Monday, December 24, 2007

All ready for Christmas

It was my dad's funeral last Thursday - which went as well as these things can. It was good to have the family all together to remember and say goodbye to him in style. we laughed and cried and shared memories - some well known family-wide stories, others known only to one member of the family or another.

We were able to give thanks for a long life (92), well lived; to be grateful that in later years he found faith becoming real to him again and bringing him enormous comfort and strength following mum's death.

So we've had a lot of catching up to do to be ready for Christmas: sermon preparation for Sunday evening and tomorrow morning, present and food shopping, getting internet greetings sent to those who live a long way away.

That's all done and the rest of the family's all here for seasonal fun and festivities.

So, it remains for me to wish my one or two readers a very happy Christmas and a fabulous, challenging, fulfilling and rewarding 2008.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Christmas reading

It's unusual for good Christian books to published in the run up to Christmas (some irony there?!)

Today I took delivery of Tom Wright's Surprised by Hope (SPCK £12.95). This is a semi-academic book - based on lectures in various places, including the 2005 Didsbury lectures - looking at what Christians hope for. As with everything Wright writes, it looks essential reading.

Michael J Gorman's Reading Paul (Cascade books - though being published by Paternoster in the Spring of 2008) is an introduction to the apostle by one of the most creative and stimulating Pauline scholars I've encountered of late. His Cruciformity: Paul's Narrative Spirituality of the Cross is a fabulous book, brimming with fresh insight into familiar texts as well offering a rich overview of Paul's spirituality. This new book is an introduction to Paul's gospel written for pastors and undergraduate students and looks really good.

Rob Warner's Reinventing English Evangelicalism 1966-2001 (paternoster - Studies in Evangelical History and Thought) is a revised version of his PhD written under Andrew Walker. Those of us caught up in the roller coaster ride of the past 25 years - with Spring Harvest and Toronto, restorationism and the rise and rise of the Evangelical Alliance in the 1980s - will find a companion to their memories here that helps us makes sense of our lives. I've only dipped into it, but already I put it alongside Pete Ward's Growing Up Evangelical as essential for any understanding of our lives, if, like me, you were converted into free church evangelicalism in the 1970s.

Each of these would be a great gift to a reader you know or even yourself (because you always ought to buy yourself something for Christmas - then at least there'll be one thing you'll actually want under the Christmas tree!)

Reading and coping

Registered this week as a reader at the British Library and the wonderful Dr Williams's library so that I have access to tomes and journals for my research. The British library is such a spacious and civilised place and the signing process was fabulously efficient. I haven't actually ventured into a reading room yet - can't rush these things.

I picked up a very helpful looking book by Ritva H Williams - someone I'd not come across before but who seems to have close contact with the Context Group of New Testament scholars. It's called Stewards, Prophets, Keepers of the Word: Leadership in the early church. It builds on her PhD on Ignatius and suggests there was greater diversity in leadership in the mid-second century than many scholars assume. In particular, she links emerging leadership roles to the social context and especially the household context of early Christian gatherings. It looks very interesting and I'm looking forward to getting into it.

Sadly, my father died last Sunday which, though expected as he'd been declining over recent weeks, was still a shock that leaves me feeling listless, disconected and profoundly sad. It means that I haven't been able to concentrate brilliantly well, as well as having a lot of work to do sorting out his affairs.

But God is good. Over the past few months dad had been reading his Bible, talking with the chaplain in the residential home where he lived and praying. Maybe he was ready to go. The funeral is next week.

It's a stark reminder that leadership in the church in any generation is not about titles and social structures but about people connecting with one another and being able to connect with God through Jesus Christ. There is always a danger when we immerse ourselves in close study of the texts and the history that we forget that. After all, Paul and Clement, Peter and Ignatius didn't know they were providing grist to the researchers mill; they thought they were helping people encounter the risen Jesus and offering ways those folk could learn and find support as they lived their new faith in a not-so-friendly environment.

I'll keep you posted on the Williams book - if anyone's read it and has views, I'd love to hear them.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Relaunching our housing project

Received my copy of Michael Holmes' The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (third edition) yesterday. What a beautiful book. Stunningly laid out and printed, wonderfully bound so that it lies flat when open - even on p4-5.

It is, of course, showing up the total inadequacy of my Greek!

Still I am continuing to find getting into these writings fascinating.

It's been pretty busy leading up to a reception today we hosted to promote our housing advice centre called iPad. About 45 people crammed into the space we use for offering this service to hear the assistant director of housing explaining the need for it and me outlining what we do - which is basically to offer hospitality and welcome to those struggling in some way with their life as a tenant and to major on helping them to sort out their budgeting and household management skills. It's not rocket science but a lot find it helpful. We also have people praying regularly for clients and workers alike.

Among the questions we were asked by a Bromley Housing department employee was this one: 'do you pray with the clients or for them while they are in the room?' No, I said; we send an email with prayer needs to our regular prayer partners. OK, she said, it's just that I had a client in serious arrears on her rent because of spending too much money on alcohol. So I suggested she went to church. She did. They prayed for her and it turned her life around. I recommend you do it too!

Not quite the response I was expecting!

I've got my first carol service of the season tomorrow - then Christmas will really have started! (good grief - and it's only 6 December!)

Monday, November 26, 2007

Family life

Last night we were celebrating the church's 144th birthday at our cafe church with balloons, party food and much laughter and sharing of good memories - the oldest participant had been baptised in 1941. It was a great evening.

This morning we learned that a friend and former member of our church had been killed in a car accident last night. He belonged on the church's timeline - something we drew up last night - as he and his wife had worshipped and shared their lives with us for many years.

We feel his death because he is family just as we celebrate because we are family. And God holds us in his arms whether we are laughing or crying. And we're grateful beyond words for that.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Cherry Ghost and 2 Clement

Took a break from church and studies to go to to see Cheery ghost at Koko on Friday evening. It was a good night.

I'd never been to Koko before. It started life as the Camden Theatre built by Ellen Terry in 1900 - at the time the largest theatre in London. Now it's a club and gig venue with a really great atmosphere.

Cherry Ghost emerged as our favourite band on our summer holiday in France this year, Simon Aldred's bitter-sweet take on life, love and politics wrapped up in great hooks and singable tunes proved to be ideal touring music.

Live he was equally irresistible, mixing songs from the album - Thirst for Romance - with new ones and keeping up a banter between songs that was affable and amusing. For some reason the last time he played London, the Evening Standard described the gig as gloomy. It just goes to show you should believe what you read in the papers!

Yesterday I sorted things in my study - mainly to get papers and books in suitable piles for my studies. I discovered a very interesting-looking paper by David Horrell on leadership in the early church and read a fascinating introduction to 2 Clement (which was neither a letter nor was it by Clement - apart from that it's well-named!) where the author argued that the work - a homily or sermon from the mid-second century - was calling its audience - probably Christians in Rome - at a time of relative peace and calm to pull up their moral socks not so much by more prayer and fasting, but by being more generous. The author says: 'Almsgiving is a good thing, as is repentance of sin. Fasting is better than prayer but almsgiving is better than both.' In other words, part of his message is that piety is ok but the Christian life is meant to change things for people.

The preacher talks a lot about Christ's fleshly existence - no doubt to counter the effects of that strong strand of second century teaching that suggested that the flesh was evil and that Jesus as God's Son couldn't have sullied himself with it - but uses it to stress the importance not just of doctrinal purity, but of what we Christians do in and with our bodies.

The simple message is that we need to live together in honesty and integrity. Obviously a good message for second century Rome - but a pretty good one for us too.

As Cherry Ghost sings on People help the People: 'People help the people/and if your homesick, give me your hand and i'll hold it/People help the people/and nothing will drag you down/oh and if i had a brain/oh and if I had a brain/i'd be cold as a stone and rich as the fool/that turned all those good hearts away...'

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Getting to grips with the Apostolic Fathers

I've finally begun to do some serious reading for my MA assignment on the language of leadership in the later New testament and the immediate post-New Testament writings, often known as the Apostolic Fathers.

I'm discovering all sorts of things I don't know, such as 'what constitutes the later New Testament?' since, depending on one's view of authorship and dating, any of the books in the collection could be later than others. This normally wouldn't matter but if one is tracing the development of leadership structures and language through the first century, it's fairly important to have a view about which order your sources arrived in.

When we get to the Apostolic Fathers, this issue becomes even more pressing. Did 1 Clement predate the Didache? Do Ignatius and Clement agree on how churches should be led? Do any of these sources really argue for a single authoritative bishop in each town or city or are later generations of Episcopalians just reading their preferences into the sources?

It's all absolutely fascinating. One thing I am discovering is just how little I know about the post-New Testament world.

In the midst of this, we're making plans for Christmas - surprisingly smooth so far - and looking forward to welcoming Nick Lear for our anniversary morning service on Sunday (in the evening, we're having a party with balloons, games, party food and lots of fun - so if you're passing drop in).

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Rob Frost

I was really sorry to hear of the death of Rob Frost yesterday. A full account of his life and tributes can be found at

I didn't know Rob well but when I was editing Christianity he was generous with his time and his thoughts for which I was really grateful. He always struck me as someone driven with a passion to share Jesus, a heart for the Kingdom and a desire to work with anyone similarly motivated whatever their denominational background or way of doing things.

He invited me to Easter People to talk about the new magazine and had me on his Premier Radio show a couple of time to talk about both the magazine and the first edition of Struggling to Belong.

He was an inspirational figure and his death leaves a big hole. My prayers are with his family.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Going deep with God

I've been preparing material on Matthew 6 for preaching and home groups over the past couple of days. It's amazing - I suppose I shouldn't be surprised - but no matter how familiar texts like the sermon on the mount are, they always have a freshness, almost a strangeness when you come to preach and teach on them again.

We're in a series on the teaching sections - the so-called discourses - of Matthew, having started with the final 5 verses of the gospel where Jesus tells us to make disciples and teach them all that he's commanded. Matthew clearly thought the teaching sections were important because that's why he constructed his gospel the way he did.

I think it's quite likely that the gospel was used in some way as a discipleship manual for Matthew's circle of churches and probably quite quickly much further afield as people got wind of its existence. I'm not much persuaded that he wrote for a tiny community, still less that it's mainly a polemic against other takes on the story of Jesus, especially Paul's.

It seems to me that it's an open-hearted, pastorally-guided account of the life of the Christ with the aim of helping disciples grow and fulfil their calling to make other disciples through their lifestyle and conversation.

That being said, the sermon on the mount becomes an essential guide to the revolution Jesus invites us to be part of. And Matthew 6 is the essential guide to the spirituality of that revolution.

What struck me as I read it to preach it was the refrain about reward and still more strikingly the introduction that describes giving, praying and fasting as 'acts of righteousness'. We'd call them acts of devotion or spirituality. Jesus calls them acts of righteousness. He probably has in mind a contrast between his followers and the scribes and pharisees (who he spoken of in relation to this in 5:20).

But what's all this about rewards (6:1b, 4, 6, 18). Jesus can't be saying that our salvation is a reward for our piety because he's made it clear in the beatitudes that membership of the Kingdom community is a gift from God. The reward seems to be that as we give, pray and fast in the way Jesus outlines, we get closer to God, nearer to his heart that aches for our world, more drawn into his Kingdom and his revolution.

I was thinking of this when I met someone who's very serious about their devotional life which combines elements of Buddhist and Christian practice (with a emphasis on the former). As I spoke with this person I found myself marvelling at two things - the depth and seriousness of their practice (it cost them dearly in terms of time and commitment) and why I don't it replicated in many Christians.

We can be very casual about our piety, our devotional lives. Evangelicals in particular are prone to be spontaneous activists who don't have much time for reflection, let alone meditation. We tend to think that extempore praying is so much better than using set prayers and liturgies and hence we tend to repeat ourselves a bit and use God's name as a form of punctuation.

I wonder if this is why Jesus calls our piety 'acts of righteousness': he wants to stress how serious and essential it is that we go deep in these areas because without depth with God in secret our lives in the world be very shallow.

Rediscovering Kafka

One of my favourite places in Prague is the Franz Kafka museum. We stumbled across it last time we visited and went back last week with friends.

It's a fabulously weird and very contemporary museum that seeks to capture the spirit as well as the story of Kafka's life. It draws you in through a series of well-crafted exhibits and installations using video and animation, water and filing cabinets (the latter in the most creative and intriguing way I've ever seen in a museum!)

Suffice it to say that visiting this time persuaded me to get a biography of the great and enigmatic writer and start re-reading the novels. It seems to me that he is still as contemporary as he was when I first read him as a teenager.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

All that jazz

One of the things Prague is justly famous for is its music scene. It's coming down with Jazz and blues clubs which host live bands on pretty much every night of the week.

within spitting distance of the Old Town Square there are two excellent clubs in particular - AghaRTA (that is how they spell it!) and Ungelt.

Linda and I went to Ungelt on Thursday evening. On our previous visit we'd seen the Petr Zeman Quintet which is superb. He was playing again last week in a couple of places but we got to see Chicken Soup, a jazz/fusion band featuring a guitarist with fingers so fast and flexible that at times they are just a blur on his fret board, a Herbie Hancock influenced keyboard player, a sax and flute player of great dexterity and a rhythm section to die for.

They played some standards - Miles Davies and John Coltrane in particular - as well as a collection of scintillating original compositions.

It cost a fiver to get in, the beer was cheap and excellent, the atmosphere was great and it was a non-smoking cellar (making the atmosphere even more pleasant). It was so compact that I could ruffled the bass player's hair from where I sat (I didn't, of course, as I thought he might have found it irritating).

I can't think of anywhere in the UK where you'd have access to music of this quality and quantity in the middle of the week - can you?

Jazz seems to be part of that spirit of improvisation and free thinking that makes Prague such a magical place. In his account of the revolutions of 1989, Timothy Garton-Ash described what happened in Czechoslovakia (as it was then) as 'the most delightful of all the year's central European revolutions: the speed, the improvisation, the merriness and the absolutely central role of Vaclav Havel'. Havel is a playwright and poet and one who frequented jazz clubs through the dark night of Czechoslovakia's oppression following the aborted Prague Spring of 1968/9.

For me the jazz clubs are still places of non-conformity and inclusivity - even though they now cater for the tourists as much as the locals (most of the audience last Thursday were English speaking visitors or their Czech hosts). It would be a tragedy if they ever got homogenised.

A few days at IBTS

It was good to catch up with friends at IBTS - the International Baptist Theological Seminary - over this past week. Nestling in beautiful countryside in Jeneralka, a suburb of Prague, IBTS is a delight: lovely buildings - well restored - one of the best theological libraries in Europe and a truly international student body.

We were there to visit Ian and Janice Randall, members of our church, who are living there at the moment. Janice teaches English to students - during our stay, they were sitting their exams - and Ian is supervising a number of PhD students.

It was great to join the worship life of the community and share breakfast and fellowship with students at various times. IBTS runs a tourist hotel called hotel Jeneralka which is an excellent base for visiting Prague. Check out their website for rates and booking information ( They offer discounts to groups from Baptist churches, so why not see if some of your mates from church fancy a week or weekend in Europe's most wonderful capital city.

IBTS is also home to the European Baptist Federation, something which doesn't get a very high profile among most British baptists (we seem to be an insular lot with a regrettably ambivalent attitude towards Europe). It unites Baptists across Europe from Scotland to the Urals, giving voice to one of the most significant movements of Christians across our continent.

It was deeply moving in prayers at the college to hear young Christians from Serbia praying that war would not return to their country - something they fear if the negotiations over Kosovo break down. It is one thing to read what's going on in our papers, it's quite another to listen to intelligent and articulate young Christians from every side of these conflicts voice their concerns about what's going on.

It was also hugely encouraging to see so many young Europeans taking their faith seriously enough to travel great distances at comparatively enormous expense to equip themselves for the great task of making Jesus known in Europe.

Pray for them

Prague in the autumn

Just returned from Prague where we were staying at IBTS with a group of friends from church. Had a fab time. I'll blog about it later.

Suffice to say that Prague is a beautiful and intriguing place, small enough to walk round, big enough to lose yourself in. It's awash with great places to eat and wonderful cafes where reading books and magazines and taking as long as you like over a coffee is expected.

In the meantime, I've got to sort out what's happening tomorrow...

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Touching heaven at Brixton academy

Went to see Editors last night. It's the third time I've seen them.

The first time they were supporting Franz Ferdinand at Ally Pally, their first album had just come out and they were a slightly nervous support act with promise.

Last night they were majestic headliners creating big bold colours with anthemic songs that touch on big themes.

What I like about Tom Smith's writing is his ability to create metaphors so spacious you could lodge a family in them. On the first album he sings a line like 'You burn like a bouncing cigarette on the road/All sparks will burn out in the end' and I'm sent to Ecclesiastes to reflect on the beauty and brevity of life. That picture of a bouncing cigarette, glowing red in the dark, throwing its light in every direction, the sense that it has been discarded, yet takes on a life of its own...

On the new album the brilliant line 'the saddest thing that I've ever seen/were smokers outside the hospital doors' makes me shudder every time Smith's rich baritone sings it. People killing themselves in the shadow of salvation, life needing risk to be worth living, yet we who take those risks will only take them in the presence of s safety net.

And on Racing Rats 'if a plane were to fall from the sky how big a hole would it leave in the surface of the earth' is a two line summation of the world we find ourselves in. Which plane? what sky? the crater left by air crash sucks in all those left behind into wondering why their loved ones were taken. It's a picture of all the random tragedies that blight our lives. And the fall out from 9/11 has shattered the earth way beyond the twin towers in ways that affect all of us...

These are metaphors you take up residence in. And for me they are vast open spaces that raise questions about faith and relationships, politics and where our lives might find meaning. On Weight of the World, Tom Smith sings 'you fuse my broken bones back together and then/lift the weight of the world from my shoulders/...every little piece of your life will mean something to someone.'

Of course, for me, I can't help thinking what these songs might have to say about faith and God. The obvious answer is 'nothing explicitly' and yet as I inhabit these metaphors, I find God's voice echoing in the space. As Smith sings 'you touch my face, God whispers in my ear. There are tears in my eyes, love replaces fear.'

The album closes with a song that they didn't do last night, a simple piano ballad that ends with the lines 'I don't wanna go out on my own anymore/I can't face the night like I used to before/I'm so sorry for the things that they've done/I'm so sorry about what we've all become.'

I just wish there were worship writers creating such spacious, intriguing, honest metaphors that help us explore more explicitly our life with God in the world he's created.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The value of not drawing attention to ourselves

Over at the continually provocative View from the basement, Brodie poses an interesting question about what word best describes the post-Christendom church if power describes Christendom. There have been lots of good suggestions. I went for anonymous and justified it by saying the following:

'I think 'anonymous' is a possible way of contrasting Christendom and post-Christendom. The church under Christendom was all about profile as well as power, it's about seeking attention from the world, the church has a 'look at me' mentality because it believes that if the world looks at the church, it will believe it's message. This is nonsense, of course, in our changed world. Anonymity provides us with the opportunity to live our lives as followers of Jesus without that living being distorted by the thought of having an audience. It gives us the possibility of being stumbled over by those who didn't know they were looking for us and who in finding us enter a conversation of equals. Maybe I'm just being optimistic and maybe I'm feeling the pressure of feeling constantly in a goldfish bowl in the church I lead! I also don't think it contradicts Jesus calling us the salt of the earth and light of the world because I'm not sure that our being these things ought to be a self-conscious act on our part that invites attention being paid to us. after all, a candle does not sit on the table saying 'look at me', it provides light so that we can see other things. likewise salt preserves or makes things grow (whichever interpretation we go for) and doesn't draw attention to itself - unless there's so much of it that it swamps every other flavour (hardly what Jesus had in mind). '

At the conference I attended last week we had an excellent plenary given by Maeve Sherlock, former head of the Refugee Council, adviser to Gordon Brown and just embarking on a PhD in theology at Durham. She has only come to faith within the last few years and spoke of her attitude towards the church before meeting Jesus.

Basically, she said, she felt the church was invisible, having no impact on her life, no call on her time and certainly no message worth her while pausing to reflect on. She just didn't see it. It was completely anonymous.

However, looking back, following her conversion, she said she began to note individuals and organisations who had left a mark because there was something about them. In particular, a number of individuals who worked with refugees and their families who'd impressed her at the time because of their concern for and commitment to the needs of refugees, who she now discovers are Christians.

It was the cumulative effect of so many 'anonymous' Christians, just getting on with doing what God had called them to do, that she believes was a key factor in God drawing her to himself. Had these individuals or groups been constantly shouting 'look at us - we do this because we're Christians', she'd have been repelled and run a mile.

So maybe a key value for Christian groups as well as individuals doing stuff in the community is this: just do it - don't justify it, theologise publicly about it, put Christian badges on while you do it - just do it...

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Paying attention to what we sing

Just back from a conference on charity management called Aiming 4 Excellence. It was the usual mixed bag. Some sessions were wonderful - Suzi Leather of the Charity Commission, Jim Saker (a man I used to be a youth group with at Knighton Free) and Alan Storkey were particularly outstanding.

The worship was a bit tedious, however. I'm growing increasingly tired of 'worship' that consists of singing a string of songs that tell God what he's like. Now, don't get me wrong, I think there is a place for praising and magnifying the name of God, calling to mind his attributes and remembering with gratitude all he's done for us. But a run of songs that tell God he's awesome in language that recalls a teenager describing a video game doesn't do much for me, I'm afraid.

I was listening to Editors new album on the way up, a collection of laments describing life on planet earth in pithy and telling one-liners. I found it interesting to compare and contrast the worship at the conference with the tracks on An End has a Start. Isn't there a reason why two thirds of psalms are laments, why Ecclesiastes, Job and Lamentations play such a crucial part in the Jewish liturgical calendar?

Surely the reason is this: our talking to God ought to be as much about life down here as it is about him up there. Surely, we are called to articulate the pain and bewilderment of human beings in the presence of God - as Abraham did, as the Psalms do, As Paul suggests we do in Romans 8. Surely our gatherings are meant to be a dialogue between us and God where he hears our pain and reminds that he shares it and is at work bringing to fruition his great work of redemption which is about more than me having my sins forgiven.

The irony is that the congregation at the conference were directors and trustees of charities working with some of the poorest people in some of the hardest places in our land. At the very least we should have been inviting the almighty to hear again the cry of the oppressed and hearing his cracked voice respond in the Spirit groaning in his groaning people immersed in a groaning creation (to borrow Paul's language from Romans 8).

Where are the song writers, writing liturgical music that puts some of the pain of our communities into words that we can sing in our gatherings? They must be out there.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Acquiring language

Ah well, it's back to German for the instructions - I'n obviously going to have to enroll in a night school!

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Abolishing or eroding social evils?

I've been preparing to preach on Colossians 3:18-4:1 - the dreaded household code - and I've realised why I am less than enamoured of the Walsh and Keesmaat approach to Colossians.

To put it rather crudely, I think they want Paul to be a classic modern - or maybe post-modern - left winger because only those on the political left have any idea about justice, equality and the need to build a better society. And so they quote a whole load of authors from the political left in defence of their position.

Now, I blog as a person with left-ish tendencies but I don't think these categories apply to the Roman empire. I found Walsh and Keesmaat's approach to the household code to be convoluted in the extreme and certainly to require the original Colossian hearers to know far more about a certain way of reading the Old Testament than most of them would.

It seems to me that what Paul is arguing is pretty straight forward and rather more down to earth. And it's the same as he argues in 1 Timothy and Titus. Of course, it means that Paul has to have written all these letters which most of the commentators don't think, but that's for another blog.

I reckon that lots of people in the empire wanted life to be better, fairer, more just; they had a concept of the good life that centred on piety, justice and self control/sobriety - the cardinal virtues. The trouble is that they had no means of realising this because of human nature. The various schools of philosophy laid out their ideas of the ideal society and they called their followers to commit themselves to them.

And along came Paul. The reason why scholars debate whether he was more of a stoic or a cynic or an epicurean or whatever was that he weighed into these debates and expressed robust opinions. But he didn't call for the abolition of slavery or the creation of a property-less state. Rather he argued that the cardinal virtues could only be realised through faith in Jesus because only through faith in the recreating power of God unleashed in the cross could human nature be changed.

And having established that something sly (to borrow Harry O Maier's phrase from his excellent paper on Colossians in JSNT) happens to human communities. That sly thing is that people's commitment to old ways of relating based on money, social status, gender, slavery and slave owning begin to erode as people are left to work out the implications of his message. In Colossians that included the truth that all are one in Christ because we are each being remade in his image (3:10-11). This in turn led to slave owners treating their slaves 'with equality' (4:1 where Paul uses the same word that he uses in 2 Corinthians 8 to speak of economic equality among believers as part of the justification for the offering he was gathering from the Gentile churches for the Judean believers).

We live in a very different social and political dispensation to Paul. We can meet injustices head-on, call and campaign for their abolition, express our opinion freely without fear of reprisal. That doesn't apply everywhere, of course, just ask the people of Burma or Saudi Arabia how easy it is to make statements about freedom...

I think we need to be very cautious when reading the New Testament that we don't apply our standards of political discussion and debate to its world. For doing that risks missing its subtlety and brilliance.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Sprechen Sie Deustch?

Good news - I can now read the on-screen commands as they are (as predicted by Hazel) now back in English

Gearing up for getting into Matthew

Had a good time at our local New frontiers church yesterday morning speaking about Paul's arrival in Corinth, according to Acts. Then in the evening they came to us to lead our celebration of the work of street pastors in Bromley. So it was a good day of cementing relationships between churches.

This week, I shall be working on introductory material for our series on Matthew to give to the home group leaders on Wednesday.

We're looking at Matthew through the final section - Jesus' commissioning his followers to pass their faith on - in particular reading the gospel as a story about mission, community and discipleship. It is, of course, a story about Jesus, but as with each of the other gospels it's told for a specific purpose to emphasise key aspects of Jesus and his impact.

It seems to me that Matthew is concerned that his readers grasp the connection between relating to Jesus and doing mission, being in community and living a life of discipleship. This might seem pretty obvious but I wonder if we have really grasped it. After all, many people still think evangelism is about persuading people to make a decision to trust Jesus. Maybe. But that's not what Jesus sends us to do according to Matthew 28:16-20. There the emphasis is on discipleship defined as commitment to Jesus (shown in baptism) and obedience to his teaching as a way of living.

I'm looking forward to seeing how Matthew's gospel will shape our life as a community in the coming months. My hope and prayer is that as we draw closer to Jesus, we'll draw closer to one another and more effective in our modelling of the gospel to our neighbours.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Baffled of Bromley...

For some reason all the instructions on my version of blogger have turned into German - which might be good practice for all those German texts I will have to read in my studies but is a little puzzling and I can't seem to find the button that turns it back into English!

Priorities for embodying the good news

I'm clearing the decks so that Linda and I can get away for 36 hours to France before the winter sets in. We're off tomorrow - going through the tunnel for the first time.

So, I've been working on a church ethos and values statement which I'll share once the elders and leaders have taken a good look at it. It's been interesting thinking about what the church stands for, what values we embody as a community.

In many ways it's exciting to be thinking through these kinds of policies for how we run ourselves as a church. We've also been agreeing a covenant - a process that's not yet halfway through but is progressing slowly - thinking about new ways of doing leadership and firming up job descriptions for the ministry team.

All this is vital at some level, but I have to say, I'm not sure it's why I went into the ministry!

I've been reflecting a little on where my priorities lie (you have to when you're writing a job description for yourself!) or what my calling is. I've always seen my primary gifting as teaching and missional leadership (by which I mean looking for opportunities beyond the confines of the church community to earth and embody the gospel so that large numbers benefit and some find faith in Jesus).

I guess I'm hoping that the stuff we're doing at the moment will free me to do that in the coming months.

I'm also increasingly convinced that my studies in the social history of the New Testament (a suitably vague term for my area of interest) is actually a vital part of my missional leadership. I am finding all kind of resources in my studies that fuel questions about what we're doing today and why. If we are going to break out of the way we've been and done church as baptists for the last 200 years (and I believe we must if we are going to have any future), then the way the early Christians embodied the good news of Jesus in their culture holds vital lessons for us. And merely picking our favourite NT text and turning it into a system will not do!

I'm convinced that structure and organisation matter far less than ethos and values, that operational systems cannot be put above relationships and that being busy in church is no substitute for living a Christian life in communion with others.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

embarking on further study

I had a really good meeting a couple of weeks ago with the guy who'll be supervising my Lambeth Palace MA. He's called Anders Bergquist and is a patristics scholar really but I found we had a lot in common as we talked about the development of the Christian movement in the second half of the first century and into the second.

My first assignment is to produce 5000 words on the language of leadership in the NT and Apostolic Fathers. I think we both believe that the idea of the later NT being dominated by nascent catholicism is overdone. I wonder just how much Clement and Ignatius actually believed in monarchical episcopacy and to what extent - however much they might have believed in it - it actually existed in the communities they were involved with.

It promises to to be fun. All suggestions of what I should be reading are very welcome...

Invitations to talk history - as well as gospel

I'm preaching away from home this Sunday - always an opportunity to dust off the best recent sermon and give it a second outing, I find. Except that my host - a local New Frontiers church pastor - has asked me to speak about some of the social and historical background to Paul that I've been alluding to on the website and have talked about with him over numerous cups of coffee in recent months.

It's unusual to be asked to focus in this area by a church. And yet I find myself quite a lot these days talking with Christians - both in my church and others - about what many people would call 'history' rather than 'theology'. There seems to be an interest in knowing where the early believers met, what they did, what kind of jobs they had, how the Roman empire worked and what influence it might have had on the shape Christianity took on, what kind of leadership churches had, etc...

I find this hugely encouraging. I'm just wondering whether my New Frontiers hosts will take kindly to a sermon on how women were essential to the successful founding and nurturing of the church in philippi, according to Acts!

Gathered round the table

Autumn has hit with a vengeance - not only are the morning's colder but life's busier with programmes kicking in after the summer lay off.

Yesterday evening our men's Bible study started up again and I had an enjoyable afternoon wrestling with 1 Corinthians 14. in particular, I was thinking about the context those words were originally heard in.

We tend to think of church in ordered rows, everyone looking at the back of the heads of those in front of them. Paul's original hearers would either have been reclining in the dining room of a domus-style house belonging to one of the better off members of the congregation or sitting in a workshop on benches and raw materials, squeezing in as best they could.

We tend to think of the church gathered for a meeting. But almost certainly the Corinthians gathered for a meal. Having eaten together, they then shared in a semi-formal conversation known as 'a symposium', a structured conversation kicked off by someone appointed to the task which all the diners were expected to contribute to. This was the pattern of meals across the Roman empire - admittedly more common (indeed ubiquitous) among the more prosperous but also practiced by ordinary working people when they got together.

1 Corinthians 14 was heard in such a context and was intended to give shape to the Christian symposium that occurred after the hearers had shared dinner together.

Having begun to read the chapter with this in mind, I was somewhat sidetracked by how positive Paul is about tongues. I guess I've been schooled in the view that Paul damns tongues with faint praise in these verses. Yet it seems to me that he is saying tongues is good, indeed very good, so good he's happy for everyone to speak in tongues. It's just that prophecy is even better. interestingly he doesn't define what prophecy is except by its effects - that of building up the church, strengthening, encouraging and comforting brothers and sisters in Christ.

And its for that reason that he says people should prophesy rather than speak in tongues in the post-dinner symposium at Corinth.

I'm still wrestling with what he means in 1 Corinthians 14:20-25 where he turns his attention to the effects of these gifts on outsiders. I'll blog further if I think I understand it!

in the mean time, I am composing an ethos and values statement for our church to go alongside the covenant we're discussing.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Getting away to the seaside

Our leaders had an excellent awayday yesterday.

We decamped to sunny Whitstable for conversations about leadership and covenant and walks along the seafront (as well as a trip to the ever wonderful Harbour Bookshop where I picked up Hauerwas' Performing the Faith and Charlie Moule's NT essays for a song).

We finished the day with fish and chips on the beach as well as an agreed way forward on how we do leadership and a draft covenant for the home groups to discuss ahead of our church family meeting at the beginning of October.

This week I will pen a values and ethos statement for us to discuss.

So, it looks like after a year of conversations, lots of things are coming together nicely.

New music from Athlete

I've been listening to the Athlete album - Beyond the Neighbourhood. It's a more substantial and darker work than the previous two records, with songs about people jumping from the twin towers before they collapsed and discos at disused airports and seemingly lots of reflection on the pace of change and what we're doing to the planet.

Although the vocals are recognisably Joel Pott's, the album sounds so much more substantial than its predecessors, most tracks driven by chunky guitars.

I've booked tickets to see Editors at Brixton Academy - I am really enjoying An End has a Start

I'm also beginning to enjoy Atonement which I finally got round to reading a week or so ago - I'm a third of the way in so I'm trying to avoid detailed reviews of the film - although the arc of the story is becoming pretty clear to me. McEwan does write beautiful, subtle prose which is a joy to read - if only theologians were so gifted!

Monday, September 03, 2007

More on the plain meaning of the text

The other issue about the plain meaning of the text (see previous post) is the extent to which the New Testament authors presupposed familiarity with the Old Testament, familiarity such that the first hearers of the New testament 'heard' all the allusions there are in it to the Hebrew scriptures and its story.

It is certainly the case today that most of those sitting in the audiences for our sermons are not familiar with the Old Testament. they maybe know a few famous stories, have a favourite Psalm, know that Abraham came before Moses who came before David. But do they know enough top catch Paul's allusions to the sweep of the Old Testament story in Galatians? I doubt it.

When I spoke yesterday of Paul's ideas of fruitfulness coming from the key Old testament image of Israel being the vine not many heads nodded - and a couple of people said to me afterwards that would be going to read Isaiah 5 and 58 with a new interest. I suggested that they also read Jesus' parables of the sower and vineyard as well.

Perhaps this is an argument for doing sermons on recurring themes and images in the Bible. More fundamentally, it raises questions about how we disciple people - whether we're talking about what children in Sunday School are learning or what kind of catechism we offer to new believers. This latter takes into the territory of Alan Kreider's suggestion that baptismal preparation should take a lot longer than we currently allow.

What do people need to know in order to be Christians? Paul stresses that believers need to be growing in knowledge. Is he talking about what we'd call Bible knowledge (however that's acquired in a pre-book culture) or something else?

The plain meaning of scripture

We kicked off our series on Colossians yesterday and I think it went pretty well.

One of the things I was struck by was the number of positive comments I had from people of all ages - though mostly older - about the amount of background material I included with both sermons helping to earth Colossians in its first century context.

I didn't go overboard but I was keen to set the Imperial context in which Paul was writing and so I used some pictures of the Sebasteion at Aphrodisias and reflected on the story it told about how Caesar created the known world through 'reconciling' peoples of different cultures into a single empire, making peace through conquest, providing security via the legions.

This I then compared and contrasted with Paul's portrait of the Lordship of Jesus in Colossians 1:15-20.

It raised a question for me about teaching any biblical text in our churches. We baptist evangelicals have tended to speak about the plain meaning of scripture and the fact that anyone can pick up the Bible and understand it. But I wonder whether that's true - especially when people who've been Christians for longer than I've been alive come to me at the end of a sermon and say that they now see why Paul wrote what he did.

And if it isn't true, how much background or context do people need to be able to see the plain meaning of the text (whatever that is)?

One of the points I was keen to press home yesterday was that Paul is challenging - albeit it in a sly way - the imperial ideology of his day, offering his first hearers (and us) an alternative story about how reconciliation happens and Lordship is exercised. But do you see that unless you know something of the imperial ideology of first century Rome? And if you don't, does it mean you don't understand the text, misunderstand the text or appropriate the text without unnecessary clutter? Does the text lead any less to salvation if it's read without reference to its cultural context?

I am fairly sure that the plain meaning of the text of the New Testament was obvious to its first hearers but is increasingly obscure to us. I want to know what this does to our theology of teaching and learning in our churches.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Grappling with Colossians

My daughter was three hours late. I hit rush hour traffic on the way home. So half a day at the airport lasted 10 hours! Ah well...

Andy asks why Colossians Remixed is irritating - which is a fair question. The first thing to say is that if you haven't read it, you should. It is passionate, well-informed and full of insights into the text that you won't find anywhere else.

My irritation with it is that in places it seems very laboured. This is especially the case in the targums that litter the exposition. I know what they're trying to do but I'm not sure they pull it off and I find myself skipping pages which I don't like because I fear I might miss something helpful. And I found their reconstruction of Nympha's life a tad twee - I know how hard it is to do this kind of thing convincingly because I tried something similar in the second chapter of A Rough Guide to the New Testament, a story that didn't make it into the second, enlarged edition of that book, Discovering the New Testament!

But it's also the case where the authors allow themselves to be interrupted by someone with questions. For example, the chapter on truth is cast this way (p115ff in my edition). The exchange could actually have been dealt with a well-footnoted half a page rather than a 15 page chapter. I find it distracting rather than illuminating. And I felt it repeated a load of stuff they covered in a dialogue about targums in chapter 2. Walsh makes the point about truth brilliantly with his co-author, J Richard Middleton, in the incomparable guide to to modern thinking and living, Truth is Stranger than it used to be.

It could just be me - and I'll happily be put right on this(!) - but I felt that if Walsh and Keesmaat had focused more closely on the text of Colossians and helped the reader to make the connections with the world they evoke so brilliantly in the first couple of chapters, it would have been a storming book.

Harry O Maier does this in part in his essay 'A sly civility: Colossians and Empire' in JSNT 27.3 2005. He shows how the language of empire pervades the letter to the Colossians and how the author subtly undermines and subverts it for his own ends.

That being said, I do still think Colossians Remixed is a very good and will be urging people in my church to read it.

Beating the airport blues

Well, here I am at the airport. Haven't blogged for a while because I've been rushed off my feet - something Christians the world over feel apparently, according to new research brought to my attention this morning by Christian Research.

I'm sitting in an airport waiting for my daughter to arrive back from her holiday. I knew I was in trouble when she sent a text saying that she wasn't now due to take off for half an hour ,five minutes after she was supposed to have landed here. Ah the joys of international travel!

So, a chance to catch up. I've been reading quite a lot about the link between the New Testament and the Roman Empire. This is partly in preparation for a series we're doing in Colossians this month - based on Walsh and Keesmaat's Colossians Remixed (a book by turns brilliant and irritating) - and partly to clear the ground ahead of my meeting next week with my MA supervisor.

So, I've read papers by Harry Maier on imperial language in Colossians and by Justin Meggitt on the influence of imperial rhetoric and imagery on the New Testament. Maier's piece is fascinating and well written but he holds to a view of the authorship of Colossians that seems a tad unnecessary, not to say contradictory. He argues that it's pseudonymous (that is, not written by Paul but by someone else in his name), along with lots of scholars. The particular view of the letter's origins that he holds to is that of 'pseudonymous co-authorship with Paul in the early 60s' (a case first made by Eduard Schweizer). How can it be pseudonymous if Paul was at least its co-author? Isn't that what it says at the beginning of the letter, that it comes from Paul and Timothy? Might not Timothy have had a significant role in shaping the letter in co-operation and consultation with the imprisoned apostle?

I'm becoming increasingly interested in the power of images in the empire and in particular the kind of art that adorned the walls of the homes in which the early followers of Jesus met. This feeds into my desire to grapple with the effect of domestic space and arrangements on the shape of the early Jesus movement - not just its social shape but also its theological shape.

I've also begun reading Ian McEwan's Atonement - I know I should have read it long before the film came out but I just haven't got round to it.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Planning ahead

Finished Galatians yesterday with a sense of some satisfaction that it was worthwhile series from which we all learned a great deal.

Today I've been plotting the programme for the next year. We'll be spending a long time with Matthew, looking at Ephesians, 1 Peter and the life of David as told in 1 and 2 Samuel, as well as spending some time working on the Search for Significance material, thinking about clustering from 1 Corinthians 11-14, wallowing in art for advent and reminding ourselves of the meaning of the sacraments. It's varied and promises to be engaging and stimulating.

I've also been thinking about my MA ahead of my first meeting with my supervisor (who might expect me to have thought about this rather more). I want to explore the influence of domestic space on the shape and thinking of the early church. Where did the first generation of Christians meet, how many gathered, when and how often? What social grouping did they come from?What effect did the location have on the shape the early communities took on - meals, art (I've just started reading a fascinating account of non-elite art in the Roman empire on the back of reading a very suggestive essay by David Balch). So if anyone has any pointers, suggestions, leads, help they'd like to offer, I'm all ears.

I'm listening to the bonus CD that came with Bonobo's latest album Days to Come - which is the songs from the album without the vocals and is wonderfully chilled for a Monday afternoon.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

In a galaxy so close to home...

I've been discovering Battlestar Galactica (not the dire 1970s Star Wars rip off but the new Sci Fi/Sky TV series) and it's riveting stuff.

I've read a couple of pieces on this series - which hasn't made it to terrestrial TV over here yet - which whetted my appetite so when I found the whole of season 1 ridiculously cheap in the HMV sale, I thought 'why not'.

The guy behind this revival cut his teeth on Star Trek - so the space sequences and battles are well done. But nothing prepares you for the politics of it. Here is mainstream US TV addressing issues of war with unseen enemies, suicide bombings, how much civil liberties can be sacrificed in the name of security, etc. One episode takes place on a prison ship where all the inmates are in cages wearing orange boiler suits. The scripts are sharp and the characters are pretty well drawn - at least they seem to be people of depth and contradiction.

Oh and everyone's religious. The humans worship a pantheon of gods, the cylons, who have now evolved 'human' characteristics, are fundamentalist monotheists. So, in the midst of battle, theological discussion ensures, people pray for deliverance, others stress that everything that happens is willed by God or the gods.

If you've not seen it, it's worth checking out.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Making sense of the text

It's good to be back on the sermon treadmill! There's something about the weekly discipline of having a text that you must make sense of and find a message in for an expectant congregation.

We're still working our way through Galatians and one of the problems of having written about it is that I tend to assume preparing sermons on any passage will be relatively straightforward. If only!

This Sunday I'm preaching on 6:1-10 - often seen as a pot pouri of ethical advice with no coherent thread of thought. Working with it though once more, I wonder if I might have discerned a strand of Paul's thought that unifies these verses into a clarion call to build community by walking in the Spirit in the light of the coming judgment - and thus provide a fitting climax to his whole argument.

The thread runs as follows: having appealed to his hearers to keep in step with the Spirit since we have crucified our old natures and been made alive by the Spirit (5:24-26), we need to help each other walk the line the Spirit lays out for us (6:1-2). This means we have to be realistic about ourselves (3-5), recognise that we're as prone to fail as anyone and that we need one another.

In particular we need our teachers (6 - always a good thing for a preacher to come across!). So we bear one another's burdens - possibly focused on the causes and consequences of sin and failure that we help one another with) but we each carry our own load - which is what exactly?

The harvest we have sown (7-10). The load is what we carry into the presence of God on the day of judgment and can take justifiable pride in (as Paul was often saying - see Phil 2:16 and Rom 15:17 for example).

And what is that harvest? it's the result of doing good to one another and in the wider world (10). Making the most of every kairos (10 - opportunities) because the kairos (9 - proper time) is coming when we'll have to account for what we've done, who we've lived for and why.

And so the argument comes full circle. It starts with Paul telling us to look out for one another, bear the burdens that sin lays on us from time to time and it ends by telling us to be on the look out for opportunities to do good to one another - which I take to mean encourage, support, help, be there for our brothers and sisters in a way that means they are less likely to be overtaken by a sin (the word suggests an ambush).

Does that make sense? If so, then it seems to me that these verses give us a coherent picture of life in the Spirit in the community of Jesus' followers.

Living it's the thing, of course, though knowing what God wants of us is a good start.

Friday, August 10, 2007

New books

My copy of Dick France's commentary on Matthew in the NICNT series arrived yesterday. Dick was one of my NT lecturers at LBC and an inspiring and godly exegete, so I'm looking to getting stuck in to his 1000+ page tome.

Matthew will form the basis of the church's teaching programme from October to Easter, so it's good to have such a substantial dialogue partner with which to launch into the text. He will be supplemented with Luz (his slim Cambridge introduction) and Stanley Hauerwas' theological commentary which is full of spikey and suggestive stuff.

I also received L Anne Jervis' At the Heart of the Gospel: suffering in the earliest Christian message, a book that explores Paul's reflection on suffering in 1 Thessalonians, Philippians and Romans. A first glance suggests it's going to be very helpful.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Back from hols

I'm back from la belle France - and what a fab holiday we had: warm sunshine, great food, wonderful scenery, historic sites and not a phone call for a fortnight!

I read some books (as you do) - in particular Cormac McCarthy's truly stunning novel The Road. I read it in two sittings. It's an amazing portrait of the redemptive power of a father's love for his son set against the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic America. The prose is spare and tight and the characterisation utterly convincing. It's a novel that lingers long after the final page has been turned.

I also read Dennis E Smith's From Symposium to Eucharist: the banquet in the early Christian world. Compared to McCarthy, this was like wading through treacle. There's lots of good stuff on Paul but his Jesus Seminar fixation made reading the section on the gospels utterly unrewarding.

We also listened to the Cherry Ghost album Thirst for Romance lots of times. It's lovely - what the Smiths would have sounded like if they'd grown up (Simon Aldred who is Cherry Ghost is in his mid-30s). Songs full of sharp observation and witty one-liners. Well worth checking out.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Into the great blue yonder....

Well, I nearly made it; I nearly cleared my in-tray. But such things aren't meant to be...!

So, we're off on holiday first thing tomorrow, leaving just my Ministry Today article unfinished - but I have been granted an extension deadline by the lovely editor which is wonderful.

All we have to look forward to for the next fortnight is sun, pool, wine, fine cuisine, sleep and reading - with a little site seeing thrown in to keep the blood circulating. It's a tough Job but someone's got to do it...

No more blogging until early August.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Fresh light on Philippians

I finished re-reading Peter Oakes' Philippians: From Letter to People (Cambridge 2001) last night. And what a wonderful book it is.

It's a revision of his Oxford DPhill completed under Tom Wright in the mid-90s, so in places it's very demanding. yet it has a lightness of touch and sure-footedness that lots of dissertations lack. I learned tons from it the first time I read it and a whole load more the second time.

I've always been drawn to Philippians - its passion, realism, portrait of Jesus and the life of faith have hooked me from early in my Christian life. But Peter's book took me to a whole new appreciation of the letter.

His thesis is centred on a fresh reading of 2:6-11 but before we get there, he treats us to a fascinating recreation of the Philippian churches within the city and environs of the Roman colony. He rejects the notion that Paul's original readers were Roman citizens, preferring to see them as Greeks rather than Romans, subject people from the lower strata of society.

It was reading this book for the first time that rekindled my interest in New testament social history and has led to me signing up to write an MA on an aspect of it - probably something to do with the social status of the early Christians and how that affects the way we read the NT.

One of the things Peter really helpfully all through his dissertation is to keep asking 'how did the first hearers hear this letter? what did it mean to them?'

This is why he sees 2:6-11 as a complex interaction between Isaiah 45 and Roman Imperial ideology and in particular sees the portrait of Jesus in those verses (which Peter thinks were composed by Paul for the occasion) as offering an example of how to view suffering. In short, he argues that Paul is urging his first hearers to embrace the loss of status that accompanies standing alongside brothers and sisters who are suffering in the interests of maintaining the unity of the church. It is as these believers stand together in mutual support of one another that they will stay strong and faithful in the teeth of opposition.

So thanks to Peter for his hard work and elegant prose. He is a model of faithful scholarship.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Clearing the decks for the summer getaway

We're getting into holiday mode as we set off for la belle France on Wednesday. I haven't taken the car for France for over ten years, so yesterday I was reminding myself of the rules - what do I need - and rushing to Halfords to stock up!

As ever, I have far too much to finish before going away and so have been making lists of things I won't finish but will need to pay attention to when I get back so that things will run smoothly in the autumn.

For instance, we're going to be basing a lot of our teaching and learning from October through to Easter next year in Matthew's gospel. I've been having a great time reading Luz, Hauerwas, Stanton, et al trying to get a handle on the structure and themes of the gospel (which I confess I don't know nearly so well as Luke). I was really excited late last week when I discovered that Dick France (my old NT tutor from LBC) has written the commentary on Matthew for the NICNT series and it's coming out this summer (see Amazon for details - it'll be well worth checking out and is a lot cheaper than Nolland or Luz).

However, despite all the background reading, I still haven't come up with a structure for a series that does justice to the gospel and takes in Christmas and Easter which I can share with the rest of my team.

I also have an article to finish for Ministry Today in which I'm reflecting on the influence of Jeremiah 29.7 on my ministry over the past nearly 20 years. I'm wondering about ministry as a particular form of exile; if the church is in some way in exile in our culture, do ministers in some way embody that exile and model how to live in it to their congregations?

More particularly, I am teasing some of my feelings about my current ministry and whether the tension between feeling at home and feeling displaced is helping me to be more creative, sympathetic to strangers, less prepared to put up with the status quo and possibly more dependent on God.

I'm hoping to get this finished by close of play on Tuesday (and still have had time to pack!)

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Scripture meme

Andy ( has tagged me to share a passage of scripture that I inhabit, keep returning to, feel haunted by, and this is it: 'Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper." (Jeremiah 29:7)

This is the verse that God used 30 years ago to call me into ministry at a conference on Christians and political. It is a verse that has shaped the way I view ministry, inspired me always to see that our calling as God's people to bless those around - to seek their shalom (as the Hebrew says), their welfare, well being and wholeness.

More recently, it has helped me explore the notion of exile - is the church in the UK somehow in exile and if so what does that feel like, what shape should such a church be morphing into if it is to be faithful to its call.

And just this year, God asked me to apply the verse to myself in my situation. I had a very strong sense that he was saying that I'd applied this verse to the church in general and churches I'd served in in particular, now I should apply it to myself, along the lines 'you're in exile, get over it, get on with what I've sent you into exile to do.'

Hence the reason I suggest this verse haunts me.

So, if I've got how this works, I tag
Sean Winter
Jonathan Sommerville
Jim Gordon
Marcus Bull

Saturday, July 14, 2007

That blythe spirit strikes again...!

Yes, as ever Stuart puts his finger on precisely what I am arguing for in relation to reading the Bible - that's why he teaches in a theological college and I'm just a minister(!).

A Christ centred, community focused reading inspired by the Holy Spirit is how I think our churches should read the Bible. And it is very Baptist - and that feels soooo good!

I guess one thing I'd add is that - as Sean Winter argued in his Whitely lecture (which I think I've just about understood!) - quoting the Bible is the beginning not the end of the process of teasing how God wants us to live.

This is what Paul was doing in Galatians 3-4: all the time he was asking his baffled hearers - torn between Paul and his rivals' view of the faith they shared - to think about their experience as individuals and as a community and to remember the teaching Paul gave them and the Bible stories it was based on and to work out for themselves how they should live in the light of it.

Of course, he hoped they'd see his perspective on things, but they did have to get there on their own. How very Baptist is that?!

Friday, July 13, 2007

How we read the Bible

I've just updated my profile - does this mean I'm a different person now?

I took delivery of Kevin Giles' The Trinity and Subordination: The Doctrine of God and the Current Gender Debate this week. This is a book I've wanted to read for some time and I might take it on holiday with me.

In his introduction he talks about the need to read scripture theologically. Athanasius, he reminds us (though I have to say, I don't know a whole lot about Athanasius to be reminded of), argued that we need to do theology with 'a profound grasp of what he called the "scope" of scripture - the overall drift of the Bible, its primary focus, its theological centre.'

Now I know just how tricky this is to do - I've read Thiselton and Goldingay and wrestled enough with what is the heart of the Old Testament or even the centre of Paul's theology to know that this is not straight-forward.

But I have found the idea really helpful in tackling Galatians 4:21-31 for this Sunday. This is the trickiest part of Galatians in many ways, the end of Paul's Bible study, the clinching demolition of his rivals' argument. And yet, having said 'do you hear what the Law says..,' he then proceeds to make the story of Sarah and Hagar say the opposite of what Genesis 21 appears to be saying and to ignore the fact that Abraham circumcised both is sons. What's going on?

Well, I think it has something to do with seeing the big picture - what Athanasius might call the scope of scripture - and not getting bogged down in the detail of subsets of the narrative. More than that, it's about seeing the big picture through the coming of Christ - seeing it summed up and fulfilled in him.

And crucially, it's about seeing all that in the light of our experience of God interpreted by scripture. as the Westminster Confession (not a document I quote often!) says: 'the supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are determined ... can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the scriptures.'

So in Gal 4:6-8 Paul speaks of both Jew and Gentile crying 'abba' Father because of the Holy Spirit erupting in their lives as a result of their trust in the faithful work of Jesus. If this has happened, then scripture ought to be able to tell them why. Hence the remainder of Paul's Bible study in 4:21-31 before he outlines how life in the Spirit works - interestingly focused on how we fulfil the law by being in Christ who fulfilled the Law through his life, death and resurrection and now enables us to do the same through the Holy Spirit working through us.

I've also been continuing to enjoy the new Editors album and The Ideal Condition, the first post-Orbital work by Paul Hartnoll - lovely stuff...

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Who are you?

Following on from the mighty Who gig, I'm reflecting on questions of identity tonight at our midweek gathering. in particular looking at what Paul says on the subject in Galatians and why.

I'm intrigued by the suggestion Bruce Winter makes that when Paul speaks in 6:12 of his rivals wanting to 'make a good show', he could be using the word in a more technical legal sense of 'secure legal status.'

The argument is that Paul's rivals are pressing the gentile converts to get circumcised so that they will come under the umbrella of Judaism, a religio licita, and so be protected from having to participate in the imperial cult, something 4:8-10 suggests might be happening (or so argues Justin Hardin of Oklahoma Baptist University).

It's also possible that Paul's rivals are looking over their shoulders at increasingly militant Judean nationalists who are stirring up trouble for groups in Jerusalem who appear to be rather tolerant of gentiles.

Both these reasons could lie behind Paul saying his rivals were teaching what they did in order to avoid being persecuted for the cross (6:12b).

It all throws up the fact that identity - who we are, how we define ourselves in the the world - is a key issue for Galatians. In the ancient world identity came via family and place in the household, status (whether slave or free and whether born free or freed during one's lifetime), membership of voluntary associations that gave strong group identity and practice of religion (besides the imperial cult which everyone had to practice at certain times in the year).

For Paul our identity is derived from Christ - our crucifixion with him (2:20, 6:14), demonstrated in baptism where we join a community of equals from which we take on a new identity (3:26-29). we are children of God (4:6-8), defined by our trust in the faithful work of Jesus.

Reading Galatians provokes us to think about where our identity comes from - the world around us or our commitment to Jesus in the new community of equals we join by baptism?

Monday, July 02, 2007


We had a wonderful baptismal service last night. Two young women testified to their faith in front of a packed church - lots of their friends came.

I preached on Galatians 3:26-29 and spoke about baptism being about putting on Christ and being part of a new community where are all equals - not only in terms of status but also contribution. I stressed that baptism was act of social defiance, going counter to the prevailing culture and pointing to a better way of living as individuals and communities.

I have Sean Winter to thank for taking this tack - it was well received over all. Indeed it all went fabulously well and I came home with a warm glow of it having been a good day.

The week got off to reasonable start. I've been preparing for the men's bible this afternoon - 1 Corinthians 13 - which has been hugely enjoyable.

Friday, June 29, 2007

This week's listening and reading

Good week for music this week.

Having seen the Who on Tuesday evening (see previous post), I've been listening to the new offering from Editors, An end has a Start.

Editors were last year's surprise band. Coming from nowhere, almost unnoticed, their album The Back Room was stunning, full of edgy Joy Division-esque short, snappy songs driven by sharp guitars and Tom Smith's rich baritone.

The new album sees them stepping up a gear, the songs becoming more expansive, the arrangements more varied. The writing is excellent, Smith dealing with death, hope, social breakdown and love with a neat turn of phrase and a perceptive take on life.

It's the perfect accompaniment to Peter Oakes' Philippians book (now halfway through) and Andrew Clarke's Secular and Christian Leadership in Corinth ( a third of the way into).

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The kids are alright

Went to see the Who last night at Wembly - ably supported by the Charlatans - and they were amazing. Having joked earlier in the day when asked who was supporting them and replying 'their zimmers', it was one of the freshest, tightest and most energetic performances I've seen in ages. And yes, they did play all three CSI theme tunes!

They played a selection of greatest hits and a medley from last year's Endless Wire album (those songs suggest that Pete Townshend has lost of none of his song writing faculties).

As well as great playing from a band that included Ringo Star's boy on drums, the show incorporated wonderful video material, the best of which was montages from the Who's 40+ year career.

There were spine-tingling moments such as 'Won't get fooled again' which was almost revivalist in its passion, the audience rising to the anthem of not being taken for a ride by those who promise change. Daltry was singing this the evening before Gordon Brown takes over at number 10 and I wondered for a moment how many prime ministers have come and gone while the Who have been singing that song.

Other great moments included the opener, the Seeker, wonderfully up-to-date 30 years on, Townshend's solo performance of a couple of tracks from Quadrophenia, showcasing the fact that he is an extremely tidy guitarist and the show's closer, just Daltry and Townshend singing a song - I assume off the recent album - about growing old and being reconciled to one's past, Daltry holding aloft a mug of tea!

The Who have been around as long as I've been a music fan - longer actually - and to some extent have provided a smattering of the musical accompaniment to my journey. The video backdrop reminded me of the heady days of the late 60s and especially the early 70s when both surviving members of the band had hair and there was an optimism abroad that this music might be the soundtrack to lasting and significant social change. It was poignant to see the video to their latest work still pre-occupied with the themes of war and social isolation that informed their best work of 30 years ago.

But it wasn't a lecture, a history lesson or a meditation on human frailty and duplicity, it was a storming gig and my ears are still ringing this morning with the joy of it.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Scottish thoughts

Back from Scotland. We has a really wonderful time - the sun even shone for part of a day!

We received fabulous hospitality from Margaret and Andrew; Stuart guided us effortlessly around the working bits of our trip (thanks to them for their kindness and generosity); and it was good to catch up with friends and family.

The Scottish Baptist College's thanksgiving service went really well and what I said seemed well received (I had been somewhat wound up about it...) And cafe church at St Ninians in stirling was a blast. People joined in the conversation about shining as stars (from Philippians 2) and helped one another dream about the difference they could make in their neighbourhood.

This is what cafe gatherings are all about, it seems to me. It's a more democratic way of being church and Stuart is right (on his blog) to suggest that you wouldn't get an 'I have a dream speech' at a cafe church. This is not to say that the person leading a cafe-style gathering doesn't need to prepare and be pretty clear what they want to communicate and how they want the conversation to go.

But I find the unpredictability of the cafe format exhilarating. While I have prepared what I want to say, the table talk can often raise issues that I hadn't thought of or which force me to explain or unpack an idea I've just shared. this means people get what I'm trying to say and have begun to work with it. It also means that I learn. It was great to hear the insights of people yesterday as they processed what I'd said and applied what I'd shared to their lives.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Off to Scotland

Linda and I are off to Scotland in the morning.

I'm speaking at the graduation service of the Scottish Baptist College tomorrow evening. I'm really looking forward to it - though I am also gripped by entirely understandable panic!

Then we hope to see family, catch up with friends, see some sites and generally relax before pitching up at St Ninians church in Stirling on Sunday morning where I'm going to talk about new ways of being church in a sort of cafe-style, conversationally-based morning service.

So, no blogging until next week.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

cafe church thoughts on baptism as relocation

It's good to know there's lots of people out there thinking about this issue. I've found all the contributions really helpful.

It was cafe church on Sunday and we did a very simple meditative evening on location, location, location. Taking Romans 6 as our spring board, we thought about our life of faith in terms of location and journey. We ended by signing a covenant, committing ourselves to being family to one another, helping each other walk in newness of life (the words came from Gathering for Worship). Of course, we didn't link signing the covenant with joining the church!

The interesting thing for me was the reaction of most of the worshippers - a mature crowd as most of our young adults were away at the wedding of one of their own. Many said it was the best cafe church we'd ever had. some talked of the profound way it helped them to think about their journey. One person said it took them back to their baptism and made them think about what it had meant then (a long time ago) and what it means now.

I think through the course of this conversation - both through this blog and with my team and others in church - I have become much more aware of how important baptism as a theological tool was to Paul as he explained the life of faith to his converts around the Eastern end of the empire.

Unpacking Romans 6 on Sunday evening, we looked at baptism as emigration - moving from one location (the land of sin and death) to another (the land of grace and resurrection). We looked at Jesus as the means of that emigration - the one able to pay the fare, get the exit visa, manage the crossing. We reflected on Paul's likening of baptism to the exodus (cf 1 Cor 10:2) and hence of the baptised being God's new pilgrim people, walking the journey of freedom from slavery to the promised land - in our case the redeemed world (Romans 4:13, 8:17).

All this being true, the obvious response was that we committed ourselves to journey together, watching over one another in love. I have been struck time and time again as I have read Paul over the past few weeks how close the link is between personal response in baptism and the group life of the followers of Jesus. There is no personal response to Jesus without equally personal commitment to his followers.

So, I left Sunday evening thinking that we must forge a closer link between baptism, discipleship and our life together and that the most obvious way of doing this was to link 'membership' to some kind of commitment to walk together as disciples.

For me this offers the opportunity to empty membership of all the stuff that associates it with status, being an insider over against outsiders, being more important to the church than attending non-members, while at the same time filling membership with helpful connotations of covenant commitment to God and one another, of active participation in the life of the church so that we are built up and help to build up others.

The only hurdle left is: how do you introduce such thinking into a pretty traditional baptist church that has at best an ambivalent attitude to embracing change?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Yet more on membership

Andy's comment about baptism making us ecclesial beings is quite helpful. I think baptists have tended to separate baptism and church membership to an unhealthy degree.

If that sounds odd, let me explain. In our church, ministers prepare candidates for baptism and carry out baptisms; membership is handled by the church meeting on the advice of interviewers appointed by the leaders. It means that while I can baptise someone into Christ, I can't at the same time declare that person by virtue of what's happened in the pool, to be a member of the local body of Christ where he or she has been baptised.

I think this is a nonsense and Andy has given the language with which to talk about it. Thanks.

His other comment and quote from Colin Gunton is also important. Joining a church is not another consumer choice we make between moving house and buying a three piece suite. It is important to realise that in joining a church, we are joining people we don't choose, people God says are our brothers and sisters. Part of our commitment in joining is that we're saying we are going to be family to and for and with these people we didn't choose. this is why I'm so keen on some kind of renewable covenant forming the basis of how we do membership.

Graham's point about there not being much distinction between members and non-members in terms of commitment or levels of discipleship is spot on. We have non-members who attend more frequently, give more sacrificially and volunteer more effectively and energetically than a good many of our members. And this raises a major issue about what 'membership' is and what it means.

I guess a parody of the traditional Baptist view suggests that membership is about belonging to a club of people like us which confers special privileges - most notably telling the minister how to do his job! This is probably why some churches have abandoned membership altogether; they feel it bears no relationship whatsoever to discipleship and just forms unhelpful fault lines in the church.

I hope that basing membership on an annually renewable covenant would help us deal with this issue. It says to everyone who's attending the church regularly that membership is about being committed to God, to one another and to the mission and ministry of the church; it says that the commitment being made is up-to-date - that is, it's not based on where I was with God 10, 20 or 30 years ago - which means that it's commitment to be in accountable and supportive relationships with the people who are currently gathering with this church.

It's probably not the whole answer. we'll probably still have members who rarely attend and active attenders who don't become members. But it could well lead to us having a membership that better reflects the current committed core of the church.

I'd be interested to know what people think.

I think Graham's point about our practice giving us ecumenical headaches is answered by Sean Winter's article on ambiguous genitives in Romans. I appreciate that this article is not yet in the public domain - but will be soon, I gather. One point he makes is that Baptists can't be part of ecumenical relationships while at the same time arguing that all forms of baptism that don't involve the total immersion of believers are invalid.

He argues from Romans 6 that we all need to pay greater attention to the relationship between grace and faith, laying more emphasis on God's prevenient grace. In Baptism we participate in what Christ has done for us rather than do something ourselves that has salvific significance. This means that we can acknowledge various forms of baptism administered at various stages in people's life of faith.

I think that works for me. What do others think?

More on baptism and membership

This has been a fascinating conversation so far - long may it continue cause I'm learning loads!

It seems clear to me that there are two broad groups of people who are in mind as we think about baptism and membership - and sometimes we get them confused. The first group are Christians who are looking to join our churches because they've moved into the area or have decided to move on from the church they've been attending for a while for a variety of reasons.

I feel it's obvious that we take seriously their journey with God over how ever long it's taken. This must include acknowledging the validity of whatever initiation they have undergone assuming that that initiation was accompanied along the way by faith on the part of the person. This an area that Baptists seem divided over. I'll return to it.

The second group are those who are finding faith through the activities of our churches. Regarding this group, I have long been influenced by the simple thought that belonging precedes believing. For me this has always meant that people need to be welcomed and feel accepted before they are likely to be able to sort out what they believe. This in itself raises all kinds of questions about membership (which I'll also return to - though probably not in this post)

For these folk, it seems to me, baptism is a crucial part of that journey and a creative approach to preparing them for that moment is essential.

This leads me to reflect on one point in Alan Kreider's stimulating essay in Remembering Our Future. He lays great emphasis on baptismal preparation - what he calls catechesis. Taking his cue from the patristic period - while eschewing charges of patristic fundamentalism (p177) - he argues strongly that 60 or even 90 weeks of baptismal preparation is essential.

His reason for this is that it has to undo a lot of the learning that our culture has forced on us; the billions of dollars spent on advertising, the hours spent in front of the TV - all this has to be undone and Christian learning put in its place.

I have two problems with this. The first is entirely practical - while it might say to people how seriously we take baptism and discipleship, it raises the bar so high that few people are likely to stick around to jump it. The second is that he seems casually dismissive of all the teaching efforts of churches: Sunday school, youth groups, camps, home groups, Sunday adult teaching, midweek Bible studies - all these are apparently dismissed as incapable of countering the impact of the world. And yet, surely, this is precisely what such programmes are geared to do. Our church's teaching programme aims to make disciples, aims to help those disciples navigate their way through a difficult world.

I've not had time to reflect on his twelve steps - I will and will blog about it - but my immediate reaction is that these steps describe what good churches teach week-in, week-out and to suggest that it all needs to be reiterated in detail as part of baptismal preparation seems redundant.

And would he argue that folk joining us from other traditions would need to go through a similar catechetical process? What would this say about our acceptance of their journey of faith? I can't help but think that it would send out negative and exclusivist vibes of the most unhelpful kind.

I'll reply to a couple of comments left earlier in the discussion in the next post

Monday, June 11, 2007

A musical footnote

One new album I forgot to mention yesterday is Bjork's Volta. I suspect that the Icelandic elf singer is like Marmite - you either love or loathe her. I fall into the former category (though I have to be in the mood)

I watched her performance on Later with Jools at lunchtime (the wonder of video tape and an empty home during the day) which was just wonderful - who else would have an all female brass band dressed in primary coloured crepe jump suits? The two songs - one off the new album - were cracking.

Volta opens with two blinders - Earth Intruders and Wanderlust - but every track is interesting, a fascinating blend of sounds, instruments, voices and good tunes. Reviewers have said that it's her angriest and most direct album lyrically but I have to admit that for the most part I haven't a clue what she's on about - but she does it beautifully.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

This month's good listening

All good theological discussions should be fuelled by a variety of stimuli. As well as reading scripture, Sean Winter's stimulating Whitley lecture, Alan Kreider's essay on baptism in Remembering our Future (which I'll blog on later because although it's full of interesting things, I'm not sure I buy his argument) and a host of other good, solid theological tomes, I've also been listening some really good music.

Top of the pile is Modest Mouse's wonderfully titled new album, We were dead before the ship even sank. The American indie popsters are joined here by Johnny Marr, formerly of the Smiths and arguably Britain's best guitarist of the past generation. He adds wonderful subtlety to the heady and turbulent mix of the band.

Bonobo's new album Days to Come is an absolute delight. Si Green has made the transition from bedroom-based sampler to full band delivering up the perfect album to listen to in the garden on a warm summer evening with a chilled Chablis and loved one.

Laura Veirs' two albums Year of Meteors and Saltbreakers are worth checking out. She has a great voice, lovely turn of phrase and the playing is tight and immaculate.

And finally Richard Thompson's Sweet Warrior is an amazing collection of songs from the British troubadour, veteran of Fairport Convention and the English folk scene. Almost qualifying for his bus pass and casting his eye over our troubled world, he's turning out songs as good as any in his career.

Making the link between blogging and church

The great thing about blogging is the freedom one has to express thoughts and feelings about a subject and the free exchange of ideas with those who join in the conversation. At some stage for me, as a minister responsible for leading a similar conversation in my church and helping us all to discern where God's leading us as a particular community at a particular moment, the ideas generated in the freedom of blogging have to be earthed in actual church practice.

I've been pondering how this might happen in the light of the stimulating exchange that happened on this site in the past few days (thanks to all who've visited and posted both here and elsewhere. Those wanting to check out Andy's thoughts should go to )

The thing about bloggers is that we are keen to exchange ideas, explore theology and can be somewhat detached in our conversation. In churches these issues come with all kinds of baggage attached.

Some people feel that having the conversation at all is an assault on their deeply cherished and long-held feelings about church life. Others want a debate providing nothing substantial changes and still others are convinced that only the leadership want change for reasons best known to themselves.

Others, of course - perhaps a majority - just want to ensure that the way we do things according to our rules reflects the way things are in the world we actually live in. In the best possible sense, they don't really care what system we propose for membership and baptism providing it helps us be the community they think we need to be in order to be effective in mission and pastoral care.

So over the next few days my team and I will be drawing up a proposal for a way forward to share with the leadership and church next month with a view to easing change in our way of doing things that everyone will be able to live with.

I'll post the broad outline as I'd be interested in your views. After all, as a good baptist, I don't believe we have a monopoly of wisdom in our fellowship; the Lord can bring more light and truth to us out of the blogosphere. So, stick around...