Sunday, 26 April 2015

Focus On Community

An important part of the minister's role is to enable the church to function as a community.  The church is not a collection of individuals.  As we say so often, ‘we are the Body of Christ’.  We live in a day when there is a strong emphasis on things being provided us for exactly as we want them.  If I go to Subway for a sandwich, I am almost overwhelmed at the choices I have to make in order to get my sandwich just as I want it – from what type of bread all the way through to what type of dressing.  A similar array of questions and possibilities is there if I go to get what I thought was a simple cup of coffee at Starbucks.  (There are other providers of sandwiches and of coffee!)  That is the kind of society in which we live.  We need to counter, or subvert, that by emphasising the building of community.  We often talk about the church as a community – but does it really always feel like that?  Interestingly, in my experience, that is a greater challenge in the larger church than in the smaller one.  For most of my time in Birmingham I was part of a team ministry in a large LEP, with well over 200 members, and, at the same time, a small back street chapel with probably less than a tenth of the membership. It was easy for the smaller church to be a community, but a real struggle for the larger one.

In his book "Calling and Character: Virtues of the Ordained Life", William Willimon says this: “The pastor is uniquely the “community person” by virtue of ordination, the one who is charged with cultivating those communal virtues that make the church the church.”  And he goes on: “This ecclesial stress upon community is inherently countercultural in a world of self-made men and women, rugged individualism, and cultured narcissism.  Pastors are those who tend to think, not for themselves, but with the church, seeking communal discernment, cultivating a dependence upon the wisdom of the saints in all that we do.  The church – body of Christ, People of God, Sheep of the Fold, and Bride of Christ – tends to be more important than either I or my occupational advancement.”

How can we enable our congregations to really be a community and model that for the world around us?  

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Festivity in Ministry

I want to suggest the importance of including festivity as part of ministry.  We can perhaps put this in terms of thinking of Jesus the party-goer.  Jesus was often to be found sharing food with others.  His first miracle was at a wedding when he turned a large quantity of water into a large quantity of wine.  He was criticised for the fact that his disciples feasted while those of John the Baptist fasted.  He often used parties and banquets as ways of describing the Kingdom of God. 

Our leadership, if it is to follow that of Jesus, needs an element of celebration.  Jesus tells us that he came so that we might have life, and have it more abundantly.  A good Christian leader will be proclaiming that message.  The Christian Way can be portrayed as a way in which you are given a list of things not to do.  That is a negative approach.  We need to be positive.  The Christian is depicted in the Gospels as being an invitation to a party – and it is a party to which everyone is invited. 

The famous Christian leader, Brother Roger of Taize once said: “Restore to pastors a spirit of festival.”  When we celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Communion, of course it has its solemn moment – but we are always leading our people in what I often call a “celebration” of Holy Communion.  So how, as leaders, can we make sure our worship, and our life in general, has that note of celebration?  

How do we demonstrate God’s welcoming love?  

(These ideas were sparked off by Andrew Mayes' book "Another Christ: Re-envisioning Ministry" and are just one of a number of aspects of ministry that Mayes explores.)

Friday, 24 April 2015

Encounters (Part 4)

After a delay here is a ninth encounter story, prepared for our post-Vellore reflection meeting.

Read Acts 9:1-9 - Jesus, the light of the world, appeared in the spectacular form of a (quite literally) blinding light to Saul who, at that point, spent most of his time persecuting the Christians.  It all happened because had a different plan for Saul, and this was the first faltering step on the round (being led by the hand because of his temporary blindness) for the guy who became Paul, the great missionary apostle.

My linked story is of Stanley, the young pastor of the two churches I visited on our first Sunday that we were in Vellore.  He is responsible for ten churches and, like many in Vellore, usually gets round on his motorcycle.  He indicated for me the commitment of so many involved in ministry in that context.  Clearly there are the big churches in the large urban conurbations, but there is a big and challenging ministry in sustaining the church in the many villages - and how exciting to hear stories of growing churches and see the Sunday congregations over-flowing from the buildings.

Here is an important reminder that our experience of church is not the only one there is and, on the global level, is not even typical.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Enabling Is Not Enough

One of the questions which I seem to be constantly facing, though from a variety of angles, is that of what ministers are for.  My church tradition believes firmly in the 'priesthood of all believers' and so is properly convinced that all Christians are called to ministry.  Indeed, increasingly, the release into ministry (if I can put it that way) is seen as coming not through ordination, but through baptism.  In the community of the baptised all those who have been through baptism are thus commissioned to ministry.  (I recognise that this doesn't quite work in the same way for Baptist, Salvation Army, Quaker and some other colleagues, but suggest that though the baptism link doesn't quite work, the principle of 'every member ministry' would be recognised.)

This then raises the question as to the purpose of ordained Ministers of Word and Sacraments. Inevitably, all sorts of things could be said about that, but I consider the essence of the task to be getting the whole congregation engaged in ministry.  So we have often talked about enabling and facilitating.

But is that enough?  Don't we need to do more than that?  I am currently reading William Willimon's book "Calling and Character: Virtues of the Ordained Life", and was struck by one particular comment: "There was a time when I thought the image of the pastor as empathetic "enabler" was a good image for ministry - the democratic enabler, standing in the wings, not on stage, humbly prompting the laity in their ministry.  Yet I observed, in my visits to congregations, that strong leaders tend to evoke strong congregations.  The pastor must do more than merely "enable".  The pastor must model, embody, demonstrate, and thereby evoke the ministry of the laity."

Enabling is important, and it is something that we need to do, and perhaps the problem is not so much with the enabling per se, but with the notion of empathetic enabling.  Empathetic enabling is great when it is what is needed, but, depending on specific, people in congregations need challenging, inspiring, encouraging, and a whole range of other things.  Surely the task is to get the church to be the church - whatever it takes.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

God Got There First

Sometimes we talk about going looking for God.  In one sense, there is no problem in thinking that kind of way if it helps us in our discipleship.  However, when we properly think about it, it is important to remember that the reality is that it is God who comes looking for us.  We don't take God to places, which is another thing that we sometimes say - God is already there.  That is important to remember as we respond to the call to engage in mission.

I have been reading Marcus Borg's book "Convictions".  One of the ways in which we might express this idea is put like this by Borg: "To affirm that heaven and earth (all that is) are full of God's glory means that everything is filled with the radiant luminosity of God.  God, the sacred, pervades all that is, even though we do not often see it."

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Creative Change

One of the problems in many churches is uncertainty about change.  Why can't things stay the same? Of course, they can't - and they don't!  Change is inevitable and we need to embrace it, though we also need to go for the right changes.

Ed Catmull's Creativity, Inc. offers some useful comments on the theme of change.

"It's folly to think you can avoid change, no matter how much you might want to.  But also, to my mind, you shouldn't want to.  There is no growth or success without change."

"Change is going to happen, whether we like it or not.  Some people see random, unforeseen events as something to fear.  I am not one of those people.  To my mind, randomness is not just inevitable; it is part of the beauty of life.  Acknowledging it and appreciating it helps us respond constructively when we are surprised.  Fear makes people reach for certainty and stability, neither of which guarantee the safety they imply."

"We humans like to know where we are headed, but creativity demands that we travel paths that lead to who-knows-where.  That requires us to step up to the boundary of what we know and what we don't know."

Change can certainly be challenging, but it can also be exciting.  Let us look for the change to which God is calling us and embrace the opportunities it offers.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Getting Creative

I recently read Ed Catmull's Creativity, Inc. - the fascinating account of the founding of Pixar and that company's leading role in the development of animation techniques in film-making.

What was particularly interesting was the way in which he describes the importance of a balanced approach to creativity that takes risks, deals with problems and is genuinely supportive.

For instance he stresses the place of risk - "Being too risk-averse causes many companies to stop innovating and to reject new ideas, which is the first step on the path to irrelevance."

He points out that if we insist on guaranteed success every time, we will find ourselves missing out on all sorts of exciting things with which we ought to engage - "To be a truly creative company, you must start things that might fail."

He also indicates how constructive criticism is an essential contributor to developing good things, but warns of the damaging effect of negativity.  "Negative feedback may be fun, but it is far less brave than endorsing something unproven and providing room for it to grow."

I think it is fairly easy to apply all of that thinking to church.  Too often we allow ourselves to be risk averse, scared of failure and wallowing in negativity.

Of course we need to do risk assessments, but let's use them to work out what risks we ought to be taking.  Let's remember that God doesn't give up on us when we fail.  We are not called to be successful, but to be faithful.  And let's concentrate on the possibilities of that half-full glass, rather than bemoaning the lacks in the half-empty one.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Visiting St. Thomas's Mount

The highlight for me of the couple of days we spent in Chennai at the end of our South India trip was the visit some of us made to St. Thomas's Mount.  Tradition has it that Christianity was first brought to India by Thomas, and that led to the founding of the Mar Thoma Church.  It is believed that Thomas was martyred here, being killed by a spear.  That fact is marked in the statue of Thomas which portrays him holding a spear.  I was interested that statues of both Thomas and Jesus give them strongly European appearances, and yet they were both garlanded in typical Indian style.

How do we allow culture to have its place and be properly represented in an authentic expression of the Gospel?

The area on the top of the mount included a depiction of the crucifixion and two chapels, offering opportunities for silent prayer.

How do we make links to the distinctive contributions of the first disciples and express such sentiments appropriately today?

Thomas is probably best known for uttering the phrase 'my Lord and my God' when he became the last of the original band (bar Judas Iscariot) to encounter the risen Jesus.  Those words are depicted in more than one place on the mount.  Can we share in saying them?

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Visiting Walsingham

Open Air Altar at the Anglican Shrine

Walsingham is one of those special places, sometimes described as ‘thin’.  Of course, God is accessible anywhere and everywhere, but ‘thin’ places offer a particular opportunity to feel God’s presence.

Anglican Shrine - Stations of the Cross
I don’t often go to North Norfolk as the United Reformed Church is extremely thin – different meaning of thin! – on the ground there, which may be one reason why I have not previously Walsingham.  However, as a family, we have just spent a few days’ holiday in one of the nearby villages and so went to Walsingham before returning home yesterday.

At the Roman Catholic Shrine
We drove to the Anglican shrine and then walked – perhaps a mile and a half or two miles – to the Roman Catholic shrine.  The Anglican shrine dates from the eleventh century when a noblewoman called Richeldis had a vision of the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary in her Nazareth home with the news of the birth of Jesus.  She was to build a replica of the house she saw in her village of Walsingham, situated mid way between Norwich, then England’s second city, and King’s Lynn.  So the village became known as England’s Nazareth and a place of pilgrimage.  The shrine was destroyed by Henry VIII in 1538, but rebuilt in the 20th century.  The church consists of a significant number of chapels with a wide range of dedications and feels very much like a place of prayer.  The beautiful grounds extend the prayerful location and offer both an outdoor altar in a tent-like structure and depictions of the Stations of the Cross.

The Roman Catholic shrine is based on the Slipper Chapel, a fourteenth century wayside pilgrim chapel, also restored and established as a place of pilgrimage in the twentieth century.  The grounds now include a large new chapel (consecrated in 1982) with its altar able to be used within the church or, facing the other way, to serve a much larger outdoor crowd.

It was good to walk and pray and reflect – to enjoy the tranquillity and feel glad to be in places where many pilgrims have come and continue to visit.  It was good to reflect on the presence of God – and to think of the place of special places, wherever they may be. 

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Who Are You in the Story?

 On our recent trip to South India, we spent a couple of days in Chennai before coming home and went to St. Thomas’s Mount.  Tradition has it that Thomas took Christianity to India and St. Thomas’s Mount is the place where he is commemorated.  It was interesting to see a very European looking statue of Thomas garlanded in a typically Indian style – but also look a little way down the hill and see laid out in stones, the words for which Thomas has become so famous, ‘My Lord and my God’.  Thomas is known for his doubting, perhaps unfairly, because Thomas just strikes me as a really practical guy – but doubt turned to faith.  My Lord and my God!  There is, of course, also a statue of Thomas, and Thomas is holding a spear because that is to believed to be how he died.  Thomas had his moments of reality, his moments of doubt, but was a man of faith.   Are we Thomas?

Or are we Peter?  Peter, who was so often there at the forefront, Peter with the tendency to put his foot in it, Peter who always had something to say, who declared his undying loyalty to Jesus, and then denied him.  Peter, who stepped out of the boat to walk on water, Peter, brought by his brother to Jesus, Peter, who fearlessly preached on the day of Pentecost.  Are we Peter?  

Or Judas, Judas, who sells his love for cash?  Judas, the idealist, the nationalist.  Or the Romans, meting out violence to ensure that they could keep order, but really just doing their job, following orders?  Or are we as one of the religious leaders, just trying to keep the lid on things, to make sure that good order was followed, to stand up for what is right, and concerned about way-out preaching that risks all sort of damage to the respectable institution?  

We could go on picking out characters from the Holy Week and Easter story – and those who don’t appear in the re-telling of the Easter Day events – like Pilate, Herod, Caiphas, - and perhaps folk like Nicodemus, Jairus, Zacchaeus, Bartimaeus – would all have been there, hearing the rumours, wondering what they meant.  I think it is, not just interesting, but a useful part of our own spiritual journey, to think our way into the Easter story, wondering how those people, whose names have become so familiar, will have felt, what they will have been doing and, perhaps, if we want to be more imaginative, thinking about which character we might have been, had we been there, and how we would have reacted.

Friday, 3 April 2015

From A Distance

Good Friday - I went to the afternoon service at Fulbourn United Reformed Church which followed the Iona Community's Wild Goose's Stations of the Cross as in Eggs and Ashes by Ruth Burgess and Chris Polhill.  It was a quiet, reflective service, a helpful moment on a Good Friday afternoon.  A number of things struck me, but the words that particularly jumped out related to the eleventh station which remembers Jesus being nailed to the Cross.

The Bible reading was a couple of verses from Luke 23, the second of which was verse 49 - Some women, his friends from Galilee, looked on at a distance.  The idea of 'a distance' was picked up in the brief reflective comment.  When do we just look on from a distance - and when do we get engaged with things?

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Borrowed Places

Maundy Thursday, and reading Maggi Dawn's reflection for today in "Giving It Up" in which she reminds us that, according to the tradition, Jesus both began and ended his earthly life in borrowed places.  Born in a borowed room/stable at the inn, he borrowed an upper room in order to share a 'Last Supper' with 'the twelve', a significant and memorable occasion from which emerge the words and the tradition 'do this in remembrance of me'.

We like to have our own place, our own things.  Are we ready and willing to borrow when we need to do that?  And are we ready to lend what we have when others need to borrow it?