Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Churches Listening Together

Currently at the Churches Together in England Forum at Swanwick, where we have had a fascinating day.  We started with Orthodox morning prayers.  Then, after breakfast, we had a session to introduce us to the Orthodox Church.  There is clearly a richness of liturgy, of recognising the contribution of saints, and of using icons which can be very enriching.

This was followed by a session on Pentecostalism.  It was interesting to see the similarities between two forms of Christianity that might be regarded as being at opposite ends, but which have much in common, not least the recognition of the role of the Holy Spirit.  I had been asked to contribute to this session as a non-Pentecostal saying something about how Pentecostalism has enriched me.  It was interesting to reflect on that, focusing on links in Islington and then on the Pentecostal aspects of the worship when I was recently in Zimbabwe.  I said that we need to capture something of the joy, celebration and spirituality.

This evening we had a great session listening to young people.  They challenged us to recognise the contribution that young people can make and to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church.  They were rooted in a variety of denominations, but encouraged us to recognise the importance of our unity - and so to be walking together.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Holy Ground

In yesterday's post I mentioned the 'Holy Ground Project' organised by the Church Missionary Society (CMS) about ten years ago.  They went to different places around the world to photograph the shoes of particular individuals, each of whom then wrote a brief 'thought' about what it meant to them to walk the way of Jesus.  The results were published in a booklet in 2005.

We did our own version at a Cafe Church event at the Cotteridge Church in Birmingham in 2008.  I was looking for our pictures - and found them.  Here are a few!

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Moses and Holiness

 Does it mean getting your feet burnt?  Last Saturday I asked, as I do at most ordinations and inductions – occasionally we do it on the other format and the newly arriving minister says it – but mostly I ask the question, as one of a series of nine: do you promise to live a holy life, and to maintain the truth of the gospel, whatever trouble or persecution may arise?  I sometimes wonder how often any of us ministers reflect on those promises we make at ordination and repeat at subsequent inductions.  There is quite a lot in there that is worth pondering, and maybe we ought to do that on a regular basis.  After all this is what we have committed ourselves to?  The fifth question asks – are zeal for the glory of God, love for the Lord Jesus Christ, obedience to the Holy Spirit and a desire for the salvation of the world, so far as you know your own heart, the chief motives which lead you to enter this ministry?  And what about proclaiming the reconciliation of the world to God?  What about dealing with trouble and persecution?  What about being committed to take your part in the councils of the church?  What about giving leadership to the Church in its mission to the world?
There is also the Statement of Nature, Faith and Order which comes up in the last of the nine questions and which gives us a whole bunch of other good stuff to look at and consider.  One of the attendees on Saturday, a retired Methodist minister who I happen to know, came up to me afterwards and said – and this is something that has happened to me a number of times from different denominational partners – I do your like that Statement you’ve got.  I wish we had something like that.
But back to holiness and burnt feet – and the connection is the Exodus 3 story of Moses being called by God.  As Moses approaches the burning bush, he is told: Do not come near!  Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground
What does it mean to take your shoes off?  What does it mean to be on holy ground?  A few years ago the Church Missionary Society ran what they called their holy ground project.  They got people from around the world to take off their shoes.  They photographed those shoes and got the owner of each pair of shoes to write a brief testimony on the piece of paper on which the photograph was printed.  We decided to do our own version of that in a small way as part of a cafĂ© church event at one of the churches at which I was then minister, Cotteridge in Birmingham.  Folk took off their shoes, which we then photographed and printed the photograph.  Each person then wrote just a little bit about what it meant to them to be a follower of Jesus, to walk in the way of Jesus.  It was a fascinating and moving experience.
When I was in India in February.  We took off our shoes quite a lot.  It made sense to wear sandals.  It is a mark of respect and care, to leave your dusty sandals outside. 
Moses was probably used to taking off his sandals in all sorts of situations.  But he hadn’t recognised this as being a holy place.  He was just curious about this burning bush.  Does God ever surprise us by pointing out that we are, unexpectedly, in a holy place?  I suspect God does.  The holy place is the place where we encounter God.  Are we ready for that, wherever it is, whenever it comes?  Are we ready to hear the voice of God?
There is no indication in the text that Moses had ever encountered God before.  Now, suddenly, he finds himself being told to take on a massive job for God.  Unsurprisingly, he has got a bunch of questions, and a bunch of excuses.  What are we going to do with those difficult things that God calls us to do? 
As William Willimon points out in his book “Calling and Character” – “Ministry is difficult.  Therefore the great challenge of ministry is to be the sort of characters who can sustain the practices and virtues of ministry for a lifetime.  What we require is some means of keeping at ministry – preparing and delivering sermons, visiting the sick, counselling the troubled, rebuking the proud – even when we don’t feel like it, even when it does not personally please us to do so.  Fortunately for the church, Easter will not let us give up, though we have ample reason, in the present age, to do so.  We are not permitted to give up on ministry because God, if the story of Easter is as true as we believe it to be, doesn’t give up on ministry in the world.”

It’s that quote that Rowan Williams has made famous, whether or not he first said it: Ministry is finding out what God is doing and joining in.
A slightly amended version of my address at the Communion Service at the end of this week's Eastern Synod United Reformed Church Ministers' Get-Together. Thanks to Tim Yau for the photographs.

Friday, 25 September 2015

The Church that Jesus Prayed for

I spent the last week of August in Zimbabwe with my friends from our Synod global partner in the Presbytery of Zimbabwe.  The main purpose of the visit was to be at their first all-church conference, held at Mhondoro.  What an exciting time, even if somewhat exhausting.  We must have spent over 24 hours worshipping in a period that ran from late afternoon Thursday to mid morning Sunday. Much of the worship was exuberant - I can't remember the last time, if ever, that I danced so much!

The theme of the conference - 'the Church that Jesus Prayed for' was taken from John 17, and the emphasis was on unity.  It was a timely reminder that Jesus prayed for us and, in so doing, called us to be one.

I learned much about unity, much about enthusiasm in worship, and much about commitment to walking the way of Jesus.  It is really difficult to capture the sheer engagement with worship and with all that we were doing in words.  We were so well looked after.  We felt so much part of it.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Art and Theology

I have just spent 48 hours at Belsey Bridge Conference Centre (Ditchingham) for the annual get-together for ministers in the United Reformed Church's Eastern Synod.  Our keynote speaker was Neil Thorogood, Principal of Westminster College, Cambridge.  Neil helped us to see the contribution that art can make to life, and specifically to theology.  Pictures, of all sorts, can enhance our view of life.  Of course it is true that images can get in the way sometimes - but there are many examples of their enriching our experience.  It is worth thinking how we can connect to art as part of our mission in the church.  Can we, for example, offer space for exhibitions?  Some have.  Are there ways in which we can engage in little art projects that enable us to encourage folk to think about God?