Wednesday, 29 June 2011


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


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 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?