Wednesday, June 29, 2005

More thoughts on living up to our image

We went to see Coldplay at Crystal Palace on Monday evening. A group of us sat on the hill overlooking the stadium watching the gig on giant screens and through binoculars. It was great. Coldplay are a really good live band. They sang songs from each of the three albums and Chris Martin was chatty between songs. They are growing in stature.

Part of the conversation inevitably touched on church. A friend from Glasgow was describing his church in ways that made me really envious!

For one thing he talked about his 'community'. Indeed all the language he used suggested that the Christian group he's a part of is less an institution and more a family. That thrilled me. But even more wonderful was the fact that the group's main mission strategy is making friends and having parties. How good is that?!

As we speak, I'm working on a 'party strategy'(!) for our church to talk through at our leaders' awayday in July with a view to launching it in the autumn. Such a strategy could be the way to open up a dialogue about the Christian faith on the estate we live on. It's long term and has integrity. On top of that, it sounds a great deal of fun!

Spent a lot of time in the car yesterday, during which time I fell in love with the album by Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama called There will be a light. Gloriously life and faith affirming gospel blues - and it's only £4.99 in the HMV sale!!

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Living up to our image

Preparing for cafe church on issues of life and death - namely abortion and euthanasia - I have been struck afresh by the wonder of the thought that humans are made in the image of God.

We often think this has to do with some attribute - like personality, reason, emotions, language. And it maybe does include all those things and more.

But commentators seem to agree that the key to this is relationship. God, a trinity eternally existing in a love relationship in him/herself, creates beings also able to relate to each other and to him/her (I use both pronouns because the image of God consists in the man and the woman together (Gen 1:27).

There is much stress in our culture on autonomous individuals having the power of choice over their own lives and destinies. I wonder if this is at the root of the epidemic of loneliness and broken relationships. We are alone in our choices, isolated in a world where we have to stay on our toes just to survive. In space no one can hear you scream, said the tag line for Alien. The same is true in our neighbourhoods.

Genesis stresses that we are beings made for relationships, people intended to make choices out of those relationships, knowing the support of family, friends, colleagues; including them in the decisions we make about our lives so we benefit from their wisdom and experience; recognising that our decisions effect others for good or ill.

I think, too, that God's image lies in us taking responsibility for our calling. After all, God gave us the task of managing his world. And I wonder if it's also seen in us working for redemption. Again, following the Fall, God didn't give up on us. Instead he immediately set in motion a plan to redeem and restore his creation and the people he created to be at the centre of it. So to reflect something of God, we too will be people who do not give up on 'lost causes', but rather work for redemption, believing that in the power of God, guided by his agenda for the planet, we can make a contribution to ensuring that all people enjoy the fullness of life God wants for all.

I'm looking forward to cafe church on Sunday; I hope it proves to be life-affirming. I hope it also encourages all of us to live up to our image.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

more music

Busy week of conferencing and planning meetings. Away four out of five days, living out of a suitcase.

The conference was excellent but it's good to be home.

I've been listening to two new albums as I travel - driving is a good time to vet new music.

The first is Coldplay's new one X&Y. Yes, I know it's cool to be disparaging of Coldplay's output - too earnest, over-produced and grandiose. But - as George Michael once said - we should listen without prejudice. And what we hear are great tunes, lovely singing, faultless playing and bucket loads of emotion. Chris Martin can't help it if he believes that it's possible to work for a better world, that people could be nice to each other and that there's more to a pop song than boy meets girl.

I know he can be over-wrought and that he has a tendency to over-parade his insecurities. But he writes interesting songs - high praise in a terrain of bland and unchallenging music.

The other one is the debut by The Magic Numbers. This is bright, breezy, guitar pop with a decidedly hippy bent. The four-piece from Hanwell in West London have been hailed as a new Mamas and Papas - a reference surely lost on anyone under 40! It's not a bad comparison, though. Their harmonies are sensational, their tunes gossamer light, fragile explorations of love and life in a troubled world. It's great stuff.

Monday, June 13, 2005

diving deep

Just back from a church weekend away and about to leave for a ministers' conference. Ah, flaming June!

Over the weekend I was leading fifty people from a church in West London on an exploration of how we do church in McWorld (post-modern, post-Christendom, globalised, all-embracing conumer society, etc) by working through themes in Philippians. I've been reading Philippians through these spectales for a year or more and am finding myself diving ever deeper into the mind of the apostle and the heart of God.

This week I'm at the Baptist Union's Newly Acredited Ministers' Conference. I always enjoy this gathering. It's a chance to meet old mates and help ministers in the early stages of their of first pastorates reflect on what's happening in and through them.

I shall be continuing to read Philippians. Having led five sessions on this letter over the weekend, I am more and more aware of the fact that I have only scratched the surface of Paul's argument.

In my own study of this letter I have been particularly helped by Peter Oakes' monograph Philippians: From people to letter - a truly inspiring PhD thesis examining the social and economic context of the letter and Paul's theological response to it. There have also been a raft of helpful articles exploring the relationship between Philippians (and other Pauline letters) and the power structures of the Roman empire (particularly in JSNT but also in three collections edited by Richard Horsley).

What has struck me afresh over recent days is how Paul has based his whole argument on the life of Jesus. A pattern emerges where Paul talks about Jesus as the exemplary servant in chapter 2, shows how he has modelled his life on that of Jesus in chapter 3, and calls his readers to do the same. His use of the language of 'thinking' and 'serving', in particular, leads us to ask profound questions about what we are living for, who we are trusting and whether our Christian faith has any relevance for our lives outside church.

It is this last thought that I have been particularly wrestling with over the past few weeks. It seems to me that Paul sees no distinction between our lives 'in church' and our lives in 'the world'. Wherever we are, we are to live lives of humble of service, looking out for the interests of others, doing nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, considering others better than ourselves, not complaining, grumbling or arguing but shining the light of kindness, grace and care into our workplaces, homes and sports clubs, as much as into the church.

At the same time, he is certain that will only be possible of churches are places where we learn these values and live them as examples of what happens when Jesus truly takes hold of a group of human beings and they begin to embody the values of the coming Kingdom, God's agenda for the whole of creation.

This is exciting and scary in equal measure. Can you imagine what would happen to our communities if Christians actually lived this way? Paul says that we should have the same attitude as Jesus (2:5). How about it?

Friday, June 10, 2005

prodigals and post-Christendom

I'm listening to Moby's lovely Hotel album - possibly up there with his best work; some tracks are just bursting with life-affirming energy, I can't help grinning broadly as I type. There is a very revealing interview with the artist in the current issue of the excellent Relevant magazine -arguably the best Christian magazine on the market - in which Moby talks candidly about his faith in Jesus and his exasperation with the church and Christians.

He strikes me as typical of one type of so-called prodigal - those who grew up with some church connection and faith, but who have stopped attending. Some prodigals have walked out on their faith, viewing it as a phase of their life that they passed through, as well as church. Others - and I suspect the majority - have given up on the church but are still intrigued by Jesus and would like to know him better.

Thousands of people are leaving the church in Britain every week - Stuart Murray has the figures in his book Church After Christendom (which is well worth reading, by the way). But many of those are doing so, not because they've lost their faith in Jesus, but because they can't deal with church anymore.

Maybe this trend is part of the breakdown of Christendom; people are realising that the institution can be separated from the faith and they're choosing the latter but rejecting the former. Maybe it's part of trends in our culture away from high-commitment activities, away from joining organisations and towards greater autonomy in terms of consumer lifestyles...

Now there are problems here, of course. The New testament would find the idea of a solo Christian a totally alien concept. As someone has said, it takes a church to raise a Christian. But the question 'what is the church?' has never been more pressing than it is today.

Is church what happens in ecclesiastical buildings up and down the land Sunday after Sunday? or is it something else. Stuart Murray suggests we start using 'church' as a verb not a noun. Church is something we are and something we do, rather than something that is.

But the question is what will that look like? We're so used to talking about church in terms of hymns and songs, sermons and Sunday schools, centrally planned mission activity, ministers and volunteers, that we cannot begin to ask what church might be like without any of these things.

But maybe the presence of so many prodigals in our midst means that we need to start asking these questions. Many of them are still interested in Jesus. In fact, many of them still find Jesus the most compelling, dynamic, intriguing, beguiling and wonderful person they've ever met. Is this a challenge to our current churches or what?

As Moby sings on Spiders 'we just had to ask/maybe someone out of heaven/would hear us down here'.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Sun, sea, surf, etc

I've just returned from a few days with friends in Devon. Lots of walking in the sunshine and God's amazing creation. A chance to recharge batteries and focus on what matters.

I am always acutely aware of God's presence in some of the places we go - Bantham, Hope Cove, Soar Mill Cove. Perhaps it's because significant encounters have occurred in these places in the past, perhaps it's because they are particularly numinous, maybe I am just particularly touched by the landscape.

Now it's how I translate these encounters into ministry over the weekend.

Next weekend I'm doing a church conference on post-Christendom issues. Actually my title is 'Christians in McWorld', focusing on my favorite Pauline text at the moment - Philippians 1:27-4:2, how we stand firm in a difficult place. I've been reading Stuart Murray's two books on post-Christendom, however, and they are excellent - full of stimulating analysis and ideas.

This whole post-Christendom idea - coupled with Brueggemann's picture of the church in exile - is very helpful in charting our position in these interesting times.

Been listening to Arcade Fire's Funeral - quite the most amazing music to have come out of Canada in this millennium! Reminiscent of early Talking Heads, but full of wit and musical diversity.