Monday, 27 May 2013

Contextual Bible Study

Of course there are many ways in which we may approach the Bible and any or all may contribute to our understanding.  I have been reading John Riches' "What is Contextual Bible Study?" (SPCK, 2010) which offers a particularly Scottish perspective on a methodology really initially developed by Gerald West in South Africa.

Riches points out that "CBS is a method that encourages readers to read the Bible in ways appropriate to their own contexts and which allow them to engage in dialogue with one another to address current concerns in the light of the biblical texts" (p. 3).  It is thus a method that is very focussed on what the Bible is saying to our current situation, seeking to help us to engage with the things that we need to address. 

Because of the emphasis on context it can be interesting to compare notes with a group studying the same passage, but in a very different context.  It is certainly important to recognise that the Bible can speak to different situations.  CBS fails to work if we want to suggest that there is only one way of interpreting a passage - "there must be multiple readings and multiple answers" (p. 9).

CBS is thus an opportunity to listen to what God is saying to us in a particular moment.  "The studies should not start with a set of outcomes, of things that people are expected to learn or 'get', but should rather enable people to engage with the text and understand their own lives in new ways.  This may allow people to appreciate more deeply how God is active in the life of their community" (p. 25).

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Pentecost and Mission

Pentecost puts down a marker that God engages with us, that God makes a difference.  As one writer (Kirsteen Kim) puts it: “The Spirit is the catalyst and impulse of mission at Pentecost and subsequently at each decisive point of the story in Acts.”  As Rowan Williams put it: “Mission is about finding out what God is doing and joining in.”  That is so important.  We often make the mistake of thinking that we need to make the plans.  There is nothing new in that.  I rather suspect that to be how Peter operated.  We think we need to go and do things.  Well, we do – but let’s never forget that God is there before we arrive.  God doesn’t tag along behind us.  Rather, God is there, hoping that we might join in with what he is doing.  We might put it like this: “Mission is not just something the church does; it is something that is done by the Spirit, who is himself the witness, who changes both the world and the church, who always goes before the church in its missionary journey.”  (Lesslie Newbigin).

But how are we to describe this mission – and how are we to say something about how we fit in? 

If we say about some experience that ‘they treated us just like family’, that is an expression of how warmly we have been received.  This is something special.  It puts us on the inside.  We are part of what is going on.  “To be a member of a family confers upon a person certain privileges and responsibilities toward other members of that family that are among the closest of any human ties.  To be a member of a family means one shares with others a common life shared in mutual interdependence.”  (Paul Achtemeier).  We should be so engaged with God that we are family. 

But then what does that mean?  What do we do?  What is the mission?  How do we function?  What is the task for those who are God’s children?  How do we discover what it is that we should be doing, what it is that will take us into responding, as we should, to God’s call.

Well, needless to say, there are many ways in which we can describe this.  There are many definitions of mission, many descriptions of the task that we should take up as one of God’s children.  But essentially what is needed is that we should discover the Holy Spirit empowering us.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Within the World and Yet ....

The Church is within the world, and yet it can only properly fulfil its function when its ultimate commitment is beyond the comprehension of the world.  If the Church does not rest on a point outside the world, then it has no leverage with the world.  All its tugging and straining would become just a minor disturbance within the life of the world.  The Church has to bear witness to the weakness and folly of a crucified Messiah.  That’s where we find our essential ‘raison d’ĂȘtre’ – and it means that we overturn the accepted wisdom of the world.  We are to challenge what the world is saying.  We are charged with the offering of God’s alternative.  But this doesn’t mean that we are to find our safety in separation.  Indeed, that kind of otherworldliness is forbidden.  We are not to inhabit a ghetto, but to go forth on a mission.  And the request is that God will make sure that we are up to the task.
It’s interesting to reflect on what it really means to be the church in the world.  We claim the priority of unity, but we’re actually far better at entrenched positions, at divisions and barriers than we are at unity.  We stress the value of diversity.  Actually, that’s quite right.  Diversity is a hugely important part of the kaleidoscope that is the church.  In terms of Paul’s famous image of the Church as the body, it is not just a counter to boredom that we should not all be legs, or eyes, or noses, or whatever.  It is absolutely essential.  But it is very easy to erode the boundary between a broad and embracing diversity and a narrow and excluding difference.
So what are we to be like?  One commentator, Stephen Verney, puts it like this: “Like the Father and the Son, they will let go everything and receive everything back from each other.  This letting go and receiving back will be the rhythm of their lives; it will be an openness to each other which allows the ambiguity of each one to come into the light, and be accepted, and made whole, and become part of the community.”
The point is that God models how we should be.  If I were to ask you to describe God, what are the words that you would choose?  I imagine that it would be words like love and grace and holy and forgiving and reconciling.  At the beginning of Genesis we read - 1:26 – Then God said, ‘And now we will make human beings; they will be like us and resemble us.’  Let’s not pretend that it isn’t challenging to be like God.  It is.  Jesus spells out the challenge in Matthew 5.  Verse 48 – you must be perfect – just as your Father in heaven is perfect.
We know that will only ever be an aspirational statement.  Yet aspirational statements are worth having, so long as they are expressing that to which we truly aspire.  I still have in my study a birthday card received from my younger siblings on my 21st.  It shows Charlie Brown of the Peanuts cartoons contemplating life and making the comment: ‘There’s no heavier burden than a great potential.’  With God’s help, may we each realise our potential.

Friday, 10 May 2013


God’s love for us is probably the most sustaining thing we can experience, but also the most challenging.  The different word that we sometimes use to identify it is ‘grace’.  God’s grace, unsurprisingly, is ‘out of this world’ – but it does challenge our thinking.  I have been pondering this with the help of some of the thinking in Francis Spufford’s “Unapologetic” (faber & faber, 2012).  Spufford points out: “Grace is forgiveness we can’t earn.  Grace is the weeping father on the road.  Grace is tragedy accepted with open arms, and somehow turned to good” (p. 166).

The problem comes when we think about following God’s way.  Spufford reminds us: “We’re supposed as Christians to go out and love recklessly, as God does.  We’re supposed to try and imitate Jesus in this, and to be prepared to follow love wherever it goes, knowing that there are no guarantees it’ll be safe, or that the world will treat such vulnerability kindly” (p. 176).

And we need to remember that God’s grace is there for everyone, even those we don’t like, and certainly those we think don’t deserve it – and that, hopefully, will help us see the good bits in everyone else.  As Spufford says: “Grace makes us better readers of each other.  We don’t know, each of us, what the others need forgiving for, and we never will, but we know they were forgiven, as we were … Though we are many, we say, we are one body, because we all share in one bread” (p. 203).

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Beyond the Edge

The church needs both diversity and unity.  We need to be ready to go beyond our current edges, so that God can take us into new places.  The church’s challenge is to reach out, and so to extend.  If all we do is to try and bring people in to join us in our way of doing things, then we are not going to grow as we should,  As Michael Moynagh (in “Church for Every Context”) says: “The church joins its Lord in mission when it goes beyond the edge of its existence.  As it does so and new communities are formed, the kingdom is brought more fully to life in the new setting.  Repeating the process, one context after another, makes the church increasingly catholic.”

Moynagh goes on to identify five indicators of a church that is reflecting the life and ministry of Jesus.  This is so when a church:
-      identifies with a specific culture;
-      forms communities in the midst of people’s immanent lives;
-      endures a ‘death’ as it brings forth new life;
-      finds that the church’s centre has followed Jesus to the rim;
-      anticipates the inclusion of ‘all things’ in the kingdom.

So, are those evident in our church life?

Jesus makes all things new.  That’s what we should be doing.  Of course, we are there in a particular time and place – but we should be in the business of transformation.  Moynagh again – “Contextual churches will correspond to the life of Jesus, therefore, not just by being present in the status quo but by transforming it, by pointing to the time when every place will be renewed.  They will follow Jesus when they walk his radical path.”