Sunday, May 27, 2007

Reflecting on Galatians

Re-read Sean Winter's Galatians Bible study from the Baptist Assembly and began reading his Whitley lecture. The former is full of good stuff - as I said before - the latter looks really interesting.

We have begun preaching through Galatians at church and this week I was exploring identity through Paul's long autobiographical section (1:11-2:21 - the longest in any of Paul's letters).

Half way through talking about our identity in terms of call (by God) and community, I got a sense of just how vital Galatians 3:26-29 is in all this.

I believe Galatians to be Paul at his most apocalyptic 1:4 and 6:14-15 bookend the discussion with suitably apocalyptic tones; his discussion of the new life we enjoy in the Spirit is apocalyptic and thus so is his description of the new humanity we are in Christ, summarised in 3:26-29. It's almost as if this is the peak of the mountain whose low slopes are marked out by 1:4 and 6:14f.

If this is the case then it's crucial that we grasp who we are in Christ in terms of the new creation and not in terms of categories derived from this age - Law, ethnicity, social status, education, whatever (I agree with Sean that gender differences are still important because sexuality is a core part of what it means to be human and does so in the new age as well as the old one; but that gender domination has no place in the new age, for we are equal in Christ and equally called and gifted to participate, minister and lead in god's new community.)

A key point that I made this morning - I'm not sure entirely effectively - is that the distinction we sometimes make between 'human beings' and 'human doings', emphasising that we're the former, misses the point of who we are in Christ. Paul describes his identity and work in the same broad sweeping term - call (1:15). This emphasises the all-encompassing nature of the life of discipleship. After all, in the terms of his other strong image in the letter, we can't just be crucified with Christ on Sundays and at the mid-week bible study; we either are or we aren't. Being crucified with Christ defines our lifestyle 24hours a day, seven days a week, for it's no longer me that lives but Jesus who lives through me (2:20 - next week's topic - bring it on!).

So it matters not only what we do but also - and possibly more importantly - how we do it, because it is the way we live out our calling to be disciples in the world in a way that makes us part of God's renewing of creation.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

How do you describe your church?

Excellent post by Andy Goodliffe (who's blog is increasingly unmissable, jammed full of essential stuff) on the language we use about church. Check it out at

Stipe on doing something about it

Came across a nice quote from Michael Stipe (he of REM and the heavy blue eyeliner) on Faithnet. He was talking about his reactions to Katrina's devastation of New Orleans. He said:

The most godly way to respond to something like this is to put everything aside and say, "You are my brother and sister, and I am here. I have not forgotten. I have not turned my back. I've not allowed the news cycle to dictate whether I am paying attention to the circumstance you found yourself in or not. I am here."

He went on to speak warmly of his Methodist parents and the fact that he came from a long line of Methodist ministers. You can read it at It puts Losing My Religion (one of the most incredible songs of the 1990s) into an interesting perspective. I just hope he and his band can capture the spirit that produced that song on their next album.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A final reflection on cafe church

Still picking over the scab of Sunday evening's gathering... I think, on mature reflection, that the major problem with it was that the Bible material wasn't clearly enough linked to the Paul Simon material.

So for future reference, I think if I do anything like this again, I will tie the album and the bible material much more closely together, possibly inviting the congregation in groups around the table to critique the selection of songs we're using with the text of scripture and vice versa.

I think I'd also have a quiz. I almost did a 'ten things you won't know about this album' quiz but decided not to because the service was already looking long enough. Quizzes are a great way of generating conversation around and between tables at cafe church and an excellent means of imparting information without giving a lecture.

The format has worked well with serious moral/ethical issues - stem cell research, international debt - and pop culture topics - the Da Vinci Code. A mixture of questions, some lighter than others, gets people thinking and talking together and generates an interest in knowing what the answer is when people discover they don't know. It's fairly important to pitch the quiz just above your audience's known ignorance level - it would be a disaster if one table romped home to an easy victory, leaving everyone else in their wake!

Loving the new Bjork album - challenging and beautiful as ever. I've also just finished C J Sansom's third Matthew Shardlake novel, Sovereign - it's the best yet, a deep, dark, intricate web of a mystery every bit as dazzling as the Name of the Rose. The characterisation of a bloated, paranoid Henry VIII, touring the North of England amid plots and doubts about the succession is superb. Shardlake is an extraordinary creation. I hope another one's in the pipeline.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Peter Oakes on Philippians

Finally got my own copy of Peter's excellent study on Philippians. Having read other people's and photocopies of a couple of chapter, I now have a brand spanking new paperback via the ever-efficient Amazon Marketplace.

Peter and I were at LBC together - but he was always a lot brighter! His book and related articles were what rekindled my interest in New Testament social history so I'm looking forward to reading it all over again in the light of all the things I've read since first encountering it - much of it at his recommendation.

reflecting on cafe church

Cafe church went ok yesterday - no technical hitches and we stuck pretty well to time. It was demanding and I think it took a lot of us quite a bit of effort and time to get into it and some didn't - though judging by participation in the zone time, I'd say lots of people were sufficiently touched by something to want to respond.

As promised, here's my closing monologue on the link between Paul Simon's Surprise and Romans 8:

'How can you live in the North east? A plea for a warring world to live together in peace, yet acknowledging that we wear our father’s old coat, we cling to the culture that made us, the language that shapes us, the gods that crave our allegiance...

So let’s abandon god altogether and watch the fourth of July fireworks – that beautiful image of being so small in vastness of space:

We watched the fireworks 'til they were fireflies.
Followed a path of stars over the endless skies.

This is something that haunts the album – but not as much as God does.

Who’s going to love us, he sings on outrageous

Who's gonna love you when your looks are gone?
God will,
Like he waters the flowers on your window sill.

And one thing he doesn’t believe is that

…a heart can be filled to the brim
Then vanish like mist as though life were a whim

And in war – when we’re overwhelmed by our inability to live together because we’re so prone to tear ourselves apart as families as much as nations – we wrap ourselves in prayer:

when the wounds are deep enough,
and it's all that we can bear,
We wrap ourselves in prayer

There’s an urgency about this praying that’s absent from the calm, private conversations we hold with our gods when we’re at peace. In war – as the fires come – we join in prayer in every language for all the world’s families scattered and broken…

And suddenly we’re in Romans 8, groaning with the groaning world, agnostics united in not knowing what to say but knowing someone is there in the depth of our agony and inability to articulate – and he’s groaning/she’s groaning in labour as in the shadows and the convulsions of creation, a new world takes shape.

And we’re invited to participate in its creation.

At its most basic it is – as Paul Simon sings on Everything about it is a love song –

But if I ever get back to the twentieth century
Guess I'll have to pay off some debts
Open the book of my vanishing memory
With its catalogue of regrets
Stand up for the deeds I did
And those I didn't do
Sit down, shut up, think about God
And wait for the hour of my rescue

And at its most wonderful, it’s God’s children, his heirs, flexing their muscles and playing their small part in the redemption of the world he loved so much he absorbed its agony and anguish on the cross to redeem it

And our response is….?'

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Paul Simon at cafe church

In the end cafe church this coming Sunday is not quite like we did in prism - for one thing I don't have a whole day to cement broken tiles to an mdf cross (come to think of it, I don't have an mdf cross!)

I have, however, been reflecting on Paul Simon's lovely Surprise album and have cast a gathering around it and Romans 8 called 'Paul Simon and the groaning world'. Using three songs from the album - I don't believe, wartime prayers and how on earth can you live in the north-east? - we'll reflect on what the world is like and what our call is as God's heirs in the world in the light of some of Simon's observations.

I'll post my concluding monologue - about five minutes - after Sunday evening. I've found Simon's wrestling with the way of the world and his sense of being haunted by the divine very moving. it's an album of rich and deep meditations on the isolation of the human condition and the need to make some kind of connection with a power bigger than ourselves. He wonders on the opening track whether that might just be the nation we inhabit, that maybe if we rose above our cultures and religions, we might be able to live together. But those thoughts are shattered 9/11 and the subsequent war. It seems our cultures trap us in default responses - only prayer can rescue us.

And what do God's heirs have to say about this? I'll let you know...

I think Romans 8 is a rich resource for us as we dialogue with people like Paul Simon and the countless thousands on the planet he in some way speaks for. We are called to share the agony of the creation we're a part of and find the groaning God in our hearts whose presence strengthens us to play our part in bringing about redemption.

So if you're a fan of Paul Simon and live in Bromley, come and join the conversation. You can't miss us - on Sunday evening, we'll be the church playing the sweetest music!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Bringing Prism to Bromley

I shall be trying a version of Prism's take on Romans 8 this Sunday at our monthly cafe-style service. The three groans of the passage cry out out for a zone each that will help us express the agony of creation, the church and God in creative ways.

I'm pondering smashing a pile of tiles and fixing them to something (not sure what yet) and would quite like to fine a life-size Russian doll (do not willfully misunderstand that - I am, of course referring to a wooden construction consisting of a doll within a doll within a doll and nothing else that you can acquire over the Internet). I'm also going to do the coffee bean and chocolate ritual. Somehow in my mind this all seems to fit. We'll see.

We also kick off Galatians this week (in the mornings until the end of August), so I am finding Sean Winter's Bible study (available at his blog along with a host of other good things) very helpful. I am going away to ponder what he says about baptism preparation - partly because it's a really good thought and mainly because I begin a series of baptismal preparation sessions with at least two people tomorrow evening (very exciting!).

What I am most struck by is Sean's suggestion that Galatians 3:26-29 offers those being baptised a theological vision of their identity and mission, the start of a new reality we are called to live in day-by-day. It's not only an individual identity, either, but an identity that is focused on joining a community of similarly renewed people who together are working for the redemption of creation (which, of course, takes me back to the bottomless theological lake that is Romans 8...)

So, thanks to Sean for giving my baptismal preparation classes a much-needed make over.

I'll probably also try to read Alan Kreider's essay in the new Andrew Walker/Luke Bretherton collection Remembering our Future: Explorations in Deep Church. Unfortunately, use of the word 'deep' in this context keeps reminding me of the jazz critic on the Fast Show! But I'm sure Alan's piece - 'Baptism and Catecheses as Spiritual Formation - will be stimulating and Godly as his stuff invariably is.

Friday, May 11, 2007

More Prism reflections

It seems like a good number of people enjoyed Prism - judging by the response I've had in various forms.

My mature reflections after a couple of days in rain-swept Devon relaxing with good friends are that I thought the Bible studies went well - the right mixture of input from the front (ten minutes of me - plenty for everyone!) and discussion with facilitators where people wrestled with how the text applies to some pressing issues facing us today; I thought the evening with the Newly accredited Ministers was just wonderful - it was great to see their faces as they came into applause and were sang over by our gospel singer; and the communion was pretty special - it was deeply moving to see friends and strangers offering each other bread and wine, sharing in the words of institution and in many locations, praying for one another.

The age mix was great. Lots of people see Prism as appealing to the under 40s (and I hope it does). But what we found was that at each session the retired and the student sat shoulder to shoulder. And a lot of the glowing comments I've had have come from people in their 50s and 60s for whom the format was a breath of fresh air. One such grabbed my hand at the end of one evening and thanked me, saying that it was the most 'authentic' thing he'd been to at the Assembly for years.

The two workshops we ran in the afternoons were also pretty special. The first was packed and full of ideas about how to do things more creatively in our churches; the second was more select and focused on the links between alt. worship and emerging church and asked really searching questions about where the church in the UK was going. They were supposed to be identical!

Over the next few weeks conversations will take place about whether and how it will happen when the Assembly caravan lands in Blackpool next year.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Assembly review

Suddenly Day one in the Baptist Assembly house became packing up and hitting the road for home...

It went really well - at least the bit I was in. As co-host of Prism, I hardly left Hall A except to sleep and eat curries with mates - it was fab.

Prism went really well - actually vastly better than I was anticipating. I was working with a great team - Ruth, Amie, James, Nick, Aiden, Ed and Sam with cameo appearances by Guido and Diwari, - excellent bible study facilitators - Juliet, James (again - he's so versatile), Gareth, Matt, Wale and Adam - and special guests on each evening. So thanks to them all for making it all go so well.

We had an average turn-out of 130 each morning and evening, except on Friday, the first night, which was less (though more than I'd expected - but then I tend to err a little on the gloomy side).

Every evening was different, full of bright ideas and God moments - everyone breaking bread for everyone and sharing with friend and stranger alike on the Friday, the intense prayer of Saturday evening when the Spirit was heavy on the shoulders of the saints and the glorious joy of diwari singing the Lord's calling over newly-accredited ministers; and so many more.

I wonder if it will happen next year...

Friday, May 04, 2007

Day one in the baptist assembly house...

(read in strong Newcastle accent) day one in the baptist assembly house and the housemates seem to have negotiated the first night without mishap and make a 7am breakfast with a smile on their faces.

Assembly day one (you can drop the accent now) and everything has gone well. Prism is set up - just the zones to build today and the only hitch so far is that I haven't got enough t-joints to put my prison cell together using plastic waste pipe so we'll need an outing to a plumbers' merchant this morning.

The team is assembling and in good heart. I think it's going to be a blast. If you're in Brighton, at a loose end, come and join us.

Having built the venue, I'll be spending some time this morning wrestling with Romans 8 for tomorrow morning's Bible Study. I have to put the whole chapter in context and give the delegates something to think about and apply to one of six issues in 8 minutes - no pressure there then.

Been listening to Blonde Redhead's latest album. Called 23 (pronounced: two three) it's a gem. Echoes of sixties powerpop, even a moment of Althea and Donna's Uptown topranking (anyone remember that 70s classic?!) but the band they reminded me most of is the British indie outfit from the mid-90s called Lush - the sweeping guitars and synths and delicate female vocals. Check it out, they're well worth it.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

conference report (take 2)

One of the problems keeping the momentum going following our church conference is that we have so few opportunities for extended conversations in the normal run of church life. That, of course, is the reason we had the conference!

But we've identified a clutch of issues to raise at the next church meeting which will hopefully set the agenda for the two or three church meetings after that. I guess my hope is that by the end of the year - sooner preferably - we will have made refinements to the the way we do belonging, discipleship and leadership that will enable us to be more effective in our mission.

I'm off to Brighton at the weekend for the Baptist assembly - an important gathering of our clan which I'm looking forward to. I'm co-hosting Prism, the alternative strand, for the second and final time and am expecting it to be even better than last year.

I'm reading C J Sansom's third Matthew Shardlake novel - Sovereign - which is a wonderfully intricate tale of plots against the king at the fag end of Henry VIII's reign. I've also been reading some papers on meals in the ancient world from an SBL seminar hosted by Philip Harland. In particular two papers by Dennis E Smith have reminded how central the meal table was to the formation of Christian identity - and raised a stack more questions about the size and organisation of early Christian communities. Great stuff which you'll find on Philip Harland's website if you're interested:

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Breakfast chat

I've just had breakfast with Les Issac - founder of Street Pastors, prolific traveller and one of those people who regularly sits with senior politicians and police officers and yet seems entirely untainted by it. I should add that I wasn't alone; there were 15 or so of us gathered at a regular inter-church breakfast.

He spoke briefly about a prayer event he's organising to seek God in relation to the recent spate of gun and knife crimes in south London. He asked whether anyone had a word from the Lord to share on that occasion. That always sets me thinking - is God going to say something new and startlingly original or is he going to remind us of our calling as his people in this great city?

I felt him reminding me that we are called to be a people of peace, shalom; in a world of violence we are to be a people who live together in peace and make peace in the communities in which we live.

Peace is an essential building block of community. At it's most basic, it's knowing that I will be safe in the company of my brothers and sisters in church, that if I share difficult things, I'll not be shouted at, bullied or put down. Sadly, of course, that isn't always the case. All too often churches are places where those with the loudest voices and biggest personalities get their way, wielding unhelpful influence over the lives of those around them.

So maybe our first calling in the light of these terrible events in our city is to recommit ourselves to living at peace with one another.

Peace, of course, in the bible is more than just the absence of conflict - though that's an essential first step - it's also about the presence of wholeness and well-being, right relationships with God and one another. And, most crucially, it's about seeking the blessing of that shalom for our neighbours, working for their good, for their shalom, ensuring that the widest numbers possible get a taste of God's agenda for them.

So in communities wracked by violence, it's about being a peace-making presence, a people who offer different options for young people, support for parents, a place of safety and belonging for all. It's also about using our resources to create social capital in our neighbourhoods through skills training, job creation, offering second, third and fourth chances to those who've messed up and want a shot at starting their lives over.

Where are the churches who are doing this?