Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Waking Up to God

I have just finished reading Barbara Brown Taylor's An Altar in the World which contains lots of useful insights as she seeks to develop an everyday spirituality that is rooted in the ordinary world. She identifies twelve different 'practices', each helping us to see and experience God in the world around us.

The first chapter talks of 'the practice of waking up to God' and takes the theme of vision. Taylor points out that we are likely to find God wherever we find ourselves and that we certainly experience God in unexpected places and unexpected ways.

We don't always find God where we expect. "People encounter God under shady oak trees, on riverbanks, at the tops of mountains, and in long stretches of barren wilderness. God shows up in whirlwinds, starry skies, burning bushes, and perfect strangers. When people want to know more about God, the son of God tells them to pay attention to the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, to women kneading bread and workers lining up for their pay.". " People can learn as much about the ways of God from business deals gone bad or sparrows falling to the ground as they can from reciting the books of the Bible in order."

How encouraging to note that God engages with us where we are. May we indeed wake up to that fact!

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Failure or Change??

There can be no doubt that things are changing in the mainline Christian denominations in the UK, though that is nothing new. Talk of declining and ageing memberships has been around for over a century. However, there is a reasonable case to be made that things are getting to a critical place in many congregations.

It is also true that there are many new and exciting things happening. Words like missional, pioneer, fresh expressions and emerging are increasingly common in our conversation. So one of the questions to be confronted is as to how we should see things. As Steven Croft, "Jesus' People - What the Church Should Do Next?", published seven years ago now but still relevant - "As I have travelled the country over the last five years listening to how people read this changing situation, I have found two very different accounts being presented to me again and again of where we are and how we arrived. One focuses on failure and the other on change. I have come to the conclusion that the first is deeply flawed and the second much more hopeful."

I agree; but what that means is that we need to change.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

The Way of St Francis

One of the interesting little books that I have read recently is Murray Bodo's "The Way of St Francis" with its useful reminder that God doesn't expect us to do it all.

I particularly liked this passage: "How different is the thinking of Francis from those of us who fret about what is to be done to build up the Kingdom of God, as if we are the ones to bring about God's Kingdom on earth. For Francis it is sufficient to be poor out of love for the Poor Christ. The Kingdom is made present when God takes up his dwelling among us; and, as Francis reads the Gospel, God takes up his dwelling only when we are poor in spirit.  It is not what we do that brings about the Kingdom, but what we embrace that God might dwell among us."

What a useful reminder of the fact that we need to look to God. Trying to do it all ourselves just won't work anyway!

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Being Prodigals

One of the great messages is that God welcomes us just as we are. We need to remember that we want to welcome people into our church - so long as they conform to our ways and expectations. Nowhere is this better explained than in that wonderful parable which we most often name as that of the Prodigal Son.

Brian Pierce explores this in his book "Jesus and the Prodigal Son: the God of Radical Mercy". He reminds us that "Words like grace, mercy, and unconditional love are not easily understood in a world where revenge is revered almost as a “human right.”"

We need to take seriously that God engages with those whom we would prefer to reject and whom we we would readily dismiss as lost. The great thing, of course, is that we don't have to reach a particular standard. God's loving call is there for us even though we are - and we need to remember this - prodigals. As Pierce says: "The wonderful and utterly unexpected surprise, of course, is that he welcomes us with all of our bumps and bruises. The narrow door, open to all, is nothing less than the beginning of a great and never-ending adventure of love. Jesus upsets the sacred status quo, of course, by choosing table friendship as a way of welcoming and rehabilitating sinners. In his new Way there is no “entrance exam” for joining the community, for taking a seat at the table; one need only be willing to take a step in the direction of grace, that is, enter though the narrow, open door."

How do we play that out in our church engagement with our community? How do we ensure that our welcome is what it should be?

Friday, 18 November 2016

A Global Perspective

We live in interesting times. It used to be that there were relatively few major political surprises. The pollsters did their work and we knew what was going to happen before it happened. Things are different now. The pollsters have become unreliable - and the predictions of Britain voting to stay in the EU and Hilary Clinton being elected as the next US President have not come to pass - and we live in a rather unexpected world of Brexit and soon-to-be President Trump.

Miroslav Volf, in his book Flourishing, reminds us of our inter-dependence and the impact of globalisation on how we relate to each other. Volf reminds us of the importance of reconciliation and how that needs to be part of our encounters. He warns of the ease of saying the right things as compared to the difficulty of practice - "Reconciliation has five basic elements. We can simplify them to five injunctions - remember, forgive, apologise, repair, and embrace - each easy to formulate but complicated to understand fully and difficult to practise.

How do we model this in our churches?

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Extreme Do-Gooding

I have been reading Larissa MacFarquhar’s Strangers Drowning, sub-titled Voyages to the Brink of Moral Extremity. It is a fascinating exploration of what might be called ‘extreme do-going’. It offers the stories a number of people who go to extraordinary lengths to help others. There are a couple who can’t stop adopting unwanted children, a Buddhist monk who spends all his time helping those, often suicidal, at the extremes of life, those who just try to make as much money as possible so that they can maximise what they give away.  And so on.

I suppose it is like the parable that Jesus told about a Samaritan. We tend to refer to that story as that of the ‘good’ Samaritan – though Jesus himself did not use that adjective. Here are some stories of some ‘very good’ Samaritans.

Is this the way to go? Is this a book telling us that most of us are not doing nearly enough? Though I was left gasping with admiration at what a few folk manage to do, I was not convinced that we either can, or should, try and roll out such a programme. It is difficult to criticise those who do these things, and it is true that we often don’t do as much as we should. I am sure that God often wants to challenge us to do more – but I am not sure that we need to go to the extremes. The problem is that we are often walking by on the other side – and that is not the role of the church.