thing that we often refer to as the incarnation took place. What does that mean for us here and now?

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Ein Kerem

I have just returned from twelve days in the Holy Land. In fact, I just got back late on Friday evening. It has been both interesting and exciting to spend part of Advent visiting many of the places where Jesus lived and taught.


One of the first places we visited was Ein Kerem, the beautiful village where John the Baptist was born and grew up. Ein Kerem is quite hilly with beautiful views across the valley. Someone living there in John’s time would probably have been relatively well off. When we got there, we went first to a spring known as Mary’s spring – and there we were reminded of the importance of wells and springs in Jesus’ day, both for the water they supplied, but also because they were a gathering place for the women. Just as today we might meet in the school playground or the supermarket, they met at the well and there exchanged the news and the gossip. Today we have so many means of communication, texting, emails, all the social networking, as well as the telephone and the letter. It was not so then – and it was important that they took the opportunities that were there to share news. Have you heard … ? Did you know ….? I always think it interesting to reflect on what is the news that we pass on. It is so easy to spread rumour and gossip, but what we are called to do is spread the Good News, the Gospel. Go and tell. I wonder what are the things that we are going and telling. What is it that we want to share?

From the spring we climbed a steep hill to the Church of the Visitation. The Church of the Visitation was completed in 1955 to a design by Antonio Barluzzi. It was built to commemorate Mary’s visit to Elizabeth - there they were, both expecting babies, and both, it might be assumed, should not have been in that state. Why did Mary go to visit Elizabeth? Was it because she wanted to share her good news? Or might it just be that Mary was sent there to get her out of the way for a bit? How scandalous that she was unmarried and pregnant! And Elizabeth wasn’t much better. She was probably the source of gossip too. She was married all right, but you shouldn’t be having babies at her age. As Calvin Miller says: “Elizabeth must have found her joyous old-age pregnancy the brunt of community gossip”, adding, “She stood with one foot in the grave and the other in the neonatal ward.” How do we respond to the scandal of the Gospel? What do we do with those awkward things that come our way?

Mary, of course, responded by writing a fantastic song, the one that we now know as the Magnificat – and on a wall in the grounds of the church was written, as gifts from many nations, the Magnificat on plaques in many different languages. There it was in Greek, in Hebrew, in Arabic. It was in Spanish and French, Swahili and English and many more. The Magnificat has many important things to say to us about God’s care for the disadvantaged. Are we ready to listen? Are we ready to hear the message of liberation?

Monday, 17 October 2011

Teaching in Zimbabwe

In August, as part of my sabbatical, I was able to spend three weeks in Zimbabwe.  My main task while I was there was to teach Bible to a group at the training centre linked to Kuwadazana Presbyterian Church.  That was particularly interesting for me as Kuwadzana has long had a link with a United Reformed Church, though not in Eastern Synod.  The link is with Westborough URC in Guildford where my father was, at one time, the minister.  The training centre was dreamed up by Jonnah Masaka, then and still now, the minister there together with my Dad, so it was just a little disconcerting to be teaching with his photograph beaming down at me every day.  A class, that was supposed to be capped at 15, but actually varied between 18 and 23 (or thereabouts) explored with me the books of Jonah and Revelation.  We spent three mornings on Jonah and nine on Revelation and had a fascinating time, exploring a wide range of questions which emerged from the themes of those books.  The lectures were translated from English into Shona and the questions in the other direction.  Language was a barrier, but not nearly as big a barrier as I thought it might be.  The training centre was a great context for me.  It includes classrooms, accommodation, a kitchen and dining facility as well being a pre-school and a school.  There is a computer room and a library.  Kuwadazana is a high density township, some distance from the centre of Harare, not somewhere to go off wandering around, which gave me a great excuse to spend chunks of the afternoons reading and relaxing – and, of course, enjoying the hot sun.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

The London Olympics

One of the big mission opportunities in 2012 will be the London Olympics. There can be little doubt that these will impact, in some way, on most people.


The main source of resources for doing Olympic stuff is the ‘More Than Gold’ organisation.  The Olympics in your own country, it is said, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, if that and, indeed, the last time the games were in the UK was in 1948. My Olympics started in September of last year when, along with representatives from each of the other Synods of the United Reformed Church, I went on a tour of the Olympic park and attended an afternoon’s consultation when we heard lots of things about the Olympics and how the church might engage. I followed that by going to a ‘More than Gold’ meeting – and we then, as a family, applied for our Olympic tickets – and, unlike many, we got some. We only applied for two lots of tickets and had a 50% success rate but, based on what I have heard, that seems pretty good – so don’t try and book me for anything on Saturday 4th August next year. I shall be watching the opening day of the show-jumping at Greenwich Park.

But the Olympics, whatever you think of them – and, as it happens, I am not a great sports fan – but the Olympics will provide lots of opportunities for engaging with all sorts of people. It is worth thinking about that – and it is also worth knowing a bit about it. For instance, it is worth knowing that it is illegal to use the Olympic symbol. That’s why ‘More than Gold’ has developed its own symbol which churches are free to use without checking it out with anyone and without any payment. The ‘More Than Gold’ website – www.morethangold.org.uk – is the best place for information and ideas but, if you don’t have and can’t get internet access, do contact us in the office and we will find a way of helping out. And it is not just the Games themselves. The seventy days leading up to the opening of the Olympics will see the torch relay running the length and breadth of the UK. In my area Cambridge, Chelmsford, Ipswich and Norwich are all places where it has already been announced that the torch relay will go. Then there is the Paralympics. All sorts of resources and ideas are and will be available. Here is an opportunity to find ways of offering something that is indeed more than gold.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Saying Yes

How we approach things is important, and part of our call.  On the way back from Zimbabwe at the end of August, on the plane, I watched the film ‘Yes Man’, based on Danny Wallace’s book of the same name.  The central character in the film is a banker who routinely turns down loan applications, and that pretty well sets the tone for the kind of person he is – until he is challenged to open up his life by saying ‘yes’ to everything.  Needless to say, keeping up the challenge up takes him into some situations he would rather avoid and some comic moments and, in the end, he learns that some balance is needed – but the message is clearly that it should be more of ‘yes’ and less of ‘no’.  As we consider God’s call and the challenge of a refreshed commitment, may we be ready with our yeses!

Friday, 30 September 2011

Having a Past

When we talk about someone having a past, that tends not to be seen in a particularly positive way.  If we say, he has a past, she has a past, we wonder what she or he has done.  But we all have a past – and, whether we view it negatively or positively, our past contains the roots out of which our present grows.  Of course, we can put it another way.  We can say that we have a story, and that tends to conjure up a rather different impression.  It is good to have a story.  And, yes, our stories do make us who we are – and they are all, in their own way, important.  There are many things that I could tell you about my story, just as you could tell me many things about yours.
Our past contributes to our present, and so takes us into our future.  Our stories are part of God's stories because God calls us to be partners.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

The Importance of Celebrating

In his classic little book Celebration of Discipline Richard Foster lists twelve things, twelve practices, that he suggest ought to be part of our following the Christian way.  There is meditation, prayer, fasting and study.  There is simplicity, solitude, submission and service.  There is confession, worship and guidance.  And there is celebration.  I am so glad that celebration is on that list.  I like the idea of celebration as a discipline.  I like the thought that celebration is something that we ought to be doing.  Commenting on the practice of this particular discipline, he says: “Joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit.  Often I am inclined to think that joy is the motor, the thing that keeps everything else going.  Without joyous celebration to infuse the other Disciplines we will sooner or later abandon them.  Joy produces energy.  Joy makes us strong.”  And he adds: “It is healing and refreshing to cultivate a wide appreciation for life.  .. Celebration helps us to relax and to enjoy the good things of the earth.”

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Forgiving People

The Church ought to be a place of forgiveness, but we don't always manage to achieve that because we are focussed in the wrong place.
 
In understanding what is going on when we face the challenge of forgiving, perhaps it is helpful to remember what Richard Holloway says in his little book on fotgiveness.  It is an obvious thing to say, but something that we often miss.  He says: ‘We forgive people, not sins.  We forgive and accept people, in spite of their acts against us.’  In other words, in forgiving people we are not condoning what they have done, but we are accepting them. 

Friday, 16 September 2011

Water and Prayer

I have been reading Thomas Green’s book “When The Well Runs Dry”. Green, very helpfully and very powerfully, explores the image of water as representing prayer, drawing his initial inspiration from Teresa of Avila. Teresa engages with this metaphor by suggesting that we are as assistant gardeners whose task is to tend a garden owned and planted by God. The primary job is to water the garden – and watering is an image for praying.


Teresa suggests that there are four ways of getting the water. The first way is to draw the water from the well by hand. This is hard work. It takes quite a while and water gets spilled on the way. Sometimes we even wonder if it is worth it. In the same way beginning in prayer can be a struggle. We are easily distracted. But what we manage is worth it.

Teresa’s second way of drawing water is “by means of a water wheel and aqueducts in such a way that it is obtained by turning the crank of the water wheel”. Perhaps a slightly more modern equivalent would be to talk about a water pump. When I was in Harare recently I several times saw people queuing up at water pumps because the city supply is often turned off. Here less effort produces more water. The mechanism does much of the work. As we persist in prayer, it becomes much more natural. The water flows much more easily. The point is that if we allow our prayer life to develop, it will.

The third way of drawing the water of prayer for the garden of the Lord is from a river or stream. Green, citing Teresa, puts it like this: “One day, if the Lord so pleases, we find a stream flowing through the garden: the water is there and we have done nothing to secure it. Even our work of remembering seems unnecessary; God comes to us without our doing anything to seek him. We arise in the morning and take up our bucket to go to the pump, and, lo and behold, the water of the Lord’s presence is right at our feet. What must we do now? Only one thing, Teresa says: to “direct” or channel the water to the flowers.”

But there is still more – because there is a fourth way, and the fourth way is the rain. Now we don’t need to do anything. The watering just happens. I will leave you to make the connections as to how this image works and how prayer might develop in our lives – except to say two things. One is a little comment from Thomas Green’s book. At the end of explaining Teresa’s imagery he says: “The art of praying, as we grow, is really the art of learning to waste time gracefully – to be simply the clay in the hands of the potter. This may sound easy – too easy to be true – but it is really the most difficult thing we ever learn to do.

The other thing that I want to mention also comes from Thomas Green as he uses this wonderful image of water in a slightly different way later in his book. He uses the image of prayer, as we do it, as being like swimming – but suggests that what we need is to be floating. Green talks about the energy of swimming, the way in which we are focussed as to where we are going. By contrast, the secret of floating is to relax, to learn to not do all the things we instinctively want to do. Green comments: “The swimmer is intensely active and is going someplace; the floater yields to the flow of the water. .. the floater, too, is going someplace, but that is the concern of the current .. “

Green suggests that most of us want to do a bit of both, but that we need to learn the confidence of what he calls total floating because then, and only then, are we really putting ourselves at God’s disposal.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

An Exciting God - and Cuthbert

I have been reading about Cuthbert who was clearly an amazing character. There are some fascinating stories about him. David Adam in The Holy Island of Lindisfarne, using Bede as a source, retells the story of Cuthbert and a young monk walking beside the River Teviot, reciting psalms and sections of Scripture. As they were passing an outlying farmstead they were offered a meal, but Cuthbert declined, offering the explanation that they were fasting. However, he shared the Gospel with the family and offered them a blessing. The two then left for the hill country. When they had gone a good distance, Cuthbert asked his young companion where he thought they would find food for the day. The boy was at a loss, but Cuthbert encouraged him saying: ‘The Lord will provide for us today, as he always does.’ He then pointed to an eagle – ‘See that bird flying high above us. It is possible for God to refresh us by the ministrations of the eagle.’ The young man didn’t really understand what Cuthbert was suggesting, but they then saw the eagle settle on the bank with a fish. ‘Run and see what food the eagle has brought us from the Lord.’ The young man went and returned with a large fish. Cuthbert reprimanded him for not sharing it with their provider, telling him to cut it in half and take the eagle her share. He then said that they still had more than they needed and should seek out a poor household with whom they could share the fish. Possibly a little reluctantly, the young companion agreed – and they continued until they found such a household to who they presented the fish. The family broiled the fish and they all shared the fish as Cuthbert shared the Gospel with them. This is the kind of story that was typical of Cuthbert. Adam notes (p. 53): “In telling this story, Bede would be well aware of its symbolic meaning: the eagle was the symbol for St. John’s Gospel and the fish, in Greek ichthus, was a code name for ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’.

It all links well with that my parallel reading the first six and a half verses of Revelation 4 and Peter Hicks’ comments on them. I particularly like his comment on verse 5 – “The throne of God is where everything happens. It’s so exciting there, it’s like sitting on a volcano about to erupt. Our God is a God who does big and glorious things.”

I am not sure I want to be sitting on a volcano that is about to erupt – but I know that God is an exciting God!

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The Big Silence

Recently I spent a week in North Wales on an Individiually Guided Silent Retreat.  I went to St. Beuno's, near Rhyl/St. Asaph.  Apart from being very close to a major road (the A55), it is a beautiful rural location, with plenty of opportunity for walking - as well as silence and prayer.  St. Beuno's is run by the Jesuits and so uses an Ignatian methodology which I found very helpful.

I wondered what it would feel like to be in silence for seven days, a new experience for me, but one that I found extremely helpful in centring myself for the next phase of ministry.

I met with Richard, my retreat director, for 20/30 minutes each morning and we were able to talk things over and Richard suggested Scripture passages that I might use as a basis for prayer and reflection.  Meals were together but with background music and no talking - and the idea was not to do any other reading.  There was a daily Eucharist and a shared time of silent prayer (half an hour).  Otherwise the time was for each retreatant to use on prayer, reflection and, as you wished, walking and/or enjoying the beautiful and extensive grounds. 

This method worked for me - it might not for everyone - and it reminded how crucial it is to give space to God.

St. Beuno's was featured in the BBC television series 'The Big Silence'.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Adding the Power of Heaven

I have been reading D. Peter Burrows' book JONAH, the reluctant missionary (Gracewing, 2008) in which he explores the book of Jonah, but does so by offering a wide range of Biblical links.  He links the story to many other parts of the Bible in a fascinating way. 

I was particularly struck by a little comment about Moses in which he uses what happened to Moses, when he was called and empowered to do God's work, as a definition of a sacrament.  He is pointing out that what matters is the difference that God makes.

Thus, he writes (p. 103/4) - "This reliance upon God rather than upon self is called 'faith' and Moses has no signs of power - he is a weakling.  God clearly likes this about Moses and says in effect: 'You supply the staff, your right arm and a little water; I will add the power.'  The staff becomes a serpent, the right arm becomes leprous and the water turns to blood.  Moses supplies the little things of his life; God adds the power.  What better definition of a Christian sacrament?  'You bring what you have and offer it to me; I will add the power of heaven.'"

God doesn't need our strength, just our weakness.

Monday, 4 July 2011

God comes from Essex

On Saturday I was able to participate in the Bradwell pilgrimage 2011. Each year Christians, mainly from Essex and east London gather in large numbers at St Thomas's Church Bradwell-on-Sea on the first Saturday in July. After a brief service we walk 'on pilgrimage' to the little St Peter's Chapel near to the beach, remembering that this was where St Cedd first brought Christianity to our part of England. We then have a service there and various activities. This year I was glad to have the opportunity to lead the service near to the beach and to introduce our two speakers.

As it is the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible in 2011, we were focussing on the Bible and invited Bishop Stephen Cottrell, new Anglican Bishop of Chelmsford since the autumn, and Bishop Thomas McMahon, about to retire as Roman Catholic Bishop of Brentwood after 31 years, to each share a Bible passage that had really meant something to them. Bishop Thomas spoke of the power of the resurrection story and the words 'He is risen'. Bishop Stephen 'cheated' by mentioning several passages, but began with a reference to the young people's custom of using the word 'well' instead of 'very'. Something isn't very good or very important or very trendy - it is well good or well important or well trendy. Bishop Stephen commented that Essex people used this form of expression before it became popular. However, God got in first, said Bishop Stephen, referring to the story of Jesus' baptism - and God's saying: this is my beloved Son, with whom I am WELL pleased. So God comes from Basildon, Essex.

And that's the point- he does. God comes from your place and mine, and so he understands where we come from, and can be with us in what we are doing.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Values

Inevitably and unsurprisingly we all tend to think that we are operating by the right set of values.  Indeed, we might go further and reckon to be approaching things in a neutral way.  I think there are very few, if any, occasions when we are really neutral.  There are always things colouring our judgment and approach.

I have been doing some reading around Revelation in preparation for some teaching I am going to be doing when I spend three weeks in Zimbabwe in August.  Revelation is a fascinating and challenging book, but often reminds us that things are frequently not quite what they seem.  As Christopher Rowland points out in Revelation (Epworth, 1993, p. 136): "Revelation asks us continually whether the instruments we use to achieve our goals are as value-free as we would like to think.  It criticizes a political economy geared to the satisfaction of the fortunate minority at the centre of trade.  ....  It roots the church in the midst of social and political protest.  Its horizon of hope is not utopian, for it never offers a blue-print of how things will be.  The construction of ideal societies can easily degenerate into fantastic speculation out of touch with the real world.  The readers of Revelation are left in their own circumstances the task of working out what faithfulness to the testimony of Jesus might mean.”

We do need to work at working out how God would have us live.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Being Abandoned

Miroslav Volf writes: "Jesus’ greatest agony was not that he suffered.  Suffering can be endured, even embraced, if it brings desired fruit, as the experience of giving birth illustrates.  What turned the pain of suffering into agony was the abandonment; Jesus was abandoned by the people who trusted in him and by the God in whom he trusted.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15.34).  My God, my God, why did my radical obedience to your way lead to the pain and disgrace of the cross?" 


How challenging is that - yet how true?  How we need to reach out, so that nobody need feel abandoned! - and how can we do that?

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Clinch Things for God

Yesterday's Celtic Daily Light had the title "Clinch things for God".  The Biblical quote to provide an example came from 1 Kings 18:21 - "Elijah went up to the people and said, 'How much longer will you halt between two opinions?  If the Lord is God, worship him.'"

I was reminded of that fairly similar challenge issued by Joshua and recorded in Joshua 24:15 - "But if it does not please you to serve the Lord, choose here and now whom you will serve: the gods whom your forefathers served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living.  But I and my family, we shall serve the Lord."

We live in a day, certainly in UK society, where there are many challenges to those who seek to follow the way of God.  Lots of barriers are put up, and there are many suggestions of allegedly better alternatives.  Our task in the church is to refute these and to demonstrate the great things God does.  Let's look for every opportunity to clinch things for God!

Friday, 24 June 2011

Towers of Babel

One of our great problems in the church is that we think we can go it alone.  We have big ideas - and we are good at planning.  But how often do we ensure that the plans are God's plans?  We are also good at building so many Towers of Babel.  We develop grandiose schemes when what is needed is simply to let God work through us.  Are we are ready to have a go at doing it that way?

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Embracing the Četnik

Miroslav Volf, in Exclusion and Embrace (Abingdon Press, 1996) tells an insightfully challenging and moving story - p. 9 – “Professor Jürgen Moltmann stood up and asked one of his typical questions, both concrete and penetrating: ‘But can you embrace a četnik?” It was the winter of 1993. For months now the notorious Serbian fighters called “četnik” had been sowing desolation in my native country, herding people into concentration camps, raping women, burning down churches, and destroying cities. I had just argued that we ought to embrace our enemies as God has embraced us in Christ. Can I embrace a četnik – the ultimate other, so to speak, the evil other? What would justify the embrace? Where would I draw the strength for it? What would it do to my identity as a human being and as a Croat? It took me a while to answer, though I immediately knew what I wanted to say. “No, I cannot – but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to.”


We all need to face that challenge of being ready to embrace the unembraceable. We can all work out for ourselves who that might be – and, if we have done that properly, we are going to struggle with the concept. However, God’s ways are so very different from ours that we need to be ready to address the otherwise unthinkable. The Bible is full of stories of dodgy neighbours, unacceptable alliances and needing to see things a different way. That’s what churches should be like.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Cultivation

Near the end of his book Missional Map-Making (Jossey-Bass, 2010) Alan Roxburgh talks about cultivation, offering it as a model for effective missional leadership. He suggests that we need to abandon traditional leadership models which (p. 179) “start with strategic planning, with articulating a vision, forecasting a future, and working to secure support from the congregation.” He suggests that there is a role for strategic planning “but towards the end as people initiate experiments in mission.”


He identifies the leadership role as one of encouragement and facilitation. P. 180 – “Leaders can be available to assist and facilitate, connecting people with resources, and so on, but this is a genuine work of the people that emerges from among their common life of discernment. The role of the leadership is to continuously cultivate the environment that enables people to gather energy and imagination for mission at multiple points of experimenting.”

He thus identifies the model of cultivation as the helpful one, pointing out that this is something that most of us need to learn. Our forms of cultivation tend to focus on using mechanical equipment and poisons to establish control. That is how we do our gardening – and can be how we lead our churches. Cultivation rather ought to be about understanding the place and role of all the plants – rather than a sort of ‘slash and burn’.

In church terms – p. 181 – “this means that the leader is continually functioning as an interpreter, pointing out how and where these experiments connect with, come out of, and are shaped by both the biblical narratives and the core values of the tradition to which the local church belongs.”

Saturday, 18 June 2011

People Are My Scenery

One of the comments in yesterday's Celtic Daily Light is 'People are my scenery.'  It is attributed to 'a London landlady'.  I like that comment which, for me, offers a slightly different take on people-watching.  There are many good things around us to see, wonders of nature and constructions of humankind - but people matter most.  People provide the context for our engaging as church.  Each church should be asking itself how it is engaging with the people around it.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Hospitality

Hospitality is a key concept for the church.  It is something we ought always to be practising.  It can be a cup of coffee after the service - the problem is when it stops there.

Alan Roxburgh says: "Hospitality, a profoundly Christian habit, is a radically alternative practice in a culture where people feel like strangers to one another in their own neighbourhoods ....  The DNA of the Gospel calls Christians into a way of life that addresses this fear and suspicion of the stranger.  People hunger to be welcomed, to be recognized and given worth in a culture that moves in the opposite direction.  Welcoming the stranger is a revolutionary act ... "  (Missional Map-Making, Jossey-Bass, 2010, p. 154/5)

Hospitality needs to become a description of how we function.

As Henri Nouwen says: "The term hospitality should not be limited to its literal sense of receiving a stranger in our house - although it is important never to forget or neglect that! - but as a fundamental attitude towards our fellow human being, which can be expressed in a great variety of ways."  (Reaching Out, Collins, 1976, p. 65)

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Don't Divide

We are so good at dividing things up.  We put people - and churches and all sorts of other things - into categories.  They are filed under a particular heading - but God doesn't recognise the distinctions we make.

I like Barbara Brown Taylor's comment (in An Altar in the World, Canterbury Press, 2009, p. 15) - "Human beings may separate things into as many piles as we wish - separating spirit from flesh, sacred from secular, church from world.  But we should not be surprised when God does not recognise the distinctions we make between the two.  Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars."

God engages with us wherever we are, whatever we are doing.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

The Right Soil

The parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-9 and parallels) has some important things to say about sowing seed in the right place.  There is plenty of good ground in the parable, but an equal amount of soil that doesn't work.  Some seed falls on the path, some in rocky, and some in thorny ground - but there are three lots of good ground, yielding thirty grains, sixty grains and a hundred grains.

Alan Roxburgh (in Missional Map-Making, Jossey-Bass, 2010, p. 140) offers an interesting take on this when he talks of "the soil in which most of our churches have grown" as being "like the packaged soils one buys from garden centres that are crammed full of chemical compounds that will ensure vigorous growth without any trouble whatsoever.  The parallel in so many churches is that the "soil" in which they are planted is all about strategies for growth in numbers or meeting individual needs or shaped around some form of worship or programmes for multisite church life.  This kind of soil has been developed to yield church members who serve in programmes and agree with the vision, mission and goals of a church staff or board.  Such soil does not produce environments in which people believe the Spirit is shaping a new world through the ordinary lives and imaginations of the people themselves.  The soil we have to cultivate needs the nutrients that give back to our people the conviction that church is a safe place for them to be who they are, to dream and to believe that from within their lives can come forth the imagination of the Spirit for their communities and neighbourhoods."

I agree that we try too hard to manufacture church - instead of letting the Spirit provoke it.  We need to allow more room for imagination and to realise that God is the initiator of the church and will take it where it needs to be.  God chooses to use us - that's great - but is able, when necessary, of operating in spite of us: and God is doing great things, even when we don't recognise them.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Has the Church Gone to the Dogs?

Alan Roxburgh (in Missional Map-Making, Jossey-Bass, 2010) quotes G. K. Chesterton noting "that many commentators through the ages have predicted that the church was going to the dogs with no hope for any new life.  But, said Chesterton, it is the dogs that have gone and the church is still here."

I agree that predictions of the church's demise are premature, even though it is perfectly possible to argue that it is heading in that direction.  Certainly in the UK, for many years, mainline denominations have declined year on year.  But there are also many signs of hope and many places where potential is being realised.

Any reckoning that the church is in terminal decline is ignoring the presence and the power of God's Spirit.  We are people who can.  We can do all things through the strength of God.  Indeed, it is the dogs who struggle to survive - the church is in God's care.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Islington Reads The Bible

Today I paid a visit back to Islington where I was minister from 1983 to 1990.  I went to share in the 'Islington Reads The Bible' event, a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.  The Islington churches combined to read the whole Bible over a period of some 82 hours.  The reading started at 10am on Thursday and was due to continue, without stopping, until 8pm. today - though it was running ahead of schedule when I was there.  I heard from the beginning of Ephesians to the end of 2 Timothy, reading three chapters, one from Ephesians, one from Colossians and one from 1 Timothy myself.

It wasn't an event that attracted a great deal of attention, especially on a rather rainy Sunday lunch-time - but it was good to be a small part of the whole Bible being read in public in a London borough.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

You're Welcome

As my role takes me round a range of churches, one of the things I hear most often claimed is that 'we are a welcoming church' - and I am yet to hear of anyone claiming that theirs is not a welcoming church.

I have just been reading Stephanie Spellers' book Radical Welcome (Church Publishing, Incorporated, 2006).  In the book we are challenged to be much more radical in our consideration (and practice) of what it means to be really welcoming.  Stephanie Spellers talks about various aspects of this, but not least the need to pay attention to our context. 

She also stresses the vital role of reaching out that is part of the very essence of being church - ".. the church's primary mission, identity and ministry are not wrapped up in those of us who are already inside.  It is not primarily about our comfort and sense of peace.  It is not primarily about our sense of belonging.  It is not primarily about doing good deeds or maintaining a cultural heritage.  All those priorities, valid as they are, must be a means to serve our primary call: aligning our will with God's, loving as God loves, welcoming as God welcomes." (p. 163).

Let's search for a welcome that really reaches out!

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Being Like Babies

In 1 Peter 2 Peter says, we are to be like babies.  Be like newborn babies, always thirsty for the pure spiritual milk.  This is an interesting idea.  Babies are helpless.  They are dependent – they need a lot of looking after.  They need to be fed so that they will grow.  At times they make a lot of noise.  They are constantly developing.  I am sure I could say more if I thought a bit harder – but there are some of the main things we might say about babies.  Peter wants to say some pretty powerful things about the people who are the church.  He wants to stress their potential, and to encourage them to realise it.  But first, and I am sure quite deliberately first, he reminds them of their dependence upon God.  Yes, there is lots they can do for God, lots we are called to do for God.  But, first, Peter’s reminds us of the need for growth.  He reminds them that, just as physical maturity is something which develops, so with spiritual maturity.  Christians should know that they always have room for growth.  We can always learn more.  Peter emphasises the importance of nourishment as a source of spiritual life.  We have traditionally talked about feeding on the Word of God, but probably use that image less these days.  Perhaps we would do well to recapture it?  Peter says that we  should continue to long for that spiritual food which God freely gives so that we may continue to grow spiritually.  We do that receiving Communion.  We do that hearing God’s Word.  We do that when reminded of God’s love and forgiveness. 

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Happy Bible Reading!

In this 400th anniversary year of the publication of the Authorised/King James Version of the Bible, there is a lot of emphasis on the Bible and the value of reading it.

Three of my very special Bibles – and I have a number – are all KJVs. My first Bible – so far as I can remember – was my Boys’ Brigade Bible received in 1967, followed by my Crusaders’ Bible in 1969.

Another very special Bible for me is that received on the day of my ordination in 1979.

Of course, these days I use many different versions. How wonderful that the Bible speaks to us in our language just as it did in 1611. My Spanish Bible reminds me of my time in Panama and the ‘Good As New’ version is one of the contemporary language versions that helps me bring things up to date. May the Bible continue to be special to all of us, inspiring and guiding us, helping us to be the Church. Happy Bible reading!

                                         

Sunday, 5 June 2011

John Wesley's Journal

I have just started reading John Wesley's Journal.  It is one of those - or in this case eight volumes of those - that has been lying on my bookshelf for quite a while.  It was a gift from my (Methodist Minister) father-in-law when he retired.  As I am on sabbatical across the summer, it is one of my (many) reading projects.

I am struck by the commitment of Wesley and his associates.  Their determination to discover and follow what God wanted of them is a really good model.  The 'holy club' they formed is the kind of thing that many of us could do with.

They were willing to engage in great adventure and risk because they felt it was what God wanted of them.  How ready are we to encourage and challenge our friends in responding to God's call - and to go wherever it takes us?

Saturday, 4 June 2011

The Church Has Got Talent

Tonight has been the final of the Britain's Got Talent Show for 2011.  It's an annual search through a mass of acts, many of them quite appalling, to find one that is really something special.  Indeed, as usually happens, they found several that could be regarded as special, though only one could be the winner.  However, as always, part of the story was the unexpected opportunity for talent to emerge.

I think there is a parallel with the church.  Too often we can lack confidence and are unsure of where we are going.  We need to remind ourselves to put our confidence in God.  As I go around, of course I see churches that are struggling.  I see churches that face problems.  But I also see so many good things that are happening.  God has equipped us with so much potential.  The Church has got talent - let's use it!

Friday, 3 June 2011

Thinking Ahead - Advent and Christmas

It may seem far too early to be thinking of Advent and Christmas in June - but I have spent the last couple of evenings helping to run events to encourage churches to be thinking well ahead.  We were encouraging them to plan to make the best use of one of the church's most significant missional opportunities.  I suspect that the time of year when we are most likely to attract non-church people to church is around Christmas.

For me, personally, Easter is our biggest festival - but I think that Christmas has the bigger impact on the world outside.  So we shared ideas around how to make the best use of nativities and carol services, how we can use Christmas lunches and Christmas fairs as opportunities to communicate the true Christmas message, and a range of things that we had done.

One person told of having a nativity set in a special box with messages that was then "hosted" with a different family each night through Advent.  Could that be worked in a school with sympathetic staff?  Someone else talked of putting pictures up in the church windows through Advent as a kind of large-scale Advent calendar.  Someone else spoke of giving away mince pies.

The wonder of Christmas must have really those who experienced the original version!  How can we recapture that and share it in our day?

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Mapping

I have just started reading Alan Roxburgh's Missional Map-Making (Jossey-Bass, 2010) in which he refers to the internal maps that direct us.  This works on both the personal level and that of community.  There are stories that we know that shape who we are and how we behave.

Much of western culture was for many years substantially shaped by the Christian story, but that has now changed - and many do not even know that story.  This raises questions as to how we can effectively be church in this changed environment.

It is worth reflecting on the internal maps that guide us, and perhaps comparing these to the internal maps that are more prominent in today's society.  But we do need to move our map-making on.  As Roxburgh points out (p. 16) - "we must relinquish the desire to copy our inherited maps and learn to listen to the stories of pioneers so that we can make new maps.  In this way, we can reshape the imagination of God's people."  As he adds, it is worth remembering that "for some, this is an exhilerating adventure, for others, it is a disconcerting process."

Friday, 20 May 2011

Easter People

Pope John Paul II once said: "We are an People and Alleluia is our song."

Absolutely!  Too often we don't let our joy shine through and spill over.  It ought to be one of our hallmarks.  People coming in to church ought to be struck by the positive note that ought, overwhelmingly, to be everywhere.

We are about hope, love, peace, joy - and so many things that contribute to a positive outlook and to building community.  Of course, it cannot always be that all is well - but that ought to be the underlying perspective.

we ARE an Easter People and Alleluia IS our song!

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Stealing Wheelbarrows

Graham Cray tells how: "Os Guiness wrote a story about a man stealing wheelbarrows from a shipyard. Every day his barrow was searched and nothing found. But all along he was stealing the barrows.". ("Disciples and Citizens" p. 77)

Sometimes we miss the obvious because we are looking for something much more subtle and/or complicated. We don't see what is happening right in front of us because we are trying to second-guess what is going on round the corner.

Are our churches seeing and taking the opportunities (challenges to mission) that are there right in front of them?

Monday, 2 May 2011

A Corinthian Case Study

I have just started reading Graham Cray's Disciples and Citizens (IVP, 2007).  Graham sub-titles his book "a vision for distinctive living" and explores how we ought to appropriately engage in the challenges of citizenship.  In the third chapter he uses Corinth as a case study.  He talks about the pressures of the culture, commenting that "the Corinthian church had to be countercultural to survive".  Knowing how to respond in a range of situations brings plenty of complicating challenges.  In particular he concludes that "Christians bring a special view of power .. a view of power held as a stewardship to be used as a tool for service for the common good."

John Campbell (in Being Biblical (United Reformed Church, 2003)) also uses Corinth as a case study.  John recognises that Paul "is a pastor responding to particular problems and pressures, a committed friend inviting those he loves to think again and change their ways."  Thus, Paul is very specific - but this does not mean that we cannot allow him to be a model for how we engage in the challenges of citizenship or, to put it another way, confront a range of ethical questions.  John goes on to suggest that 1 Corinthians "offers us an invitation to join a later stage of the same conversation that Paul once shared with God and the Christians of Corinth."

What are the things of the moment that ought gto be part of our Christian citizenship conversation?

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Normally

Often we talk about what we do 'normally'.  In the United Reformed Church it is a common means of our explaining our practice.  It means that we can say what usually happens, but we do allow for the possibility of something different.

I think it is a great concept to have on board.  We ought not to be all over the place all the time, just doing what we happen to want for the moment.  It is good to be rather more ordered than that - but it is equally vital to have room for the exceptional, and to accept that the common way of doing things ought, from time to time, to be abandoned.

Let's look for the different things that ought to be part of church life, making that special impact for God.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Martha and Mary

I love the story of Martha and Mary - Luke 10:38-42.  Martha was so busy looking after Jesus - but "only one thing was needed", and Mary knew what that was.  She wasn't going to miss out on hearing what Jesus had to say.

Throughout my ministry I have quite often heard people explain themselves as being like Martha, but I don't ever remember someone making the other claim about being like Mary.

Actually both are needed - but I think we more easily go the Martha-way, which is why we need the message of the Mary-way.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Valuing Suffering

It is natural that we should want to avoid suffering, if we can.  It hurts!  Yes, there are many positive things we can say about it - though that probably is not true of all contexts.  However, even when there is a positive side, the likelihood is that we would rather avoid it.

In Speaking of Faith (Penguin, 2007), Krista Tippett offers some interesting - and challenging - reflections on this theme when she refers to an encounter with the Vietnamese Buddhist Monk, Thich Nhat Hanh - "When we are attentive to our own suffering .. we will know that of others.  That knowledge can help break cycles of suffering and violence in the world around us."  She further comments: "He could not imagine the kingdom of God to be a place without suffering .... For how, then, would we learn to be compassionate?" (p. 228/9)

I happen to be writing this on the day of the royal wedding.  Amid much joy and ceremony - and massive TV coverage - Prince William and Kate Middleton have married in Westminster Abbey, emerging as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.  It has rightly been a day of great celebration in the UK.

Celebration and suffering do co-exist, rightly so, and we do well to recognise that.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Speaking of Faith

Speaking of our faith is something that we often find difficult.  I guess that is because it is often just beyond what we can easily say.  There are lots of things we can say that describe aspects of faith - but really pinning it down is complicated.

Krista Tippett (in Speaking of Faith, Penguin, 2007) quotes a comment by Lawrence Kushner on speaking of faith (p. 221) - "It pushes the edge of language.  One of the reasons that speaking of faith is such a slippery and a moving target is because we're trying to talk about the stuff of which we are."

Speaking of faith may try to elude us, but it's worth the effort.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Being Human

God wants us to be the best that we can be - and to do the best that we can do - but doesn't expect us to go beyond that.  God created us as human beings and wants us to engage with us as human, and God is able to cope with our flaws. 

I have just started reading Thomas Merton's The Ascent to Truth.  Merton recognises the need for us to remain within the limits that our humanity imposes when he writes: "The Church does not seek to sanctify men (sic) by destroying their humanity, but  by elevating it, with all its faculties and gifts."

Of course, it is also true that we need God's help if we are going to be the best that we can be.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Imagination

One of the great gifts we human beings can enjoy is that of imagination.  Our imagination, if we use it well, opens up all sorts of possibilities for us.  We can dream.  We can have vision.  We can be creative.  Our imagination can help us to see how things might be different.

I believe that God wants us to use our imaginations to envisage all sorts of Kingdom possibilities.  We can imagine possibilities of justice.  We can imagine how love might change things.  We can imagine the impact that peace might make - and so on.

Imagination takes us into the realm of possibility - but the real trick is to work out which things we need to move from imagination into reality.  If God helps us to imagine something, ought we to be doing something about making it happen?

Today is Easter Day.  The first disciples were stunned by the resurrection because they hadn't managed to imagine that what Jesus had told them about his rising might possibly be true.  As they gradually experienced the impact of the risen Jesus, they began imagining what might be - and the church was born.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Multiplication

One of the best known stories about Jesus is that which we normally refer to as the 'feeding of the five thousand'.  In the story a small boy's lunch is multiplied up so that there is enough for the whole crowd to have something to eat - and plenty to spare.  There are various theories as to how this happened.  In the end the 'how' is not the important thing - what matters is that it did happen, and it serves as a reminder of how God multiplies his love towards us.

The principle of God's multiplication is one of the great things of our faith.  God's blessings are abundant - and are always becoming more abundant.

Near the end of his Confessions, Augustine makes some reference to this idea of God's multiplication.  "I know that a truth which the mind understands in one way only can be materially expressed by many different means, and I also know that there are many different ways in which the mind can understand an idea that is outwardly expressed in one way.  Take the single concept of the love of God and our neighbour.  How many different symbols are used to give it outward expression!  How many different languages have words for it and, in each of them, how many different forms of speech there are by which it can be conveyed!"  (Book 13, Section 24)

He goes on to talk about God giving "increase and multiplication" by enabling us to draw a range of different and relevant things from a single source - "I believe .. you granted us the faculty and the power both to give expression in many different ways to things which we understand in one way only and to understand in many different ways what we find written obscurely in one way."

Indeed, God allows us to see things from so many different angles, and enables a huge broadening in the range of our perspectives.  Are there things that we, at the moment, need to see in a different way?

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The Impact of God's Word

The Bible is a powerful expression of God's engagement with us.  It can be extremely challenging, but offers us support in so many ways.

I have been reading on through Augustine's Confessions during Lent.  At one point he writes: "How wonderful are your Scriptures!  How profound!  We see their surface and it attracts us like children.  And yet, O my God, their depth is stupendous.  We shudder to peer deep into them, for they inspire in us both the awe of reverence and the thrill of love" (Book 12, Section 14).

The Bible impacts our lives in so many different ways.  It is a source of encouragement, inspiration, challenge and so much more.  One of the great things is that it will do different things for us in different circumstances, offering that which we need for the particular moment.

Augustine recognises this - "... since I believe in these commandments and confess them to be true with all my heart, how can it harm me that it should be possible to interpret these words in several ways, all of which may yet be true?  How can it harm me if I understand the writer's meaning in a different sense from that in which another understands it?  ....  Provided, therefore, that each of us tries as best he can to understand in the Holy Scriptures what the writer meant by them, what harm is there if a reader believes what you, the Light of all truthful minds, show him to be the true meaning?  It may not even be the meaning which the writer had in mind, and yet he too saw in them a true meaning, different though it may have been from this."  (Book 12, Section 18).

Monday, 18 April 2011

Power and Relationship

Ana Draper reflects on the importance of relationship and the complications of getting the balance right if we are to be church in an effective and correct way (in Jonny Baker's Curating Worship p. 117/8).  Conversion is part of following God, but we need to remember that it is God who does the converting - that is not our task.  So she talks about "a relational theology that looked to walk alongside and be with rather than convert."

She also describes the challenge of dealing with the power thing.  "We tried to address power differential - the 'them and us' stuff that often happens.  I sometimes think that church can seem like it is saying, a la Animal Farm, that 'we are all equal before God, just some are more equal than others.'  So we tried to practise a way of being that was about exploration, discovery and being in the moment."

It is hard to use power in the right way, and so easy to use it wrongly.  It is also very easy to think that we haven't got any, when we have got loads.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Letting God Speak

One of the mistakes that we often make is to offer too much explanation.  We spell things out that don't need to be spelt out.  We try and explain the detail when we would be far better to let things speak for themselves.  We give too much direction, forgetting that God may want to say different things to different people.

We need to remember that God doesn't want us all to be the same - variety is needed.

One of the main ways in which Jesus taught was through the stories he told, those little descriptions of everyday events that we now normally refer to as parables.  We need to take note of the fact that it was rare for Jesus to say anything about what the story meant.  He let it speak for itself - and, no doubt, the same story would sometimes say different things to different people.  As Martin Poole comments (in Curating Worship by Jonny Baker, p. 77): "It's a true form of parable, where we just 'tell the story' and let the participants drawn their conclusions themselves.  I guess I'm saying the epiphany needs to come from God, not us."

Friday, 15 April 2011

Vulnerability

It is natural to want to be invincible, but we are not - and it doesn't even help to pretend to be so.  Indeed, on the contrary, we need to allow ourselves to offer our weakness, even our brokenness.

As Cheryl Lawrie says in Jonny Baker's Curating Worship (p. 62): "I've been thinking recently about our temptation to try to become more like God - more holy, more sinless, more perfect.  Perhaps the thing we should be working for is to become more human - more fragile, more vulnerable, more unfinished; to be better at being human.  We try to give people a chance to be more human in a space; then it's up to God to do what God can do."

God doesn't expect us to be super-human.  Our call is to offer our humanity.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Listen

There's a Chinese proverb that says: "God gave us two ears and one mouth.  Why don't we listen twice as much as we talk?"

James, of course, warns us of the risks of our tongues.  So the tongue is only a tiny part of the body, but its boasts are great.  Think how small a flame can set fire to a huge forest.  ....  nobody can tame the tongue - it is a pest that will not keep still, full of deadly poison" (James 3:5,8).

It is worth reflecting on those times when we have spoken and it would have been better if we had not, and those times when we failed to listen, and it would have been better if we had done so.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Church as a Design Problem

In an interview with Steve Collins, Jonny Baker (in "Curating Worship" p. 24/5) explores the idea of treating church as a design problem. Steve Collins talks about the aims of architects and what they are trying to say through the buildings they design. He goes on to comment: "what I've done is treat the church as a design problem - take things apart, look at the pieces, see if they can be assembled in different ways, respond to emerging contexts, imagine alternative futures to aim for. ... Churches often assume that they already have the right forms, having found out what God really wants. But I think God wants to play."

It seems to me that so often we want to fix things when God is calling us to be flexible - and I love the idea of God wanting to play. I think there is a lot to draw out from these images.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Being Awkward

"To those who have the gift of not fitting in.". I have just started reading Jonny Baker's book "Curating Worship" (SPCK, 2010) and was immediately struck by the book's dedication - "to those who have the gift of not fitting in."

We all know folk who don't fit in and, to be blunt, they are a nuisance. They are the awkward squad. They get in the way. They are disruptive.

How refreshing to see them as a gift! And how challenging - but we do need to value everyone for who and what they are, even though it is not always easy.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Place - Hospitality - Pilgrimage

Ian Adams, in Cave, Refectory, Road (Canterbury Press, 2010) explores issues around place, hospitality and pilgrimage, all of which he sees as a focal part of Christian living. 

He suggests that we should think about how we use space and make room for those special spaces - "Imagine, for example, what the idea of cave might produce in your context.  What might the creation of a 'still place' in your school or workplace do to the school or work community - particularly if it is envisioned, planned and created by that community?" (p. 93)

Equally it is well worth considering the difference that our approach to people makes.  How welcoming are we?  "How might the idea of the refectory change how our visitors, customers, clients or patients are received - and how might that in turn enable us to bring good to the local piece of the world that is around us?" (p. 93)

He also encourages us to, as it were, get out and engage with new things and in new places.  "It's easy and natural to be static.  We like what we know.  But perhaps we need to get out more!  ......  What about meeting up with people working in very different arenas and cultures from  our own?  What energy and inspiration might that kind of cross-boundary encounter produce?" (p. 93/4)

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Hard Realities

Krista Tippett, in Speaking of Faith (Penguin, 2007), talks about the need to deal with difficult things - and comments that good things don't just cancel them out.  She comments: ".. the way we deal with the loses of our lives, large and small, may be what most determines our capacity to be present to the whole of our lives; we burn out not because we have stopped caring, but because are hearts are too full of grief."  She adds: ".. the concomitant consequences of endless, needless suffering in the world do not become less troubling with time.  Even as I learn new vocabularies of sense and wonder I continue to find that suffering too has imponderable variation.  I learn not to imagine that beautiful words and lives will somehow snuff out what is dark and difficult.  Again and again I am fatigued by a sense of powerlessness at injustices and atrocities close to home and far away." (p. 212/3)

Wouldn't it be good if we were able to use good things to cancel out bad ones - but it doesn't work like that, though it is true that though the bad things damage us, the good ones sustain us.  It is also true that God is with us in all things.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Tell the Story

Story-telling was one of Jesus' great means of engaging with people.  He told stories that worked for his time.  Our task is to tell stories that work for our time.  That includes telling our story, telling the stories of Jesus and telling stories that speak of God's love in all sorts of ways.

Today's reading in Celtic Daily Light (by Ray Simpson, Hodder & Stoughton, 1997) is based on the story of the raising of Jairus' daughter and gives a travelling person's version -

Here is the latter part - Jesus has just arrived at the house: "'T'was a house with stairs.  Stairs all the way up, and didn't Jesus go up them stairs, an' he was nearly deaf 'cos there was loads of women an' they were bawlin' and shoutin' and he's never heard anything like them."  Then he goes in to the little girl - "An' says he to the corpse: 'Get ye up out of that!'  An' she, she opened her eyes an' looks at him, an' she's able to get straight up there an' look at him again.  An' she wasn't sick any more.  An' Jesus Christ, he looks at her too.  An' he sees she's well, an' says he to the mammy, 'Give her a cut o' bread.'"

Let's get story-telling!

Monday, 4 April 2011

Terry Currey

I went to Terry's funeral today. Terry was Church Secretary of one of the two congregations in Islington of which I was minister through much of the 1980s. He became Church Secretary while I was minister, one of many roles he undertook.

Terry was an ordinary bloke, only he wasn't. He was one of God's saints. He was a postman, a job that suited him - because the early start meant an early finish which left him free to do all the other things he wanted - most of them what we might call Kingdom things.

Terry's commitment was phenomenal - Boy's Brigade captain, church organist, day centre bingo caller etc etc

Terry is one of those people to whom I will always look for an example of one of God's saints.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

The Urgent v The Important

The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, in his book To Heal a Fractured World talks about how we think of ourselves and of others, and he explains it like this. He says that one of the most daunting things he faced when he first became a rabbi was the conduct of funerals. Often he would not have known the person that he was faced with having to say something about. And so, he would talk to family and friends to begin to build up, at least, a small picture. And he describes how he quickly began to discern a pattern in the replies he received. “Usually they would say that the deceased had been a supportive husband or wife, a loving parent, a loyal friend. They spoke about the good they had done to others, often quietly, discreetly, without ostentation. When you needed them, they were there. They shouldered their responsibilities to the community. They gave to charitable causes and, if they could not give money, they gave time.” He further comments: “Those most mourned and missed were not the most successful, rich or famous. They were the people who enhanced the lives of others. These were the people who were loved.” Sacks then goes on to make a very interesting and, I think, significant comment about how this distinguished for him “the crucial difference between the urgent and the important. He goes on to comment, and I think this says a lot, “No one ever spoke, in praise of someone who had died, about the car they drove, the house they owned, the clothes they wore, the exotic holidays they took. No one's last thought was ever, 'I wish I had spent more time in the office.' And he goes on to say, and these are two very important sentences for me - “The things we spend most of our time pursuing turn out to be curiously irrelevant when it comes to seeing the value of our life as a whole. They are urgent but not important, and in crush and press of daily life, the urgent tends to win out over the important.”

I have to say that I think Sacks is spot on here and I find this distinction between the urgent and the important very helpful. We do spend our lives running round doing things that we certainly treat as though they are urgent. We live in a society and a culture that is always hurrying. We define each other by what we do. What's the question we most often ask first of someone whom we have just met: what do you do? Our occupation is what defines us. And there are all sorts of other ways in which we rush around after things that are nice and, yes, certainly, can be enjoyed. But these are the urgent things, and that's how we treat them. And that, actually, is fine, so far as it goes, except for the risk that it may well contribute to our neglect of the important.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Spirituality v Religion

Krista Tippett comments ("Speaking of Faith" p. 174) "A rabbi, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso,gave me the best illustration I know of the difference between spirituality and religion. On Mount Sinai, she says, something extraordinary happened to Moses. He had a direct encounter with God. This was a spiritual experience. The Ten Commandments were the container for that experience. They are religion."

Friday, 1 April 2011

The Ugly Duckling

Hans Christian Anderson has a fairy story about an ugly duckling. Do you remember it? One day there was trouble in the farmyard. One of the ducklings was a different colour from the others and his brothers and sisters didn't like the look of him. So the ugly duckling was thrown out. He found a place to hide and tried to settle down amongst some wild ducks. But they, too, didn't like the ugly duckling. He was pretty miserable. .... until a flight of swans passed overhead. One of them glanced down at the ugly duckling and shouted, 'Hey, you're a good looking swan.' 'I'm not a swan. I'm an ugly duckling,' our hero shouted back. But in time he was persuaded and began to enjoy life and fulfil his potential as the swan that he really was.


Who knows what possibilities lie ahead?

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Good That I Would

I have been continuing with Augustine's Confessions.  Unsuprisingly, there is a lot about the tension between how he was living and how he should have been living.  For most of us, at times, that's life - but how important it is, both individually and communally, to struggle with that tension.

In one section he states it particularly strongly.  He writes: "In this warfare I was on both sides, but I took the part of that which I approved in myself rather than the part of that which I disapproved.  For my true self was no longer on the side of which I disapproved, since to a great extent I was now its reluctant victim rather than its willing tool.  Yet it was by my own doing that habit had become so potent an enemy, because it was by my own will that I had reached the state in which I no longer wished to stay."

We all end up there sometimes - but the Good News is that, even then, God is alongside us, helping to pull us out of what the psalmist calls the "miry clay" or "deadly quicksand" (Psalm 40:2).

Monday, 28 March 2011

Common Clay Pots

Writing to the Corinthian church Paul says: Yet we who have this spiritual treasure are like common clay pots ..... (2 Corinthians 4:7)

We are like common clay pots. In Paul's terms this was ordinary kitchenware and yet, as such, it played a crucial role in everybody's lives. This is interesting. If we are hosting a special dinner party we are likely to get the best crockery out. Paul talks about treasure, the treasure that God gives us - but God is content that we are the vessels for this treasure, even though we are the equivalent of "common clay pots".

Many times in the Bible it is stressed how God is in partnership with us. When we are feeling like fragile, chipped, and very ordinary, clay pots - let's remind ourselves that God uses us as containers of his treasure. Then, let us - confidently - get on with the task of being the church!

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Forgiveness and Being Forgiven

Frederick Buechner has said: it is as hard to absolve yourself of your own guilt as it is to sit in your own lap. In other words, it is impossible.

We need to be forgiven - we need to be ready to forgive. The church works on forgiveness - thank God that forgiveness is always on offer.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Elmer

Elmer is one of my favourite story characters. A few years ago I would often be reading Elmer stories to my daughters. Now they have grown past that, but I have inherited the "Elmer" one of them once had. Elmer is an elephant with a difference. He is multi-coloured. But Elmer doesn't like being different - and so one day he paints himself grey, so that he will look like all the other elephants - and he does - until it rains and the paint is washed off. The other elephants like Elmer and they feel for him. So they respond by decorating themselves in all sorts of multi-coloured patterns. Of course, the result is the same. Everything is fine, until they get wet. Are we willing to be different in the ways that we should? Equally, are we ready to recognise that there are some things about ourselves that we just can't change. We can put on a show and pretend that we are different - but, deep down, we are who we are. But God loves us as we are. God wants us as we are - and God has a role for us where we are, being who we are. Sometimes we want to change things - when God is telling us 'just be yourself - but do those things that I am calling you to do!

Thursday, 24 March 2011

On The Road

At the bend of the road I looked back again and saw the gold light die behind her; then I turned the corner, passed the village school, and closed that part of my life for ever. ...... I was propelled, of course, by the traditional forces that had sent many generations along this road - by the small tight valley closing in around one, stifling the breath with its mossy mouth ........ And now I was on my journey, in a pair of thick boots and with a hazel stick in my hand. ... These words come from the opening pages of Laurie Lee's autobiographical travelogue "As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning". Journeys of all shapes and sizes are a big part of life for all of us. The journey is also often used as a symbol of life in so many different ways. Jesus calls us to follow him. That means going on a journey. He also tells us to travel light which tells us something about how we should be. In "Cave Refectory Road" (Canterbury Press, 2010) Ian Adams suggests that we need to live out our faith "in the open, in the market place, on the street" (p. 12) and he uses the road as an image of this. He makes a number of interesting comments about this, but I was particularly struck by something he says about our vulnerability on the road p. 36/7) - "We are vulnerable on the road. 'Have a safe journey', we say. 'Call us when you get there,' urge anxious parents. Travel can be an anxious business. Home is so much safer. But there is something vital about this human experience of stepping out into the unknown with little but our equivalent of Laurie Lee's 'small rolled-up tent, a violin in a blanket, a change of clothes, a tin of treacle biscuits, and some cheese.'"

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

God Is Great

Often we think we know it all, or something close to that. We need to learn that God is beyond what we can know. Augustine's "Confessions" make the point - "A man (sic) who knows that he owns a tree and thanks you for the use he has of it, even though he does not know its exact height or the width of its spread, is better than another who measures it and counts all its branches, but neither owns it nor knows and loves its Creator. In just the same way, a man who has faith in you owns all the wealth of the world, for if he clings to you, whom all things serve, though he has nothing yet he owns them all. It would be foolish to doubt that such a man, though he may not know the track of the Great Bear, is altogether better than another who measures the sky and counts the stars and weighs the elements, but neglects you who allot to all things their size, their number, and their weight." (Book 5, Section 4)

Monday, 21 March 2011

Living Letters

Writing to the Christians in Corinth, Paul describes them as "living letters" - You yourselves are the letter we have written, written on our hearts for everyone to know and read. (2 Corinthians 3:2). Paul continues: It is clear that Christ himself wrote this letter and sent it by us. It is written, not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, and not on stone tablets but on human hearts. (2 Corinthians 2:3). In verse 1 Paul additionally refers to letters of recommendation. For what kind of things do we end up being a recommendation? If we are 'living letters' what are we saying? Those are interesting questions, particularly when we remember that God indeed wants us to be living letters, telling the story of the light and love that is found only with God.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Messy Church Last Tuesday

It has become fairly unusual for me to lead worship other than on a Sunday morning – but this was one such time, the monthly Messy Church at Dovercourt (Harwich). Messy Church has been going for about three years at Dovercourt. When I arrived all sorts of things were happening. Some people were doing a kind of treasure hunt, identifying various things around the church premises. Other were making models out of wooden spoons. Some folk were just drinking coffee. Others were just playing – and there were other bits of craft work going on. As is often the case, it was someone’s first time. Most of the around 15 to 20 children were quite small, but it is geared for that. And the adults were partly members of the traditional church and partly parents. I got there about 4.30. A little after 5 we all went in to the church for a brief service – 15 minutes – when I told the story of Communion and how it started, using a very approximately Godly Play format (for those who know what that is). We sang a hymn about the disciples and Jesus inviting them – and us – to the table – then went back to the hall to share a meal – lambburgers, chips and salad, followed by jelly and ice cream.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

God's Extravagance

Some more thoughts drawn from Augustine's "Confessions" ...... Augustine talks about the wonder of God's love and the way in which that exceeds, and so contrasts with, the best that we can do. God's love for us is abundant - what God offers us is extravagant. As we receive God's blessings, may we respond somewhere around where we should! Addressing God, Augustine writes: "Extravagance masquerades as fullness and abundance: but you are the full, unfailing store of never-dying sweetness. The spendthrift makes a pretence of liberality: but you are the most generous dispenser of all good. The covetous want many possessions for themselves: you possess all. The envious struggle for preferment: but what is to be preferred before you? Anger demands revenge: but what vengeance is as just as yours? Fear shrinks from any sudden, unwonted danger which threatens the things that it loves, for its only care is safety: but to you nothing is strange, nothing unforeseen. No one can part you from the things that you love, and safety is assured nowhere but in you. Grief eats away its heart for the loss of things which it took pleasure in desiring, because it wants to be like you, from whom nothing can be taken away." (Book 2, Section 6)