Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Making community

I came across this lovely Henri Nouwen quote this morning:
‘In solitude we remember that community is not a common ideology, but a response to a common call. In solitude we realize that community is not made but given.’

This coupled with my reading of Roxburgh and Romanuk is helping to think about the balance between the leader as maker of things and the leader as cultivator of an environment in which things grow.

We hatch all kinds of strategies to make community but, as Nouwen says, community is given. I take that to mean, given by God. I further reckon that it happens as people grow to love one another.

As a leader I can't get my people to love one another any more than I can push water uphill with a fork. As a leader all I can do - with others - is create the environment in which that love, and hence that community, can grow.

I guess this is about preaching and modelling, allowing God's Word to shape people's lives through the faithful unpacking of it Sunday by Sunday and being an example of how that Word shapes my life and the lives of those around me.

Hence Paul's prayer in Philippians 1:3-11: I wonder how often and how honestly we can pray these words for our churches?!

Of the making of books

Having just had a birthday, I have even more things on my growing pile of books to read.

I'm currently reading Reggie Kidd's Wealth and Beneficence in the Pastoral Epistles as part of my preparation for my MA (I have an interview about that on Thursday, so here's hoping...)

I am also reading Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk's The Missional Leader: Equipping your church to reach a changing world. Roxburgh's slim volume on mission and liminality is a key text in my understanding of my ministry, so this beefier tome is proving to be pretty stimulating.

I'm also reading CJ Sansom's Winter in Madrid - not as compelling as his Matthew Shardlake novels but good all the same.

I'm also dipping into Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses from time to time (in those quiet moments I have so many of!)

Now onto my pile has come Eamon Duffy's Marking the Hours: English People and their prayers 1240-1570. Duffy is the author of the wonderful Voices of Morebeth, one of the best studies of the Reformation in England published over the past 25 years. So I'm looking forward to this new one. He has a great eye for detail and is able to show how those details fit the broad sweep of a historical narrative.

And I also got Toby Jones' Utopian Dreams, his story of travels among various intentional communities in search of the good life. I heard him talking about it on Start the Week on radio 4 and he strongly suggested that it was the Christian communities that seemed to offer most to troubled people in a confusing world. So I'm looking forward to that as well.

Ah, i just need six weeks with my feet up by a pool, a waiter bringing long cooling drinks and the sun setting over a palm fringed beach.....

The sermon passing near you....

On Sunday evening, I had one of those moments that preachers frequently have while delivering a sermon: a better sermon crossed my path, winked and said 'you ought to be preaching me!'

I was mid-way through some reflections on kindness based on the story of David and Mephibosheth. Most of us know this story from 2 Samuel 9. I was tracing the story from where Saul's grandson enters the narrative in 2 Samuel (4:4) through chapter 9 and on into 16:1-4 and 19:24-30.

It's a wonderful and subtle piece of writing and I managed to make some valid points along the way - things such as kindness is about welcoming people into our community, is willing to take risks and is what God wants. Furthermore, the narrative in 2 Samuel is a great illustration of what Paul is talking about in Galatians 5. There the apostle is arguing that if we keep in step with the Spirit we will display the social qualities needed to ensure that our differences don't tear our communities apart.

All well and good - and people said so afterwards.

The reason I felt a better sermon was drifting just beyond my reach was that I should have stayed rooted in the Samuel narrative showing how our kindness is a political and social act that has the power to change the context in which we do our politics. More than that, David's kindness to Mephibosheth is contrasted with the way he treated other people - notably Uriah, Bathsheba and members of his immediate family.

We see a hint of it in 2 Samuel 16 where David, under pressure and desperate to save his own skin, acts in an unkind way towards Mephibosheth because another person has interpreted Mephibosheth's behaviour unfavourably to the fleeing king.

Here we have an illustration of how the pressures of life and circumstances affect our ability to be kind.

It, of course, raises the question of what kindness is. In one sense it's about being faithful to one another - the word used in 2 Samuel 9 is hesed which means covenant loyalty. To honour a promise to his friend, David takes risks with his safety and his political advantage to show kindness to a potential rival for his throne.

We often see kindness as a bit of a warm and fuzzy quality, offering tea and sympathy to those who need it but hardly world-changing. What this narrative reveals is that being kind to one another is the basis for a social ethic that could make the difference between young people carrying guns on our streets and those same young people being steered into productive and fulfilling lives.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

New improved

My blogger account has changed to a new improved version - so I hope you can tell the difference! One thing it allows me to do is to label my posts which sounds fun.

When I went to it this morning I had to log in twice which was a pain but apart from that it seems pretty similar to the previous version. I'll explore its features and hopefully find exciting new ways to convery my shallow thinking.

I've been listening to the new album by Taureg band Tinariwen. Called Aman Iman (meaning Water is Life) it's a wonderful mixture of jangling guitars and haunting vocals.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Fondling Galatians

I'm finally holding my copy of Discovering Galatians - it arrived last Thursday. A colleague asked me this morning how I felt about getting it, was I excited. And I guess the answer to that is 'yes'.

A book like this - 140 pages of mid-level biblical exegesis - takes a fair amount of time to put together. This one was road tested on our men's Bible study group, tweaked and honed over time and subjected to some pretty thorough editing once the manuscript was delivered.

There's a sense that once you've sent the proofs back, you never want to see it again! But holding it in my hand just now does give a little frisson of achievement.

Now I just need herds of you to go out and buy it and recommend it to all your home groups, cells, coffee bar discussion groups, pub-based bible studies....

Friday, February 16, 2007

A welcome in the pews?

Making people welcome at church is seen as part of Christianity 101; it's so basic, you hardly feel the need to remind people that it matters. Yet, of course, all the surveys of why people leave church agree that top of the list of factors causing people's attendance to drop off is that they found churches feel pretty unwelcoming places.

This is not new. We're working our way through Acts at the moment. And as well as discovering just how theologically and sociologically central the sharing of possessions and pooling of resources was to the early Christians - you can imagine how popular that is round here(!) - I also notice that making people feel welcome was high up the list of qualities the early Christians had to learn - just like us.

In Acts 9 we read the familiar story of the calling of Saul to be apostle to the gentiles. Less familiar in this chapter is just how much of a struggle it was for Paul to find acceptance in the Christian community in both Damascus and Jerusalem. Not for these believers the crowing over gaining such a high profile scalp. No, Paul was about as welcome as barbecued ribs at a Bar Mitvah.

Ananias told the Lord what Paul had done - as if God didn't know(!) - which should have been sufficient to change God's mind about welcoming into his people. The apostles preached a gospel of life transforming good news through the cross of Christ, but weren't sure its life-changing properties were any match for the sins of the arch persecutor.

Doesn't this sound familiar? We're told to avoid people whose lifestyles are dodgy because they might corrupt us; we find it hard to welcome those who are being drawn to our churches through social ministries because their lifestyles are iffy, their personal habits questionable and their pasts dark and dirty.

So, do we believe the gospel changes people's lives? Do we believe it is good news for everyone? Do we, therefore, believe, that we should be putting out the red carpet for everyone, regardless of their background or body odour, who crosses our threshold?

Is that Osama Bin Laden crossing the car park?

Oh... and I've discovered John Meyer. It appears that five million Americans aren't wrong (hard to believe, I know). His album, Continuum, is an hour of mellow, funky, bluesy grooves and intelligent writing. He even does a cover of Hendrix's Bold as Love that is truly magnificent. There's sermons aplenty in Waiting on the World to change, the album's turbo-charged opener, and Belief, a soulful and coruscating attack on the war on terror and the religious culture wars in the States. But why preach, just listen and chat afterwards...

Monday, February 12, 2007

A pin-prick for justice

Last night we attached the keys to our earrings to complete the look destined to take the fashion world by storm.....

It felt odd and gets caught on my scarf. But over a quarter a million children are trafficked into West African cocoa production areas to harvest the raw material for our lunchtime chocolate treat.

According to the US State department
many of these children are under 12 years-of-age, sold into indentured servitude for $140 and
work 12-hour days for $135 to $189 per year.

Like the flow of migrants across our planet, these statistics show how desperate families are to scrape a living in some parts of the world. Stop the Traffik is lifting the lid on this in a way that might get people changing their behaviour in the west to make a token difference for some of those lives and put pressure on governments to make real and substantial changes in the terms of trade between rich and poor nations.

I think my ear can stand a little discomfort for that (not wanting to sound too po-faced and juster-than-thou about it!)

Oh and here's me and Jonathan together:

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Photographic evidence

Stuart asked for a picture of my piercing...

Here's one of the needle being run through my left lobe - surprisingly, no pain was felt at this point!

The idea for this came from seeing 58 year old Ken Raynard, minister of Belper Baptist getting it done. Thanks Ken.

And below is my new left profile - what a dash i cut! This morning it doesn't feel sore at all so I'm pretty confident that we'll be hanging the Unlock Freedom keys this evening. Watch this space!

Friday, February 09, 2007

Stop the traffik

Over the weekend I'll respond to some of the comments on my previous post which are stimulating all sorts of thoughts.

Today Jonathan (our minister for youth and young adults) and I had our ears pierced as a prelude to launching our Stop the Traffik Freedom Day activities. Having had a ring inserted by a highly competent young lady piercer, we hope to attach the Stop the Traffik keys to them on Sunday at our evening service.

We'll then wear them to advertise the fact that on 25 March we'll be celebrating the end 200 years ago of the transatlantic slave trade, lamenting the fact that we still benefit from this iniquitous trade and drawing attention to the fact that more people are trafficked today than were transported at the height of the trade that Wilberforce opposed and attempted to stop by Parliamentary action.

On 25 March we'll be on the High Street in Bromley drawing attention to the use of trafficked children in the production of chocolate, giving away fair trade bars and selling others. We'll be playing music, giving out leaflets, talking to people and welcoming a group walking from Keston - where the oak tree that Wilberforce sat under to seek inspiration - to our stand in the High Street. We're hoping that this small group will walk chained together for the four and half miles and hand out information explaining why they're doing it.

If you want to find out more about Stop the Traffik, visit their website at www.stopthetraffik.org

Monday, February 05, 2007

First thoughts on our discussions

Time to reflect on our discussions in church about belonging and stuff. It's been a good conversation so far for a couple of very simple reasons.

The first is that a lot of people are joining in. More are attending our mid-week central gathering than usual, others are emailing ideas or collaring us at church on Sunday to express a view or ask a question. This is all great - though collating it all and getting that disseminated to others is a challenge!

The second is that people are talking and listening to each other. There was a healthy degree of honesty last week and even disagreement that didn't descend into rancour. I had the sense of people expressing their view and then, on hearing a contrary view reasonably stated, pausing to reflect on whether they should amend their view. This is progress, I feel.

Over on Stuart Blythe's excellent Word at the Barricades, he reflects on whether we should count as members those who turn up to discuss and discern what God is saying to the church. I like this bottom-up, non-institutional approach. Stuart says:

maybe members should be recognised as those who attend the meetings to share in
the discussing and discerning! To put that differently, if we consider that
the practice of communal discernment is important, if that is a conviction, let
us make it more important in practice not less.

I like his phrase 'communal discernment'. It strikes me that this is what congregational government ought to be about. It seems to me to be what Paul argues on 1 Corinthians 2 about us having the mind of Christ.

I do have an observation/question about it, however, and it's this: people seem to have a default position that they do not want to things they find comfortable and familiar to change. We want new people to join the church but we don't want the way we do church to be affected by that. So when those people gather to 'communally discern' they tend to think that God is interested in maintaining the status quo, the way we do things here. After all, at some point in our history, we have communally discerned that this is the right way to do things.

So it seems to me that the role leaders have in congregational government is to bring the bigger picture against which communal discernment now must take place. And that bigger picture is especially informed by scripture and culture and particularly the reading of scripture in the light of the cultural situation in which we must embody, incarnate our gathering called church.

So it seems to be that communal discernment has to be about hearing Christ in the scriptures and the wider world as well as about hearing Christ through one another gathered to chart a way forward.