Sunday, 30 October 2016

Theology of Journey

The concept of a journey is one of the most frequently used metaphors for life within Christian commentary. It is a helpful idea. We are on the move, and remaining static is not an option. However, neither is it the case that all our journeying is a case of making consistently good progress. Sometimes it is a bit like being “parked” on the M25, or turning round, having made the mistake of coming up a cul-de-sac.

I have been reading Alan Jamieson’s “A Churchless Faith” in which he explores the surprisingly common phenomenon of those who leave the (institutional) church, but retain a strong faith. At one level, it would seem to make sense to claim that being a follower of Jesus ought to include participating in his visible church on earth. For very many – the majority – of course, it does. But what of those for whom church no longer remains relevant and contributing to their spiritual growth?

As a minister of the church, I clearly want people to be part of it, and I think there is a lot to be gained. However, there is plenty of evidence that leaving the church need not equal leaving faith, and we need to allow for that and recognise that engagement with God can come in different ways.  As Jamieson says: “People seriously thinking about leaving the church need to know that for many Christians part of the faith journey is travelled in small yachts rather than big cruise ships. This means that getting off to go sailing is OK. That in leaving and setting out to sail in a smaller craft they are not mad or bad but simply following a well-worn path to maturity of faith. After all, even Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness (Luke 4.1).” (p. 130).

Jamieson suggests, and I agree, that we would do well to develop a better theology of the (Christian) journey, recognising and engaging with its variety. If we consider some of the literal journeys recorded in the Bible, we discover good examples of how greatly a journey can be a struggle. Abraham and Paul both provide us with an indication of how difficult the travelling can be at times. As Jamieson says: “Encouraging people to talk about the difficulties and struggles of their Christian journey, even when there is no happy ending, lets people see the wall experience in other’s lives and what they gain from it.” (p. 147).

Of course, we want people to be part of the church, but if we help them to leave well, when they need to do that, I wonder if it is more likely that one day they will find their way back?

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Year of Books

As 2017 is a big year for the reformed tradition, I wondered what I could do to mark it and came up with the thought of inviting any who wish to join me in a virtual book club that would span 2017.

Some of you will be in real time book clubs and reading groups and I don’t want to get in the way of that.  But I was inspired by the fact that in 2015 Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, wanted to stress the value of books alongside social media and so set up a virtual 'reading group'. The challenge was to read a book every two weeks, and a new title was announced approximately fortnightly. In the end the list included 23 books. I decided to join in with this and found myself reading some fascinating books that I would otherwise never have discovered. The vast majority were non-fiction. Inevitably I was more interested in some than in others. At least one I abandoned, others are still pending, but I read at least three quarters of the suggested books. 

So I thought I would share some of the books I will be reading over the next twelve months or so, in the same way that Mark Zuckerberg did, and perhaps challenge myself to read a few that I might not have without this methodology. None will be too long or too expensive - and, if you are looking for academic reading, this is probably the wrong place for suggestions.  If you want to join in, you will find me blogging about this at

Feel free to add comments.  I am starting early, so this month, and will run through to January 2018, so will suggest 16 in all.  At the moment, I only know the first for sure, though I do know the likely second and third.  The first is Rowan Williams’ recent book “Being Disciples”.  I have only read the first chapter so far – but it is shaping up to be a great read about discipleship – and whether you read one of the books, all 16, or none, let us encourage in the discipleship to which Jesus calls us as he says to us, as to the twelve of old, and others, follow me!

Saturday, 8 October 2016


Isaiah 40 verse 31 – but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. Waiting. What does that idea conjure up for you? Is it just hanging about and waiting? It is bored waiting? Is it waiting with eager anticipation? These days waiting is not very popular. We live in a time of instant everything. We don’t want to wait. Our mantra is rather – let’s go; let’s get on with it!

People don’t want to wait. They are fearful of waiting. But perhaps the problem is that much of our waiting is filled with wishes. I wish things would get better. I wish this were different. I wish that could be resolved. The spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, (in "The Path of Waiting") reminds us of the importance of letting go of our wishes – and so to just, in the words of Isaiah, wait for the Lord.  

Nouwen suggests that we often make our waiting “a way of controlling the future.” He says: “We want the future to go in a very specific direction, and if this does not happen we are disappointed and can even slip into despair. That is why we have such a hard time waiting; we want to do the things that will make the desired events take place.” He adds (and challenges): “To wait open-endedly is an enormously radical attitude towards life. It is trusting that something will happen to us that is far beyond our imaginings. It is giving up control over our future and letting God define our life. It is living with the conviction that God moulds us according to God’s love and not according to our fear.”

The parable of the yeast helps us to get it reminding us that, like the yeast: “God is at work, even though human eyes may fail to perceive what is happening.” (Douglas Hare)

Friday, 7 October 2016

A Minister's Minutes

I have just been reading Bernard Thorogood's "A Minister's Minutes", a wonderful and personal account of a long and effective ministry. I was fascinated to journey across the world as Bernard shared some of his adventures in ministry and offered some very interesting reflections on the challenges and opportunities that the church has faced.

Like Bernard I studied at Glasgow University and then at the Scottish Congregational College when it was in Edinburgh, though in both cases the actual locations will have been different, as will our experiences in many other ways. However, a first ministry in Polynesia (him) certainly beats Ayrshire (me), (though I did have a spell in Panama a little later.) However, perhaps because of those small points of comparison, I found myself thinking of the challenges of ministry and the way in which God calls the right people at the right time - a point that comes through strongly in Bernard's account of his call back to the UK to be the General Secretary of the London Missionary Society (LMS) which, under his leadership re-structured into the Council for World Mission (CWM), and his subsequent call to be General Secretary of the United Reformed Church.

To me these "Minutes" show that life is not always easy, that ministry is fulfilling, though sometimes challenging, and that God is always with us.

As he says in his "God-Botherer's Prayer", with which the book ends: "Did you tick any of my pages, Lord? I know I won't get first class honours but could you say that I have just scraped through?"

And God says: "My child, you are always with me, come in and join the feast."

Thursday, 6 October 2016

From Top Mountain

I have recently finished reading Joe Aldred's From Top Mountain in which he offers a fascinating account of his life date. Born in rural Jamaica (at Top Mountain) Joe came to England as a teenager. His life to and through the church has made major links between black and white within the British churches and includes many points of encouragement as to what is possible. At a fairly young age he became a Bishop in the Church of God of Prophesy and has followed an interesting route since then including the Centre for Black and White Partnership in Selly Oak, Birmingham, ministry at Cannon Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, and a long and continuing role at Churches Together in England.

I first met Joe in the nineties when he tutored me for the first part of my Masters studies through Sheffield's Urban Theology Unit.  Since then we have met infrequently but regularly and I have always been inspired by my encounters with Joe - even though he persuaded me to talk about my perspectives on Pentecostals at a recent forum of Churches Together in England.

His stories encourages anyone who reads it to see something of the possibilities of life with God.