Saturday, 24 June 2017

All We Have Is THIS Church

I have been reading "Searching for Sunday" by Rachel Held Evans. I have found it to be a great read - and it is my book for June in my series of reading a book a month during - and just beyond - 2017, so see my partner blog - http://easternsynodyob.blogspot.co.uk/ - for a bit more on that. It says a little about the books that I am reading this month.

However, there were a couple of perceptive comments about the church, towards the end of the book, that I felt just belonged here in this blog.

We are called to be part of the church. It is God's church - but it is us who are in the church, and that sometimes means we get to find ourselves in an awkward church, sometimes that we find ourselves in an exciting church. But this is the church we have. As Evans puts it: "All we have is this church - this lousy, screwed-up, glorious church - which, by God's grace, is enough." It might seem that 'lousy' and 'glorious' do not belong in the same sentence, but they absolutely do. It is entirely right that God's grace keeps us on track.

Evans also says: "We expect a trumpet and a triumphant entry, but as always, God surprises us by showing up in ordinary things: in bread, in wine, in water, in words, in sickness, in healing, in death, in a manger of hay, in a mother's womb, in an empty tomb. Church isn't some community you join or some place you arrive. Church is what happens when someone taps you on the shoulder and whispers in your ear, Pay attention, this is holy ground; God is here."

I like that. God is awesome - but God engages with us, as we are, where we are. The ordinary and the spectacular are all mixed up. God's presence makes a difference. How can we help but be excited to be part of God's church?!

Friday, 23 June 2017

Love and Peace

John, in his Gospel, is clear that love and peace are the hallmarks of those who follow Jesus. Are they seen in us when others look to see what we are like, who it is whom we represent? Jesus clearly promises his presence and the presence of the Spirit to those who keep his commandments to love and serve one another. This love isn’t a feeling. It’s a ‘doing’. It is love in action. It’s love that you can look and see. But let’s take Jesus at his word – if we love and serve each other, then he promises to be right here with us. As one commentator puts it: “the peace of God is the confidence that God is God and neither our gains nor our losses are ultimate.” The way in which we describe what it feels like to have this continuing presence of God is in the word ‘peace’.

God gives us peace, not any old peace, but God’s peace. It is the Hebrew word shalom. Shalom is about wholeness. It is about that all-embracing peace that sustains us. And that’s there for us, whenever we need it.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Hey Baldy!

My reflection that was part of the closing worship at Eastern Synod's Big Day Out in Trinity Park, Ipswich today.

A reading from 2 Kings 2, verses, 23 to 24  (NIV)
“23 From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” 24 He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.”

It’s been an interesting week, an interesting few weeks.  Terror at a pop concert in Manchester, repeated on a bridge and in restaurants in London.  An election that has left us in a very interesting place.  The idea of feasts and festivals is about celebrating.  And, despite all the struggles, I think we have got an awful lot to celebrate in the church.  And I want to celebrate it.  That’s why I think a day like today is great.  And that’s why I recognise that we have a God who is great.  Our God is awesome.

But somehow it seems that, at this particular point, we also need to say something about the context in which we currently find ourselves.  And that is why I have chosen to read a brief passage, just a couple of verses, that I think I can guarantee that none of you were expecting.  

Elisha is annoyed.  Elisha is the prophet and he has been doing a bit of good.  We didn’t read about it, but if we had read the few verses just before the ones we did read, we would have about the problems with the water supply and how Elisha became God’s instrument for sorting that one out.  And what’s his reward?  He is called names, and not just by anybody, by small boys.  Hey baldy!  Well, Elisha is not only good at blessings.  He can do cursings as well.  And so a couple of bears are invoked and 42 of these lads meet a horrible end.  As Brueggemann says: “The incident put Israel on notice.  This Elisha is dangerous and is not to be trifled with, not by small boys, not by kings, not by anybody.”

Now, to be honest, I am not really sure what you do with this kind of passage.  The name-calling shouldn’t have happened, but the response seems extreme beyond words. 

I chose the passage because I want to say, in a similar way, that I am not really sure what you do with some of the stuff that has been going on of late.  And I am talking more about terrorism than elections.  But there is a lot of stuff there in the mix.  I learned this last week that one of the victims of the Manchester attack, Chloe Rutherford, was part of our United Reformed Church at South Shields.  What can we say to such a situation?  Nothing really.  But we find ourselves in a time of lament, not feasts and festivals.  Except that the two are mixed up together, as is demonstrated by the second Manchester concert, the one in memory, poignantly the day after the London stuff.

I don’t know why, any more than you do.  It is certainly nothing to do with Islam as it is properly followed.  And I don’t know what to say.  But I do know that we remain people of hope.  We remain those who follow a risen Lord.  And we must play our full part in sharing God’s love with those whom we encounter, with discovering how to live out that abundant life that God offers, with recognising the pain, and the hurt, and the struggle, but also seeing the possibilities and the opportunities and responding to the challenges.  And so, as we go into a world that has more armed police on our streets than normal, that is trying to sort out a changed and uncertain political landscape, that is going to bring Brexit, whatever that may mean, let us go with the joy of our feasting and our "festivalling".  

Nehemiah is another who had quite a tough time, but he reminds us, Nehemiah 8:10 – for the joy of the Lord is your strength.  Now there’s a good mission statement: the joy of the Lord is your strength.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Treasuring

Treasuring Rather Than Needing -

I recently read Menna van Praag’s novel The Lost Art of Letter Writing in which she tells the story of Clara who, counter-culturally for today, runs a shop in Cambridge where you can go to write a letter. The shop is stocked with lovely paper and amazing pens and it provides the opportunity to express those things that really matter, and to take the time to do so.

In a world of texts and emails, the novel offers a challenge to where we have reached. For me it is a book about people finding themselves, and we all need the opportunity to do that.

I was struck by a passage in which Clara’s house is contrast with that of her mother. It is an interesting passage because it talks about treasuring as against needing. That is fascinating, because we often talk about needing as against wanting, making the point that what you need, not what you want, is the important thing. That thinking is here moved into a different place as what you need is displaced by what you treasure.

“It’s not about needing, Clara wants to say, it’s about treasuring. But she knows there’s no point. Her mother is so unlike her in this respect (and most others) that they simply aren’t able to understand each other. Sophia’s house is all cream and chrome, plain carpets, unadorned walls, sleek modern appliances, without a sign of past or personality, and everything looking – at least on Clara’s rare visits – as if airbrushed for an imminent magazine shoot. By contrast, Clara’s house (inherited from her grandfather) is a homage to chaos, clutter, colour and old-fashioned living. No two rooms are alike, though they share common themes – vintage clocks, weathered Persian rugs, velvet cushions, potted purple orchids, stacks of books, framed letters written by famous people – and all are unified by the fact that everything appears to be dated c.1900 and it seems that nothing once arrived in the house had ever left again.”

What are the things that you treasure?

Friday, 26 May 2017

Trinity

I have been reading Eamon Duffy's collection of sermons, Walking to Emmaus, and was struck by some of what he said in a sermon about the Trinity. Like many other preachers, I have often (though not always) tried to avoid it as a theme, but I have sometimes been struck by the wonderful modelling of community that the Trinity provides. Duffy comments interestingly and helpfully on this.

“The doctrine of the Trinity tells us that God is not some immense cosmic individual, a lonely power before whom we must bow down and adore. The innermost being and reality of God which we are called to share is not isolation, but relationship: God is love.  

And that means that we ourselves are not individuals first and foremost, and only then, and secondarily, members of a community. Mrs Thatcher, notoriously, once said that there was no such thing as society. The Christian proclamation of the Trinity insists that there is nothing else except society.  We become people only in relation to others.”

Community matters - and we do need each other. Duffy also reflects that point.

“We must learn to live alongside each other not by avoiding speaking of our loves, but by listening to each other’s loves. We don’t need less faith in the city, we need more of it: more faith, more hope, more love, more idealism, more forgiveness, more concern for each other, more eagerness to welcome and care for the fragile and the unlovely, more attention to whatsoever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report.”

How can we model better community?

Friday, 7 April 2017

What Sort of Journey?

It has often been the case that Christians have been called people of the way. The idea of our discipleship as a journey is one that occurs frequently. We are a travelling people. The great commission is to 'go'.

One of the other things, to which we often refer, is the call to take up our cross, and so follow in the way of Jesus. It is an important one - and we must not allow familiarity to diminish the impact of the call. As Jeremy Duff points out in Peter's Preaching - "People who walked carrying a cross were on their way to die, for those who were both of low status (a Roman citizen could not be crucified) and convicted of the worst crimes (in Roman eyes, rebellion and treason) were condemned to die in this most horrific of fashions. It was more than just death; it was public humiliation and shame, displaying the victim's powerlessness to all, as they were forced to cooperate in their own execution by walking through the streets, carrying the cross beam on which they would die."

What a challenging picture! What a journey! What a way!

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Disciple

Just started reading Jeremy Duff's book Peter's Preaching, an exploration of the message of Mark's Gospel. Duff suggest that Mark is trying to pass on Peter's message and is not interested in writing a chronologically ordered diary. He takes various themes, starting with the theme of being a disciple.

Duff suggests that Jesus gives the 'Twelve', the core group of disciples, three roles - "to be with him, to proclaim the message and to have authority over demons."

Duff recognises that we might prefer something more 'mainstream' than having authority over demons. However he suggests that "It is perhaps appropriate and helpful to see 'authority over demons' as equivalent to 'authority to release people from whatever binds them.'"

I certainly find that helpful. As we read the pages of the Gospels, we indeed see "Jesus bringing this release to people". What a great mission in which to share!

Friday, 31 March 2017

Ruth and Commitment and Loyalty

Ruth’s loyalty and commitment offers a good model for our thinking about what it means to be part of the church.  Ruth was ready to give up everything she knew in order to maintain her commitment to Naomi.  We can’t know how different it was between living in Moab and living in Israel, but, for sure, she left behind her friends and family.  She left behind the places she knew, the customs she knew, even the worship she knew.  Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live; your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.  Easy to say, not so easy to do.  But Ruth was determined.  Verse 18 – when Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she said nothing more.  Ruth wasn’t worried about the differences.  Her concern was to respond to the call.  What we need to be about as church is not doing what we want, but doing what God is calling us to do.

That can take us to some unexpected, and perhaps quite challenging, places.  I ministered in Islington through most of the eighties and one of the interesting challenges that took quite a bit of time over a number of months was a variety of refugee crises, particularly a large influx of Kurdish refugees to Hackney and Islington at one point.  It is interesting that some of the problems, and some of the crises, just keep on coming.  I always remember the Sunday afternoon when I got a phone call asking if we could temporarily put up a group of Kurdish men in the church.  Thank goodness that health and safety hadn’t got going quite as it has now in those days.  Thank God for a congregation that lived with the wild and wonderful decisions of their minister.  Because as the faithful arrived  for Sunday evening worship, so did about thirty Kurdish men, some of whom were going to end up using our church premises as home for up to three months.  Over the weeks that followed, I, and others, befriended these men and helped with the provision of food and clothes, despite the lack of a common language.  

I remember one particular Sunday some weeks later.  I had messed up big time in my preparation for Sunday morning worship.  I had only realised about fifteen minutes before the service that it was scheduled as all-age worship and so jettisoned my carefully prepared sermon and was very much making it up as I went along.  Shortly after the service began, one of my Kurdish friends, Halil, decided to come into the service.  He entered the sanctuary and looked around to see where to sit.  Well, it is always good to sit beside someone you know – and the person he knew best was me so, despite the fact that everyone else was, more or less facing one way – we were probably in something of a semi circle, rather than straight rows – and I was doing the opposite, sitting pretty well facing everybody else, he came and sat beside me and, despite the language barrier, proceeded to interrupt the time I was trying to use to think about what I was going to do next, by asking me various things about the service, mainly how to pronounce words that he didn’t understand but saw in the hymn book.  But, despite all this going on, so far as the congregation was concerned, nobody gave any indication that it was anything other than perfectly normal for someone to come in and sit down beside the worship leader – and, fortunately, they didn’t know just how much I wished I was not having those distractions on that particular Sunday.

Being the church today is not easy.  We live in a society that is overwhelmingly secular and the demands of our consumer culture are written large.  It is often a case of being a stranger in a strange land, and that is not easy.  Indeed it can be scary – but it can also be a great adventure.  It’s challenging, but it’s possible.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Against the Flow

I have been enjoying reading John Lennox’s commentary on Daniel, Against the Flow. Lennox uses Daniel as a great model for the Christian imperative to do things differently. Daniel refuses to conform and demonstrates how we should challenge the conventional worldly way of doing things. “The story of Daniel and his friends is a clarion call to our generation to be courageous; not to lose our nerve and allow the expression of our faith to be diluted and squeezed out of the public space and thus rendered spineless and ineffective.”

Lennox illustrates how difficult this can be, but uses Daniel to show how working with and for the secular powers can be achieved without compromise. That is what we need to be about.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Revelation Road

I recently read Nick Page's Revelation Road, a fascinating look at the book of Revelation largely drawn from experiences of being in the area where it all happened, not least the isle of Patmos.

I was struck by the encouraging challenges which he picks out in his exploration of this unusual text. It certainly offers us food for thought and enables us to see the need to do things differently. The Christian way is not the way of the world. We need to work at the transformation that society needs.

As Page comments: "Because the message of Christianity - real Christianity, the wild faith which has always thrived at the margins - is that you can change things. The way life is now is not the way it has to be. Revelation calls us to buck the system, rock the boat, upset the apple-cart. It calls us to identify the beastly powers, to witness against them, to refuse to bow down to them and, most of all, to believe that things can change."

With God's help and inspiration, let's work for the changes that we really need to see!

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Telling the Gospel

Are you one who boldly proclaims God’s good news or do you keep your faith hidden so that most folk don’t know that you are a Christian? The apostle Paul is not ashamed of the gospel – see Romans 1:16-17. He knows that it is a story that needs to be told.
In many parts of the church we tend to say and think that evangelism is not our thing. But how can it not be our thing? We are called to be God’s people and that means letting the gospel leak out of us so that it contaminates those around us. That means finding ways of being a church that is relevant to the context in which it is set. Things change. They need to. We need to find ways of communicating the gospel in a changing context – and that is most likely to happen when we remember ouir reliance on God. In all of things, let us remember, with Paul the apostle, that it is our faith which sustains us.  The righteousness of faith is revealed through faith for faith.  

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Looking to God's Grace

Daniel Jenkins' The Gift of Ministry, though published in 1947, reminds us of the opportunities and challenges of being a minister and many of the things that Jenkins cites remain relevant seventy years later. Certainly, those of us who think that the church is never going to struggle or face problems are likely to be disappointed. That is not how it is. God has never promised to eradicate all the difficult stuff - but what God has promised is to be with us, and the great thing of being one of God's ministers is the offer of relying on God's grace.

As Jenkins puts it (p. 135): "... especially in days like these, the grace of God may work more by enabling ministers and churches faithfully and patiently to endure than by adding multitudes to the numbers of those that are saved.  What we must deliver ourselves from is the notion expressed by many enthusiastic spirits in these days, that the Gospel is not triumphantly spread abroad simply because we fail to 'sell' it effectively enough and that all that we need to be is more energetic, dynamic, up to date and super-efficient.  The task is a difficult one and we are almost certain to be performing it badly if we go forward under the illusion that it is likely to be easy."

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Leaving Church

The fact is that, for the most part, more people are leaving the mainline Christian denominations in the UK than are joining. Our membership is in decline. It goes without saying that we should encourage people to join us – but should we be helping those who want (perhaps even, dare I say it, need) to leave to do so.

I have recently read Church Leavers by Alan Jamieson, Jenny McIntosh and Adrienne Thompson. It’s a sequel to Jamieson’s A Churchless Faith, in which he explored why people leave the church and where it leaves them. This slim collaborative volume is sub-titled Faith journeys five years on – and it follows up on the faith journeys of those whom Jamieson had interviewed as part of his original research – at least, as many of them as could be located.

Jamieson (and his research) are based in New Zealand and the theological perspective is exclusively evangelical – but I believe that the thinking has a much broader application.

For the most part, it is clear that leaving church does not mean leaving faith – and the thinking raised some interesting and relevant questions for me. For example, why do we not engage more helpfully with those who are drifting away from church? Is it sensible to let someone go with our ‘blessing’ as being part of the faith is surely more important than being part of a particular church – and a good going may help a later reconnection in some cases? What are we (should we be) doing to help church to ‘work’ for those for whom it is not ‘working’?

As the ‘Postscript’ to the book says: “Perhaps we can dream that a growing number of churches will become less concerned about who is in and who is out and more affirming of mature seekers who are ‘working out their own salvation’.”

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Sharing the Gospel

One of the things that seems to concern folk in the mainline Christian denominations in the UK these days is the fact of the church's shrinking. There are notable exceptions, but broadly that is what is happening, and it ought to concern us. However, it is always worth reminding ourselves of our primary task. As somebody said to me recently, what we are called to do is 'not to grow the church, but to share the gospel'. Putting it another way, we are not called to be successful, but we are called to be faithful. Of course, it is encouraging when churches grow, and we should rejoice when we see that happening. However, when things are going in other directions, there is no need to despair. Our role is to tell the story - and doing that is what matters.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Waiting

It often seems that we live in a world of rushing around. We bounce from one thing to the next and it seems wrong to not keep busy. There always needs to be something going on. Of course that way of doing things misses out on the space that we all sometimes need. We do need to pause. We need to find the opportunity for those times of reflection. I have been reminded of that as I have been reading W H Vanstone’s The Stature of Waiting. The clue, of course, is in the title. The book values those moments of slowing down and allowing time and space for reflection. So often that is when God manages to speak to us.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Gospel Is About Being Rescued

Jesus’ ministry is fundamentally a healing ministry. His preaching and teaching are healing acts. Jesus’ aim is to make a difference, to make God’s difference, in the world. This was, and is, good news.

This was surely a large part of why people flocked to hear him in big numbers. As word got around, the people came. Matthew 4, verse 24 – the news about him spread through the whole country of Syria.

It goes on to say – people brought to him all those who were sick, suffering from all kinds of diseases and disorders: people with demons, and epileptics, and paralytics – and Jesus healed them all.

There is no doubt that there were a lot of people who needed healing in Jesus’ day – and it is not really surprising for that to be the bit that hit the headlines. His ministry is there to present God’s love, and God’s love looks to bring about wholeness. Another word for that is healing.

We live in a world that is broken in so many ways. We encounter people who are hurting in so many different ways. Some of the needs and diseases today may be different from how it was in Jesus’ time but the basic need – and desire – for healing is exactly the same.

The good news, today as then, is that it can happen. God’s healing love is available to us. It may not always work the way we want or expect – but God is there for us and with us. That’s the promise. The Gospel is about being rescued. It always was. It is. It always will be. That’s what Jesus starts proclaiming. That’s the ministry – and that is what the first disciples, and all disciples since (including us), are called to share with the world around us.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

'Ought'

What ought we to be doing?  How ought we to be living?  What ought we to be saying?  What kind of church ought we to be?

The word ‘ought’ is an interesting one.  I ought to do this.  I ought to have done that.  It carries the suggestion of how things should be, or should have been, and also includes the suggestion that they were not quite there.  This is how it should have been, but it wasn’t quite right.  I ought to have done so-and-so – and the implication is that I didn’t. 

So John says to Jesus, on that occasion when Jesus came requesting baptism, as recorded in Matthew 3:14 – I ought to be baptised by you.  John is effectively saying that things are the wrong way round.  They should be different.  He should have gone to Jesus for baptism, but actually what has happened is that Jesus has come to him – and so he responds to the request – I ought to be baptised by you.

I guess that, most times, it is best that we get on with doing the things that we identifies as things that we ought to do – and so, instead of saying ‘I ought’, we can say ‘I have’. 

However, sometimes that is not how it is going to be, and sometimes it is best to leave things as they are.  And so, on this particular occasion, Jesus says to John: Let it be so for now.  Jesus wants to model what God can do.  His whole ministry is designed to demonstrate that.  Jesus is concerned to point the people in the right direction.  It offers a message of hope, as it stresses the possibilities that can be realised with God.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

The Gift of Ministry

I am currently reading Daniel Jenkins’ The Gift of Ministry which offers some very interesting and perceptive comments about what ministry is and how it serves the church. Some of the language is not entirely appropriate as its reflects its time, rather than today’s perspectives, but, considering it was written around seventy years ago, being published in 1947, it has some remarkably relevant things to say.

Jenkins’ fundamental thought is that ministry is not ours, nor is it the church’s, but it is the ministry of Jesus. That is what we are called to offer. “The ministry is not an institution in its own right: it is the ministry of the Word of God in Jesus Christ” (p. 17). Jenkins builds on that as he emphasises the servant nature of Jesus’ ministry. “The whole office of the ministry is to be understood as the expression in the Church of this fundamental paradox – that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the King of all the earth, comes and establishes his kingly rule among men (sic) in the form, not of a king, but of a servant” (p. 20), adding that “the minister must accept the fact that he is indeed a minister and not a lord, and be content with the form of a servant“ (p. 23).

Ministry is a gift that is given by God. That thought is important and provides the book with its title. However, ministry is demonstrated as valid by following the model that Jesus provides and is a critical part of church life as it holds the role of keeping the church on track and being held to account.

Through the servant leadership of its ministers the church is able to engage in the mission to which it is called by God. So, we offer God’s love to the world. “The disciples of Jesus are to be servants and bondsmen to one another and servants and bondsmen of mankind (sic). Thus the community wanted by Christ exists out of plain love. The office in it is nothing but the working of this love” (p. 24).

So what kind of ministry do we see in our church(es)? Are we all about doing things correctly and being built up ourselves – or are we simply concerned to offer God’s love?

”What is required of us if we are to minister his healing touch is not therefore a correct spiritual pedigree, although in its place that may have its own value and importance, but that we should obey his will for his people and strive always to continue steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship and in prayer” (p. 54).

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Resolutions

New Year is a great time for making resolutions. The question is usually as to how long we manage to keep them.

Whether you have made or are making any new year's resolutions this year, or not, it is well worth pausing to consider your sense of direction. What are your hopes, your dreams, as you go into 2017? Equally, what are your fears, your worries? We live in a fast-changing world, in an age when communication is instant. What are we saying and doing? What profile does our church have?

At a mundane level, what will people discover if they google your church? (Will they find out what's happening next Sunday - or will your website tell them what was going to happen last month (or worse!?))