Tuesday, May 24, 2005

cafe church debrief

We had our second cafe style church on Sunday. We tackled the tough issue of why a God of love allows so much suffering.

A good number came - possibly a bit down on the first one.

This time was more liquid in structure - if that's not an oxymoron. We gathered together in the worship area - laid out as a cafe - for introductions and preliminary inputs. Then we dispersed to a labyrinth that offered resources for creating a theology of suffering based on the themes of creation, fall, hope and faith. There was also a 'gazebo of life' where people could pray in a variety of ways - using art materials.

Then we reconvened for some more input and feedback. We had a lot of good comments and impossible to answer questions texted to us through the evening - so there was plenty of interaction.

Again the major comment on the evening was that it was too short - it ran for an hour and 40 minutes. Lots of people appreciated the labyrinth and especially the chance to think for themselves. Some left wondering if we'd given them enough of an answer - but I think that's inevitable given the subject.

It took a lot of setting up - but I had a great team helping me - but was less stressful than the first one.

All in all, a good experience. Roll on the next one....

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

prayerless days

There used to be a cheesy poster displayed outside our churches saying 'seven prayerless days makes one weak.' Ffortunately we don't do that kind of thing anymore.

Sadly, like a lot of cheesy things, it contains an essential truth that we might have lost when we threw the posters away: we need to pray. If God's people want to see God working, we need to pray. If we are in need, we need to pray. If we are rejoicing that everything in our lives is hunky dory, we need to pray.

Another cliche suggests 'prayer changes things'. Like lots of cliches, it's true.

When Tony Blair was re-elected, I wrote to him, saying 'well done' - a third consecutive labour term is historic. My concern for his third term is that he drives forward the agenda on making poverty history in his role as chair of the G8 and EU this year.

I also assured him that we would be praying for him. The Make Poverty History agenda is unachievable without prayer. There are too many deep-rooted structural powers that will not be shifted by human effort, argument and dialogue. They are spiritual and are shifted only through the exercise of spiritual power that is tapped and unleashed through prayer.

So as we march and write, campaign and inform, we also need to pray. If we want fewer children to die of stupid poverty (Bono's phrase), we need to pray. If we are to have the energy to sustain this campaign for this year and beyond, we need to pray.

The cliche has it that 'prayer is the powerhouse of the church'. And that's true too. Prayer releases God's power in our world that is vital for achieving anything.

So let's not have prayless days otherwise we will be too weak to change the world.

Blogging addiction

Mark Goodacre on ntgateway.com suggests he might be addicted to blogging. He has to blog everyday. I have the opposite addiction. I have to read his blog everyday - it's broad, informative, essential - and I get twichy when he doesn't post for a day or two!

Yesterday I was preparing for cafe church and watched Pay it Forward - a film starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt and the remarkable Haley Joel Osment (the boy in Sixth Sense). I had intended to watch a couple of scenes but got hooked. It's an absorbing tale of what would happen if people acted towards others with grace, doing favours for those who don't pay them back but do something for someone else (three people, in fact) as a result of someone doing them a favour - paying it forward.

It sounds a bit cheesy - but actually packs an enormous punch at the end (well, it had me in tears!). I guess I was stirred by the suggestion that an individual can do something that impacts the lives of hundreds of others. It struck me as a deeply Christian idea.

I'm not sure how it helps me prepare for Sunday but it's given me ideas for other events.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Opening the cafe again

Our next cafe church is looming. The tough issue this time is why does a God of love allow so much suffering. It's a big, intractable issue that we can't do justice to in an hour and half - but we'll have a go at provoking some questions, some thought and some empathy for and with those who suffer.

It's always struck me that suffering is a complex of problems not a single issue. It's to do with philosophy and morality, ethics and metaphysics, of course, but it's also about politics and how we organise ourselves as communities and nations. It's a good topic to follow on from Make Poverty History. How much of Africa's suffering is made by us and the way we organise things like trade and aid?

And then of course, suffering is an emotional and pastoral issue. It's a problem because it hurts. And it hurts so much it's hard to think straight.

So on Sunday evening we're going to try and tackle some of this using video clips - Apollo 13, Bruce Almighty, Schindler's List, I Giant Leap - drama, a bit of talking and music - especially the Vigilantes of Love's Resplendent.

On top of that we're going to have a gazebo of life in our welcome area - a place to pray about suffering (mine, my friend's and the world's) using words, paint, crayons, clay and whatever else comes to hand. And we're going to build a sort of theological labyrinth - a series of stations that will take us on a theological journey into the heart of what our faith says about suffering and how we think about this issue in the presence of God.

The aim as always is to make people think. On top of that, I feel that we also need to help people express themselves - their anger, pain, joy, frustration and faith. And we need to realise that however hard we think and pray, we'll not get an answer, just pointers to help us live better, more faithful lives in the mess this world is.

I'm excited and scared stiff in equal proportions...

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Lots of balls in the air

Vigilantes of Love Audible Sigh arrived a few days ago. What a blinder - song after wonderful song.

It's been the soundtrack to a busy time. Lots of balls to keep up - a men's Bible study, cafe church planning, developing the worship group, hosting a series on spirituality for everyday life, getting down to thinking about how I'll edit Talk (the magazine of the Mainstream network), planning an outreach on the estate we live on and visiting people interested in exploring the Christian faith.

It's the usual stuff of a minister's life.

Reflecting on it, it's possibly one reason why there's so little experimentation at the heart of churches. You'll recall that I've been thinking about how we can improve the quality of learning among our people - especially in the evening services. But services are one thing we ministers know how to do, so when there are lots of balls to keep airborne, we can do services on autopilot.

But this needs to be resisted. Services lead to many of the other things we do - conversations about discipleship, rites of passage and guidance. They also do something intangible - they set the tone, the 'feel' of the church; they create the atmosphere in which everything else happens and which determines whether or not people access all the other things the church has to offer.

So it matters that we keep thinking about our services, keep raising the quality, keep pushing the envelope of experimentation.

However, we also need to recognize that for increasing numbers of people, services are one part of the church's life they don't participate in at all. They might come to a mid-week gathering - parent and toddlers, youth work, an English class - but never on Sundays.

So, here's a load of other balls to juggle with. How do we help these people access all that the church is about and not just the single activity that they are drawn by. For example, the mum or couple who comes to a parent and toddler group might not think of coming to anything else, might not even realise that anything else happens in the church that might interest them. So, how do we open up to them the range of possibilities that the church offers for social and spiritual activities and growth?

The Vigilantes of Love earth all this talk, reminding me what really matters - the quality of our relationships and the need to depend on God (even when he seems a little out of focus).

Friday, May 06, 2005

It's not 1997, but...

Living now in a constituency where they weigh the Tory vote, there was little chance of me feeling this morning like I felt on that spring morning in 1997 when I left the count in Peckham with the sun rising on a fresh new dawn of hope and promise (Ah nostalgia...!)

But it is significant that Tony Blair has won a histoiric third term. The Labour Party is no longer the means by which the electorate punishes the Conservatives which it otherwise sees as the natural party of government. It now genuinely offers an alternative way of running the country; one that marries economic competence with social justice. And it has forced the Tories to rethink some of their attitudes - it's notable that they don't seem to be committed to abolishing the minimum wage, for example.

The significantly reduced majority might make Labour's third term very different from his first two, but I for one hope that we don't now have months of tiresome speculation about how long Blair serves before handing over to Gordon Brown.

My hope is that this result will be good for the world's poor. Although it figured very little in the campaign, Blair is the only UK and European leader committed to doing something about debt and trade - as is shown by his commission on Africa. My prayer is that he will be able to achieve some of the goals of the Make Poverty History campaign, starting at the Gleneagle's G8 meetings.

Perhaps like a US president in their second term, Blair, knowing that he never has to face re-election, might be emboldened to seek his place in history as the world leader who actually made a difference to the lives of the one and half billion living on less than a dollar a day. What better lagacy for a man committed to social justice could there be?

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

More great music

Some time ago I waxed lyrical about Bill Mallonee and the Vigilantes of Love. This morning I took delivery of Locketfull of Moonlight, a 2002 release by Mallonee. And it's quite wonderful.

There's a remarkable provisionality about Mallonee's music, the sense that next time he performs a song, it'll be different. In some bands this would be indication of under-rehearsal. With Mallonee, it's a result of the depth of what he writes; different performances bring out different aspects of a song's richness.

And there's richness aplenty here. In particular the song Overflow is a gem. Simply performed and taking its cue from a celtic blessing, the song celebrates the saving power of love and the vitality of grace and the desire that Mallonee's friends - possibly, friends about to marry (it would certainly make a fantastic wedding song) - will know both in their lives and relationships.

The song expresses that Mallonee provisionality again, this time in the sense that all our experiences here are to be lived and enjoyed to the full, but they are only a foretaste of what's to come

There is a British version of the album - mine came from the States - which has more tracks on it, but I've never seen it anywhere and at the current exchange rate, buying CDs in America has rarely been better value.

wherever you find it, find it - and I'm sure you'll love it.