Monday, April 30, 2007
So, a few links to be getting on with:
There are some blogging awards on the go at the moment - I have no idea whether these are the blogging Oscars or something completely worthless, but the list of nominated religious blogs is here: http://www.bloggerschoiceawards.com/categories/14
If nothing else, it answers the question about what all those Catholics who no longer go to Mass are doing with their spare time, as virtually every blog in the top 30 seems to be RC. MadPriest, one of the blogs linked here, is in the top 20 at time of writing.
http://learningmastery.wordpress.com/2007/04/11/presentations-that-dont-suck/ is a good place to visit for some online conversation about use of Powerpoint and presentations during sermons. As a church which is starting to get into this, and having spent most of the last fortnight lugging my laptop around Yeovil, it's quite helpful.
http://starttheweek.typepad.com/stw/ is a mission blog I visit regularly, and usefully it's updated at the same time every week. 2 really interesting things on it this week - at the top is a big plug for 'Back to Church Sunday', happening this autumn, then part way down some comments on some recent research by TEAR Fund which (the headlines reported) showed that 3m people might come to church if they were asked nicely.
The comments in question remind us that this means that about 45m people therefore wouldn't come to church if they were asked nicely (and also would need to be asked by a good friend or family member), which raises a lot of questions about whether 'Back to Church' is the right message or not. Someone else wondering aloud about that is Alan Hirsch, a pioneer thinker in the emerging church movement.
Finally, Venn that Tune, a series on someones blog, for those of you who like music and mathematical diagrams. Can't remember if I've linked this before, but he's put some new stuff up since then anyway.....
Thursday, April 26, 2007
Completely unrelated, a friend posted me this the other day:
I mentioned the PhD that a friend is doing around the whole issue of 'church and empire'; the purpose (if I understand it, which I'm not sure I do) is to identify how the 'spirit of empire' (power, control etc) has infected 'the church' over many centuries. Hopefully the outcome of this study will be to give some practical guidelines for how the church today can embody Jesus in a healthy way and model something counter cultural in the post Christendom society. When I floated the question of how we (church) could be free from this sort of un-Christlike 'empire spirit', you immediately (instinctively?) responded ".by going into exile".
It sounded good at the time, but I'm not exactly sure what I meant! I guess it is that until the church gives up power - owning property, having status, having parishes and seats in the Lords and a stake in the system - until we are thrown completely into dependence upon God and out of our comfort zones, we will always have power to exercise, so we will always think in empire-building ways.
Not for nothing did Jesus go on at great length about servanthood - the disciples could see fame, celebrity and influence coming over the horizon, and every one of them wanted to be first in the queue. "you should be pushing each other out of the way for the place at the back of the queue" Jesus told them (though obviously not in those words, as he was speaking Aramaic at the time). If the experience of holding and wielding power has corrupted the church, then the experience of being powerless is what we need in order for that corruption to be purged from our system.
Unfortunately, because the church is still also infected with post-enlightenment culture, there are many of us who still think that intellectual knowledge is the key to everything. Teach people the right truths, and their souls will follow. So all we need to free ourselves from an empire mentality is to get the right truths into our head. There is some truth to that, but not all of the truth. Jesus didn't just teach the disciples verbally, he put them through training experiences - go and preach, arrange a meal, heal people, hand out this bread etc., and then reflected with them on the experiences they had been through. They were apprentices as much as students.
Monday, April 23, 2007
The training will cost me £60, plus the rail fare to London. If I get 12 comments telling me I need the training, then to London I will go.... your call, dear reader.
Sunday, April 22, 2007
A few years ago, Spring Harvest joined up with another Christian festival, the Keswick Convention, to do a 'Word Alive' week as part of their Easter programme. It was directed more at students, and had greater input from folk you would normally find speaking at the Keswick event. In the last couple of weeks, Spring Harvest and Word Alive have parted company, over whether a particular speaker, Steve Chalke, should be allowed to speak.
Why is Rev Chalke such a bone of contention? Last year he published a book 'the lost message of Jesus', in which he spoke, in passing, of what happened on the Cross. Chalke takes issue with a certain understanding of the Cross, usually labelled 'penal substitution', and very bluntly calls is 'cosmic child abuse'. Why? The model in question understands that because of our sin, God, who is holy, must punish us. Jesus' death on the cross is deliberate, he is sent by God to bear the punishment we deserve, so that justice is satisfied (someone pays the penalty) but mercy triumphs (because Jesus pays the penalty for us). Hence penal (penalty) substitution (Jesus dies in our place).
There are parts of Scripture which point towards this - Isaiah 53 speaks of the punishment which all of us deserved falling on Jesus. However the good news of Jesus is far more multi-layered than this. In fact, the 'gospel' which was declared by the early church was more to do with the resurrection of Jesus as God's installation of Jesus as king of creation, and the need to declare whether you would follow God's king or keep going your own way. The problem with penal substitution is not whether it's biblical - I think it's there in scripture - but whether it is the whole story. Most heresies happen when someone picks up part of the truth and assumes it's the whole truth. There are plenty of other images which the Bible uses about the Cross, and of course if it weren't for the Resurrection, the Cross would just be another miserable death of a good man in a bad world.
I must admit that I'm far more of a pragmatist than a theorist. That means that if things work, they will appeal to me, and I have to remember to engage the part of my head that asks 'but is it true?' As the church wrestles with many practical questions about mission, it's important not just to ask 'does it work' but 'is it true', because Satan himself presented Jesus with several practical and workable courses of action during the tempatations. It's just that none of them had integrity, or were consistent with God, his word and his character.
Most of what we call 'theology' is reflection on experience. Christian thinking normally finds itself catching up with what God is doing. We focused on the Holy Spirit in church this morning - it took the early church 300 years to work out what it thought the Holy Spirit was, 300 years during which the Spirit carried on filling people, giving them spiritual gifts, filling them with power for mission, and building up the church. Our understanding normally follows God's activity.
Sorry, no neat conclusion to this blog entry, maybe I should just be praying for unity among my Christian brothers and sisters.
Saturday, April 21, 2007
One comment from Spring Harvest which has really stuck with me is from Philippians, where the speaker Ian Coffey focused on Pauls statement about forgetting what is behind him and focusing on what is ahead. People, and organisations, can be drawn into focusing so much on past glories that the world passes them by. The secret of success in the present is to forget the successes of the past - in a world of rapid change, we're tempted to think that all we need to do is what we did before, and magically it will succeed. That's like aiming an arrow at where the target was last year, regardless of whether it's been moved or not. If we don't do this, then what was a movement can become a monument and end up as a mausoleum. Part of the secret of staying fresh is godly forgetfulness.
Having said that, we don't want to get so focused on 'results' that people who had a fruitful ministry in the past are forced out of leadership just because things are going through a slow patch. God's rhythms are different from those of the cricket season. At the same time, church leaders need to be able to let go if they are past their seasons of fruitfulness in a particular community. That's really hard for those of us in leadership who make our homes and lives in a certain place, because it's not just about giving up a ministry, you have to give up everything. When I move from this church, I'll have to move from my house too. How can we support leaders better in making these kind of choices, so that the church can continue to thrive without leaders and their families being sacrificed?
Also, not everything from the past gets rejected. Paul also gave us the concept of 'tradition' - handing on to people the teaching he himself recieved, and the need to preserve and take good care of what we've been entrusted with. So it's quite a challenge to sift out the things we need to remember from the things we need to forget. And we can go off the rails in both directions - churches which remember everything and forget nothing, and churches which remember nothing and wear their people out with a constant stream of innovation.
Maybe one of the skills we need is the ability to move on from the past without devaluing it. The media have been all over Vaughan and Fletcher, which is unfortunate, because they've both done great things in their time, and Vaughan may still do again. Can the church be a place where we honour the past without becoming captive to it? Can a spirit of generosity from those who remember past glories go hand in hand with a spirit of gratitude from those who are setting a new direction?
All of which leads neatly to the Westfield Youth Cafe, 'Cafe Izaya', which we did the official opening for this morning. Great to see a church which relates most directly to the elderly giving hospitality to this innovative (and award-winning - a national award for 'Team of the Year' from the Millennium Volunteer Awards) youth ministry. Young and old working together, and as we looked round the place today it felt like the teething troubles were worth it.
Finally, back to cricket. Yorkshire won. All is well.
Thursday, April 19, 2007
Spirit of Life is a festival happening on May 7th (May Day) at Coventry Cathedral. Okay its quite a distance from Yeovil, but I'm hoping it'll be worth the journey.
What is it? A Mind, Body and Spirit -style festival, but with a Christian rather than New Age core, so that spiritual seekers get the chance to explore following Jesus but without it coming in the normal 'church on a Sunday' packaging. Here's some examples of what's on offer:
Angels, Halos, Animal Blessing, Healing through touch, Icon making, 'Soul art', Storytelling, Mystery of Creation, Sacred Prayer beads, Holistic therapy, Dream interpretation, and so on - 60 workshops, seminars, zones or activities in the amazing setting of Coventry cathedral.
It would be normal for the average Christian to look at the seminar list and go 'what has any of this got to do with Jesus? Sounds like a load of New Age mumbo jumbo to me?', but maybe that's the whole idea. Jesus, Paul and the other early missionaries were great at taking great spiritual truths and putting them into everyday language.
Trouble is we're so used to certain bits of language being used that we've confused the words themselves with the message we're trying to convey. Take 'gospel' for example. The word meant 'royal proclamation' in its 1st century context, so if you said 'I'm bringing you the gospel about Jesus' you're immediately raising the temperature, because any royal proclamation which wasn't about Caesar was an act of treason. Nowadays we've lost the context, but still use the word 'gospel' as though it's a magic word with special power.
The research from TEAR Fund released a couple of weeks ago (which found that 75% of former churchgoers and 95% of 'never been' churchgoers wouldn't go to church even if their best friend asked them nicely) shows that many people percieve 'church' in a negative way. We don't want to scrap the church, and many folk who join one are pleasantly surprised. But another tactic is to try to say the same thing in a different way. Coventry Cathedral are trying to do this for spiritual seekers - for the 50% or so of the population who believe in God, think there might be something in this angels business, have had a supernatural experience and occasionally pray.
So, if you live in the Yeovil area and fancy a May Day bank holiday day out with a difference, let me know, there's spaces in the car......
A new harvest? - Fresh expressions of church in rural areas (20 minutes)
The Lord is here - Fresh expressions of church in the sacremental tradition (20 minutes)
Generate - Fresh expressions of church for young people (20 minutes)
2. Listening to your community (6 minutes)
3. Starting a fresh expression (6 minutes)
4. Sustaining fresh expressions (6 minutes)
5. Discipleship (6 minutes)
6. The allotment - a short story ( 6 minutes)
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
1. What's the plot? (skip to 2 if you already know the plot)
Sam Tyler, a police officer in 2006, has a car crash, ends up in a coma, and 'wakes up' in 1973, working in the same police station but otherwise everything is different. He asks 'am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Maybe if I can find out the reason, I can get home'.
Throughout the series Sam gets snippets from 2006 - he overhears conversations among the doctors round his bed, or gets messages through his TV set and radio. He also keeps bumping into people from his own past, including himself as a young boy.
In the final episode, Sam is first nearly persuaded that he does belong in 1973, but suffers from amnesia, and that the voices he hears are as a result of an accident he was in. He goes on an operation with his police unit, who are about to be gunned down by armed robbers when Sam suddenly wakes up in 2006. He gets back into his 2006 life, but finds it incredibly dull - police work is confined to meetings and paperwork, and he no longer feels 'alive' in the way he did in his coma world. So he jumps off a roof (stay with me here - this bit didn't make sense to me either), re-enters the 1973 story in time to save his police colleagues, and ends the series having decided to stay in the 1973 world, because he feels more alive there.
2. Strangers in a strange land
The Bible talks about Christians belonging to one place whilst living in another. Philippians and other books talk about us being citizens of heaven, and worship and Scripture are two things which keep us in touch with where we really belong. Sam is living in 1973 but knows he doesn't belong there, and is kept in touch with his true home by his own dreams and occasional 'voices'. these sustain his hope that one day he will wake up and escape.
At the same time, Sam brings his insights from 2006 into the police world of 1973 - recording interviews, organising things, gathering proper evidence rather than just beating suspects up etc. Most of this is strange to his colleagues, but they gradually come to realise that he has something to offer, and isn't just a weird guy.
How far is this a parallel with what followers of Jesus are supposed to be in a world where we don't belong? The Jews in exile in Babylon are encouraged to bless the people they are living amongst, whilst keeping alive a hope of return to where they belong. I doubt that this template was in the minds of the 'Life on Mars' writers, but it's a good way of helping us to think about where we truly belong, and what sustains hope and integrity in the midst of all that.
3. Staying connected to home
For Sam it is dreams, voices, and the media (TV, radio, newspapers) which send him messages about his true home. What keeps us connected to God, and helps us to remember that this isn't the real world compared to God's kingdom?
4. Hope and fantasy
Of course, all this parallel drawing falls apart because Sam opts for the dream world instead of the real one. He opts for the world in which he feels most alive. The series says something important about our society in 2007, and how hard it is to feel alive when we are surrounded by red tape, political correctness, legislation and litigation, and senses numbed by overconsumption. In the words of U2 'I feel numb.... too much is not enough'. Can Christians offer an alternative world where, in the words of Jesus, people can be fully alive. Not a fantasy world, but a way of living in the real world.
Thankfully we had the usual coffee break in the middle, during which we asked folk to come up with an Easter acronym for asda. The following was so good I even remembered it:
So, the competition starts here. Any more asda acronyms? How about Tesco? Or if you really fancy a challenge, Sainsburys?
Sunday, April 08, 2007
Friday, April 06, 2007
"Let me end with a parable, returning one more time to the story of the two on the road to Emmaus. To understand this parable, you need to know Matthew Arnold s poem “Dover Beach.” In it Arnold describes—from within his mid-nineteenth century perspective—the way in which what he calls “the sea of faith” has emptied. Once, it was
. . . at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d;
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating to the breath
Of the night-wind down the vase edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.3
Two serious-minded unbelievers are walking home together, trying to make sense of the world of the mid-1990s. The dream of progress and enlightenment has run out of steam. Critical postmodernity has blown the whistle on the world as we knew it.
Our two unbelievers walk along the road toward Dover Beach. They are discussing, animatedly, how these things can be. How can the stories by which so many have lived have let us down? How shall we replace our deeply ambiguous cultural symbols? What should we be doing in our world now that every dream of progress is stamped with the word “Babel”?
Into this conversation comes Jesus, incognito. (It is just as well that they do not recognize him, since modernism taught them to disbelieve in all religions, and now postmodernism has rehabilitated so many that Jesus is just one guru among dozens.) “What are you talking about?” he asks. They stand there, looking sad. Then one of them says, “You must be about the only person in town who doesn’t know what a traumatic time the twentieth century has been. Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx were quite right. We had a war to end wars, and we’ve had nothing but wars since. We had a sexual revolution, and now we have AIDS and more family-less people than ever before. We pursued wealth, but we had inexplicable recessions and ended up with half the world in crippling debt. We can do what we like, but we’ve all forgotten why we liked it. Our dreams have gone sour, and we don’t even know who ‘we’ are any more. And now even the church has let us down, corrupting its spiritual message with talk of cosmic and political liberation.”
“Foolish ones,” replies Jesus. “How slow of heart you are to believe all that the Creator God has said. Did you never hear that God created the world wisely? And that he has now acted within his world to create a truly human people? And that from within this people he came to live as a truly human person? And that in his own death he dealt with evil once and for all? And that he is even now at work, by his own Spirit, to create a new human family in which repentance and forgiveness of sins are the order of the day, and so to challenge and overturn the rule of war, sex, money, and power?” And then, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, and now also the apostles and prophets of the New Testament, Jesus interpreted to them in all of the scriptures the things concerning himself.
The three arrived together at Dover Beach. The sea of faith, having retreated with the outgoing tide of modernism, was full again as the incoming tide of postmodernism proved the truth of Chesterton’s dictum that when people stop believing in God, they do not believe in nothing, they believe in anything. On the shore there stood a vast, hungry crowd. They had cast their bread upon the retreating waters of modernism, and now they discover that the incoming tide of postmodernism is bringing them bricks and centipedes instead.
The two travelers began wearily to open a small picnic basket, totally inadequate for the task of feeding so many. Gently Jesus took it from them, and then in what seemed like moments he had gone to and fro on the beach until everyone had been fed. Then the eyes of them all were opened, and they realized who he was, and he vanished from their sight.
Then the two travelers said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us on the road, as he told us the story of the creator and his world, and his victory over evil?” And they rushed back to tell their friends of what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known in the breaking of the bread.
Actually, that is not a story. It is a play, a real-life drama. And the part of Jesus is to be played by you and me. This is Christian mission in a postmodern world. Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God"
Wednesday, April 04, 2007
Depression, and mental illness, is pretty epidemic at the moment. Oliver James Britain on the Couch is a pretty good description of what's going on, though once he starts explaining why he goes into lots of 'evolutionary biology' which sounds like a fancy scientific way of speculating about what the past was like. There's an online article on the same subject here.
There's plenty of mental distress in the Easter story. Peter breaks down and cries when he realises he doesn't have the guts to stand up for Jesus. Judas commits suicide. Jesus himself is 'troubled to the point of death', and you can sense the darkness hanging over him through the last supper, and into the Garden of Gethsemane. On the cross Jesus cries out to the Father who seems to have abandoned him (though there are various ways to interpret 'My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?' - any good Jew would have known this to be a quote from the start of Psalm 22, it would be like singing the first line of a song, you go on to sing the song through in your head. As they went through Psalm 22 in their heads they'd have got to some startling references to the crucifixion, written centuries before, and found the Psalm was giving them insights into what was really happening. Find the Psalm and read it if you don't believe me).
Then after Jesus death we get grief, numbness, bewilderment, people regressing to familiar activities, or wanting to be alone ('I'm going fishing'), they are devastated.
So the Christian faith, of all places, should be a place where we can allow grief, depression, devastation and blackness to be expressed. These are things we shouldn't be afraid of. And people who've been through them have things to teach the rest of us, and can draw alongside others in depression and grief in a way which others can't.
This time last year I was taking anti-depressants. Not because I'm a sad person - most people probably have me down as an optimist, pretty energetic, look on the positive side kind of person. But life throws enough crap at us that eventually we can't dodge it all.
A few weeks ago the vicars in my Diocese were summoned for a training day on child protection and issues around sexual abuse. It was pretty grim stuff, most of it, but I guess it's raised our awareness of some pretty difficult issues. I've yet to see a Diocesan training day on mental illness and how as Christians to deal with our own depression or to help others. Given that about 25% of us get hit with serious depression or other mental illness at various times, it's a bit of a gaping hole. The NHS isn't much better - presented with something like OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder, one of the more common forms of mental illness), many doctors would not spot the symptoms, or don't know what it is.
The disciples, on top of everything else, then have to cope with the resurrection of Jesus. I imagine that that might have been even more stressful than Jesus death! Maybe that's why Jesus hung around for another 40 days, to hold them together whilst they adjusted to the turning of the page of history. Yet despite all they'd been through, a few weeks later they'd be filled with the Holy Spirit and launched with power and grace into the market place to tell the world about the man who was raised from the dead.
Whatever we've been through, wherever we are, Jesus sticks with us and the Spirit can still fill us. Even if it feels like God has abandoned us, we complain in the language of prayer because we're not going to let Him get away that easily. There will be a time of waiting, Easter Saturday can last for a very long time, but then the stars will fade, the black night shade into dark blue, the tinges of red appear on the horizon, and we will feel the warmth of morning again.
In the words of R.E.M: 'when you think you've had enough of this life.... hang on.'
Tuesday, April 03, 2007
A report out today from TEAR Fund, which you can read here if you've got time to go through 50 pages (though the charts are a nice colour), looks at patterns of churchgoing, and in the research asked people what would be likely to make them go to church more often.
One finding was that a significant number of people - TEAR fund estimate up to 3 million, might be open to going to church more often. However, for most of these it would be because a close family member started going, or if they were asked by a friend. Cold calling from the church (or leafletting?), according to the survey, wouldn't have a big impact.
Reading the comments on the BBC website is quite eye-opening: if you sort them by 'most popular' the two overriding messages are a) stop being so rude about Christians b) rude things about Christians, or comments from atheists or people who wouldn't dream of going near a church to find God.
Mission researchers have been saying for years that trying to get people to 'come back to church' is on the way out. Certainly out of folk who've never been to church, or who used to come to church but no longer do, it is a small fraction who are open to 'going to church'. 83% of those who have once been church members but left said they are 'not at all likely' or 'not very likely' to become regular churchgoers. Of those who've never been church members, 72% are 'not at all likely' and 23% 'not very likely' - 95% in all. Scary.
Scary, that is, if mission is about getting people to come to church. But is it? In the words of Jesus 'go into all the world and make them come to church.' Spot the deliberate mistake. And lets face it some of our churches are not shining adverts for the gospel - another story in the news today of a child abusing priest, and most of us have sat in cold, uncomfortable buildings listening to dirgeful singing, dull preaching and left feeling less inspired than when we went in. Be honest: church, cinema, concert of your favourite music, Doctor Who. Rank them in order of how inspired, exhilarated, stimulated and more alive you feel as a result of them.
Ok, going to church is not all about inspiration and zappiness, but there ought to be some relationship between Jesus talking about 'life in all its fullness', the gifts of the Spirit (including joy & love), and a community which Jesus says will cause people to praise God when they see it in action, and the church as it actually is.
Lots more to say about this but for the moment:
1. In mission, we need to stop starting with the church. It is not about how we get more bums on pews. We should probably get rid of the pews anyway. We need to start with what Jesus started with: discipleship, the Kingdom of God, living God's way. We try to have a mission-shaped church but often end up with a church-shaped mission.
2. 'How do we get more people into church?' is the wrong question. Again, that's not Jesus way. How do we help more people find Jesus is a better question. For the majority of our population, the church in its present mode is not part of the solution.
Cartoon courtesy of Dave Walker at www.cartoonchurch.com