Monday, 31 December 2012

The Last Laugh

So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, 'After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?'  (Genesis 18:12)

I couldn't believe it.  What nonsense!  Of course I laughed.  Who wouldn't have?  It was so ridiculous.  These three men came passing by and, as you would expect, as was our duty, we offered them hospitality.  I got them something to eat, something to drink, and I was glad to do so.  It is not particularly pleasant travelling in the heat of the day.  I left them talking with Abraham.  We women need to stay in the background when there are male visitors.  Our job is to serve some food, but then leave the men to their conversation - only sometimes you can't help but overhear some of what they are saying.

This was one of those times - and I couldn't believe my ears.  I heard them say that I was going to have a baby, a son.  Well, of course, there was nothing I wanted more than that.  How I had longed for a baby.  Some of the time I could think of nothing else. 

But I had got past those dreams.  I knew it wasn't going to happen now.  I'm far too old. That was one thing that was not going to happen.  That was why I laughed.  Why were they telling such an awful joke?  I wasn't sure whether to laugh or to cry.  It just seemed better to laugh at such a ridiculous notion.

But now it seems that God has got the last laugh.  The baby on his way.  I am pregnant.  One of these days I will learn that God is not restricted to what we might expect!

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Nick's Questioning Attitude

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night and said to him, 'Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.  (John 3:2)

Nick is my good friend.  He is a good sort, not one to be pushed around but not one to make stupid mistakes either.  He is careful is Nick - Nicodemus the Pharisee, to give him his full name and title.

I wasn't surprised when he asked me to go with him to see Jesus.  That's just like Nick - to find out for himself.  But I wasn't surprised either when he told me that we would be going at night.  He would want to go, but he wouldn't want to be seen.  Jesus was getting a bit of a reputation as a rabble-rousing rabbi.  Anyone with any sense would be a bit careful about being associated with him.  It might lead to something a bit nasty.  But you couldn't ignore the fact that Jesus was saying some pretty interesting things - and getting himself quite a following. 

Nick and I were sensible Pharisees though.  Of course, we were going to be careful how we approached him.  So Nick made a night-time appointment.  Fortunately Jesus was happy to see people at any time of day or night.  He said that he had this important message about the kingdom of God and he was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to try and help people understand what he was getting at.

So late one evening Nick and I met up with him.  We wanted to make it clear that we wanted to hear what he had to say.  We weren't there to challenge him.  Nick said straightaway that we realised that he must come from God. 

Jesus' response to that was to say something entirely incomprehensible.  He said that everybody had to be born anew.  That was the only way to get into God's kingdom.  Would you have known what he meant.  We certainly didn't.  Nick asked if he meant that we had to somehow get back into our mother's womb.  It really did not make any sense. 

We had a very interesting conversation.  We talked about flesh and spirit, the blowing of the wind, Moses, condemnation, judgment, light, all sorts.  I am still not sure that I understand, except that he certainly told us that God loves us and that we ought to live the way God wants.  I am hoping that Nick will take me back to see him again so that we can ask a few more questions, get a few more answers, maybe ones that we will understand.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

My Mate Jerry

Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord.  Just like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.  (Jer 18:6)

It can be weird having a prophet for a mate, but your mate is your mate.  My mate Jerry - Jeremiah, to give him his Sabbath name - is always getting all sorts of instructions from God, things to do, things to say, and they don't always make him popular.  Lots of people consider him to be a bit strange, but he's still my mate.

The other day I called by to see him and God had just told him to go and visit the potter.  He invited me to go along.  'Why not?' I thought.  I wondered what was behind this idea, even if it did come from God, allegedly.  Was Jerry going to buy a pot or something!

When we got there we just stood and watched.  I don't know whether it was because we were watching, but the potter started making a right hash of the jar he was making.  It came out all misshapen and spoilt.  What a mess!  But the potter wasn't worried.  He just kept the wheel spinning and got the clay back into a big lump and started again.  It didn't take long to transform the misshapen mess into a useful and attractive pot.

Jerry was watching closely, but he also seemed to be praying.  I wondered why he had gone to the potter's shop to pray.  Surely the temple was a better location for that.  Jerry said that God was using the potter's work as a kind of story.  The people of the land needed to be like the clay - and it was as though God was working as a potter.  The clay needs the potter to mould it nicely and, when it goes wrong, it is vital that the potter starts again.  So with us.  We need God to get us into shape - and when the shaping doesn't work, and that is usually because of a flaw in the clay that we are, then we need God to whack the clay back into a lump and start again.

It was interesting watching the potter - and I wouldn't have seen any deep meaning without Jerry's commentary.  I am glad I called by then because I learned that it is not so bad being like clay.  It is not that the clay doesn't have a mind of its own - though it doesn't, of course - but that it is useless and wasted if it is not shaped in the right way.

It is weird having a prophet as a mate, but old Jerry is not such a bad preacher!

Friday, 28 December 2012

Mission or Worship?

Mission or worship – which comes first?  Michael Moynagh explores this question in the sixth chapter of his book “Church for Every Context”.  The idea of mission as God’s mission – missio Dei – has become well established, and we often talk about joining God’s mission, recognising that developing our own mission strategies apart from that is not the way to go.  If mission develops from worship, as we may have thought, that risks it being seen as subordinate, in effect a second step for God.  Should church life be organised around worship or around mission?  Is worship the prime way in which God relates to the world, or does that engagement primarily come through mission?  Moynagh suggests that: “Mission is an eternal first, not second thought for God.  This means that mission reaches into the very heart of God’s communal life.  The Trinity is the exact opposite of a community that exists for itself.  From all eternity the divine communion is looking outward.”
He goes on effectively to suggest that actually the choice does not need to be made, but that does not permit us to avoid maintaining equality between the two – “Mission will be an activity of the church with the same standing as worship.”
I guess the question for me then is as to whether we put the same level of effort in to mission as we do to worship. …. and whether both are allowed to have the high quality they ought.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Paul as a Team Player

The first thing to note is that Paul was not a loner.  He stands out.  That is certain.  But he follows Jesus’ model of taking a team approach.  Michael Moynagh (in “Church for Every Context”) reminds us that Jesus “both assembled a team of disciples and sent them to announce the kingdom in pairs.”  Paul, for example, points out, 1 Corinthians 3:6 – I planted the seed, and Apollos watered it; but God made it grow,  Then in verse 9 – we are fellow-workers in God’s service. 
Paul saw himself working with others and, not only did he see himself that way, but he put into practice what he saw.  Paul had a series of colleagues but, time and time again, we read of him engaging in ministry as a partnership.  It was not just Paul who set out alone on his first missionary journey.  He went with Barnabas, and they were commissioned together.  Acts 13:2 – While they were offering worship to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set Barnabas and Saul apart for me, to do the work to which I have called them’.  And note that, though we would probably put Paul first when we mention this pairing, the record has it the other way round – Barnabas and Saul.  We might also note that they clearly very quickly brought in a third person to offer them help and support.  In Acts 13:5 we read: Arriving at Salamis, they declared the word of God in the Jewish synagogues; they had John with them as their assistant. 
Mind you, Paul didn’t always get on with his colleagues – so maybe there is some comfort to draw there.  Acts 15:39 – The dispute was so sharp that they parted company.  Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed for Cyprus.  Interesting that John Mark is John in chapter 13 and Mark now at the end of chapter 15, though I think that is neither here nor there.
But what is of clear interest is that Paul’s dispute with Barnabas didn’t put him off the notion of a team as a good way to work – because, immediately, in 15:40, we read of Paul acquiring a new colleague: Paul chose Silas, and started on his journey, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. 
Paul and Barnabas had fallen out over John Mark.  But that experience doesn’t put Paul off seeking a third member for the team either – because the beginning of chapter 16 tells us how Timothy was identified and brought in as the third member of this new team.  Moynagh points out: “Later, as Paul’s teams grew in size they became more culturally diverse, which must have further helped them to relate to the diversity of people they encountered.”  And so, for example, Acts 20:4 – He was accompanied by Sopater son of Pyrrhus from Beroea, Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonica, Gaius of Derbe, and Timothy, and from Asia Tychicus and Trophimus.  That I make a team of eight including Paul. 
What else can we say about these teams with which Paul worked?
In Acts 18:4 Paul is involved in conducting discussion groups.  But then, in verse 5, Silas and Timothy arrive and Paul is able to devote himself entirely to preaching.  We are not actually told that they took over the discussion groups, but they must have.  Similarly, from 1 Corinthians 1:14-17, we can conclude that, in the main, Paul left the conduct of the sacrament of baptism to others.  Verse 14 – Thank God, I never baptised any of you, except Crispus and Gaius.  It is probably fair to say that, down through the centuries, we have largely developed a ‘jack of all trades’ model of ministry.  Is it time to revisit that?  If it is, how can we helpfully do that revisiting?  And, if it isn’t, why not?  It is good to understand both why we do things and why we decline to do things. 
Maybe this dividing up tasks is why Luke became such a valued member of the team on the second and third missionary journeys – and could it be that Luke’s job was to be a reporter, to collect the stories.  Moynagh again: “Larger teams enabled Paul to keep breaking new ground while still supporting churches recently established.  When disputes threatened the church at Corinth, for example, Paul sent Timothy to help resolve the situation.”  That is recorded in 1 Corinthians 4:17.  And that suggests that teams usually need leaders.
Another point, though one that I am less clear about relating to our situation, is that Paul’s teams were largely self-funding.   He was keen not to depend financially on the people he was trying to reach.  And I guess that last bit is something we ought to take on board.  Paul did receive financial support, but he was largely self-supporting.  His tent-making was what sustained him.  It is also worth noting on this point that resources were pooled as necessary, and that is very much how we try to operate as a denomination.  Giving to central funds is about ability to give not about paying for what you get – and that reflects 2 Corinthians 11:9 – If I ran short while I was with you, I did not become a charge on anyone; my needs were fully met by friends from Macedonia. 
Another thing to say about how Paul operated and how he engaged in team ministry is that it was an opportunity for net-working.  Congregations supported each other, particularly in becoming bases for mission.  Is there possibly something to learn there?
And another very different thing to note is the use of temporary workers.  Not everyone was called to a life of full-time Christian ministry.  Folk like the slave Onesimus, from the house of Philemon, were a bit like gap year students, serving full-time for a while. 
So, what, for Paul, are the keys to effective teamwork?
The first thing to say is that great care was taken over selection.  Paul was willing to break with Barnabas when it wasn’t working.  He preferred to lose a team, and wait for the right one, rather than proceed with the wrong one.  Second, if trust was a priority, so were forgiveness and reconciliation.  The relationship with Mark was eventually sorted out.  2 Timothy 4:11 – Get hold of Mark and bring him with you; he is a great help to me.  Third, decision-making was shared.  1 Thessalonians is stated, in its first verse, as being from Paul, Silvanus and Timothy and it goes on to talk about ‘we’.  We always thank God for you all … we continually call to mind.  Fourth, team members shared their lives.  There was a common purse – and “Paul’s theology of sharing spiritual gifts within the body was presumably forged partly from the experiences of his teams.  Fifth, Paul encouraged supportive delegation.  We have already noted something of this, but we might additionally note how the pastoral epistles, assuming they were written by Paul, are brimming with instructions and encouragement.  Then, finally, and to quote how Moynagh puts it: “Paul’s extended network of associate workers became like a ‘holy internet’, exchanging news, advice, encouragement and, in particular, good practice.  The Macedonians’ generosity became a prod to the Corinthians.  The Thessalonians’ response to the gospel became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. …