Thursday, July 31, 2008

Waiting for the man to come

I love the Finan readings in July (from Celtic Daily Prayer). Not only do they contain lots of good things from Henry Drummond, but also the thought I shared yesterday and this one today by William Griffin:

'Those who do not believe in Jesus laugh at the prophecies he made but did not keep; but those who do believe, wait. Some, in the first few centuries of the Christian era, fled into the deserts of Egypt, there to weave mats one day, unweave them the next, waiting prayerfully for Jesus to come again. Others, realising that Jesus will come when he will, and not a moment before, set about the market the mats woven in the desert and to witness to their faith in the marketplace.'

That's about as wonderful a definition of what it means to wait on God as I've read in a long while. But it's also a terrific reflection on what the Christian community is for. Do we hide away praying that God's Kingdom would come or do we mix it in the market place with our neighbours, showing by our lives and our words that the Kingdom is both here and coming?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Where the worship is

I've often said that church services are where we get the resources to worship in our daily lives rather than where we actually worship; you know, Romans 12:1 in action.

This morning I cam across this wonderful quote from Colin Morris (in the Finan Readings from Celtic Daily Prayer) that says it so much better than I ever have; reflect on this (he is, of course, referring to what people do when they come to church):

'The worship of men and women spending themselves in compassionate action would have an air more of desperation than formality. They would stagger into church utterly drained of goodness, unable to face another day unless their numbed spirits were re-sensitised and their strength renewed. They would be too hoarse to sing, too stiff to kneel, and too dog-tired to take away any long exhortations from the pulpit. They would await the reading of the lesson with something akin to dread as God presented them with yet more impossible demands. Every false word in the service would stand out like a sore thumb and pretentiously ornate language would be heard no more. Instead, they would gasp out a single litany exposing the horror and pain and misery they had shared, asking God to show them Jesus in it.'

There's living!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Plain man's pathway to heaven...

I've just finished Chris Haigh's The Plain Man's Pathways to Heaven: Kinds of Christianity in Post-Reformation England (Oxford 2007). And what a fabulous book it is.

Ok, I'm slightly biased as Chris was my tutor on my special subject at university back in the 1970s, and reading his prose is like hearing him speak - the more so in this volume as it started life as the Wiles Lectures at Queen's University, Belfast.

He sets out to explore the nature of faith in England between the 1560s and 1630s by seeing what kinds of cases were coming up before the church courts. In doing so, he paints a rich and varied portrait of the beliefs of ordinary people in the years of upheaval in religion from the accession of Elizabeth 1 to the outbreak of the English Civil war.

In many ways he makes the case - something I have believed for a long time - that the Revolution of the 1640s and 1650s was a continuation of the Reformation that had started with Henry's desire to divorce in 1529.

Along the way, Haigh uncovers marvellous anecdotes and tales of people's beliefs and disagreements over how church should be run. It's refreshing for a preacher or minister, for example, to read of the number of cases brought before the courts of 'gadding to other places to hear preachers'. It appears that even 400 years ago consumerism was alive and well in the church as people travelled some distance to hear a particular preacher or avoided their parish church in favour of another down the road because the minister was more to their liking.

I guess one of the major findings of his reading is that people disagreed over religion - sometimes pretty vehemently - but generally speaking they got on with each other. They continued to work together, share harvesting together, be neighbourly to one another. Only occasionally did religious differences spill over into hostility and then only for short periods - until the Bishops' War of 1639 showed that such differences could actually tear the world apart (and maybe indicates that tolerance was only ever skin-deep).

One thing that is absent from Chris' account - though I'm not sure how much you'd expect it to show up in the records he so carefully analysed - was any reference to separatist congregations or even to those who might be so non-conformist that they were labelled not just 'puritan' but 'baptist' or 'independent'. I wonder if there is any trace of early baptist life in the court records Chris looked at.

Anyone with an interest in Reformation history, the history of Christian churches in England, or just generally in fascinating history brilliantly told and brought to life, should read this book.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Hearing and doing the Word together

A while ago I blogged on an essay I was reading by Walter Brueggemann (it's here with a couple of helpful comments attached).

In particular Tim asks about metanarratives and individualism. I'm always a bit suspicious of questions about metanarratives (partly because I'm not 100% sure I know one when I step on one!). Brueggemann is probably suspicious of metanarratives understood as overarching stories that give the tellers of those stories power over their listeners.

And it's for that reason that I suspect Brueggemann is more communitarian in his understanding of how preaching works than my previous post might have suggested. It's always the problem of commenting on one essay in a collection. But it is fair to say that the focus of the essays is on preaching which is a solo activity in almost all its incarnations - I know that Alan and Eleanor Kreider have pioneered dialogue-style preaching (and I've even done it once with a colleague) - but overwhelmingly, preaching is an individual act.

Listening has the potential to be a collective act. In most of our churches, however, it seems to be equally individualistic. People come and hear and leave and process the content of a sermon on their own.

One of the things I'd like to explore - which is, I think, part of the process of trying to make preaching more of a dialogue - is how congregations can be helped to listen to sermons together. How can we make the hearing, weighing and applying of the Word an act that we do as a community.

As a Baptist, I think I believe that hearing, understanding and doing the Word of God is the most collective thing that we can do. It's our whole reason for gathering. All theology, says James McClendon, is biography - the story of God and the story of his people. Preaching is one of the components of that biography.

As my sabbatical draws to a close and I think about teaching programmes at church through this autumn, one of my concerns is how do we make this a reality. How do we preach, teach, listen, learn and live as a community of God's people?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Reasons to be hopeful..?

I'm not back at work yet - another week to go (yay!!!) But tomorrow I'm speaking at the final session of the current Street Pastors' training course in Brixton, so I've been doing some thinking not only about that but also what might be in store for us at church in the autumn.

This year's Spring Harvest tackled the subject of hope and one or two people came back from that wanting to explore the issues it raised further. At the same time I've been thinking about Christian identity as it's unpacked in 1 Peter.

So, this morning I mused on whether it would be good to do a Little reflecting as a church on Christian hope, using 1 Peter 3:15 as a springboard: ' your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.' (TNIV)

What reasons do we have to be hopeful? In the midst of the credit crunch, rising food prices, international threats and instability, where's the hope? Clearly Peter's first readers had it and their neighbours noticed. Do we? Does anybody see it? Does anyone ask us about it? And most importantly, are we able to tell them anything useful.

It's clear that Spring Harvest opened up a way of talking about Christian hope that was unusual, unsettling but attractive to a lot of people. I think that's probably worth exploring in the autumn. But what should I be thinking of including in a such a series? Answers on a postcard...

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Seeking the welfare of the city

I've been reading Henry Drummond's The City without a Church. I do this every July because the Northumbria Community's readings for the month come from it. I love it. It never fails to move, inspire and challenge me.

Drummond is almost forgotten Victorian Scot who worked with Moody and explored the frontier between science and faith. He died in his late 40s and left a substantial body of work on science, faith and spirituality. You can check out his work here. The Northumbria Community has produced The City Without a Church as part of its How shall we then live? series of booklets. Check out the community website here for details.

The City without a Church is a meditation on verses from Revelation 21 & 22 and is a call for Christians to live their faith in the grubby realities of our city rather than hide away in our churches. It's written in a simple and direct style that continually asks us 'why not?' Here's a flavour:

'I make this, then, in all seriousness as a definite practical proposal. You wish, you say, to be a religious man. Well, be one. There is your City; begin. But what are you to believe? Believe in your City. What else? In Jesus Christ. What about Him? That He wants to make your City better; that that is what He would be doing if He lived there. What else? Believe in yourself—that you, even you, can do some of the work which He would like done, and that unless you do it, it will remain undone. How are you to begin? As Christ did. First He looked at the City; then He wept over it; then He died for it.' (booklet p11)

There is a glorious, down-to-earth optimism about his writing that sits uncomfortably in our slightly cynical, ironic times. I'd say that he's a pioneer missional thinker. He repays careful and reflective reading. So why not read it with a friend or a home group and ask how you might put it into practice in your own communities?

Saturday, July 19, 2008


So, I bit the bullet and bought the guitar - the lovely Simon & Patrick guitar - from the shop down the road. Not only did I save myself a couple of hundred quid, but I also supported my local economy - so I feel doubly good.

I've now done nearly everything I wanted to do with my sabbatical - and I need a rest!

Next week I'm hoping to record some songs on Clifford's set-up so I can see what they sound like.

I will also be revising my book outline for the publisher - a promising first meeting has led to a second meeting where some revisions in what I'm proposing and some fleshing out of things is required. I think it's looking good but it'll be a month before I know for sure.

I'll also be thinking about going back to work. Curiously, I am looking forward to this!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

O how I love shopping....!

I'm trying to buy a guitar at the moment. Not a difficult thing to do, you'd have thought - given the ubiquitous nature of the rock and roll industry. And in one sense it isn't.

I want to buy a Simon & Patrick Flame Maple electro-accoustic - lovely tone, hard-wearing and excellent electronics (so everyone tells me). I duly pitched at the guitar dealer nearest to me who had half a dozen in stock. The prices were not too eye-watering and the tone was sublime, the action a little high (though the dealer said he'll sort that out for me free of charge) and the electrics - ie when it was plugged in to an amp - were indeed excellent.

So I could have bought it. But I felt I ought to shop around, so I went off to Tin Pan Alley just off London's Charing Cross Road to trawl the guitar shops and see what was on offer. Well, you'd never guess there was a recession on. Despite being the only customer in most of the shops, no one offered to sell me a guitar. When I did speak to a member of staff, I was told that either they did not stock S&P guitars but the ones they did stock were better or that I could play anything I wanted. no one offered to assess what my guitar needs were or to set instruments up for me to try out.

Not surprisingly, I left empty-handed.

So, I went back on line. I've already trawled a number of websites checking out S&P - reviews mainly (universally positive except for one guy who lived in Arizona and found his S&P fell apart in the dry heat). But this time I looked for offers, deals, even prices and was surprised at the number of sites that don't post prices but invite you to enquire by email - what's that about?!

I finally found a Belgian site with a good range of S&P guitars only to find that the one my local retailer had in stock was available at over £200 more than he was selling it for - and I'd have to entrust it to the vaguaries of a courier.

So, looks like I'll be driving down the road and buying locally after all. What do I learn from this?

Monday, July 07, 2008

Redefining power and greatness

Thanks Bob for drawing our attention to Job 38-41. I'm not sure the contrast I was making is between God's moral greatness and the extent of God's powers; rather I think my point is that the way that God uses his power - extensive and out of this world as they are - is in love and grace.

I think Job's response in chapter 42 is awe at the 'otherness' of God, at the breadth of God's grasp of detail and the big picture and at the fact that his (Job's) story is only one of the billions God is constantly focused on. I think God's response to Job's repentance is interesting. He first tells Job's very sound friends that they haven't been speaking for him when they've been offering Job advice. Then he restores Job.

The heart of the story is that in the mystery of suffering, God is at work - though we haven't a clue where or how or why (and while we're in the midst of it, we're in the dark and often our friends aren't as helpful as they think they're being!).

But I think this is a different issue from the one I was thinking about in my previous post.

I guess I start from the place that God's power is seen supremely seen in Jesus on the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5) and that expression of power redefines the meaning of the word (hence Colossians 2:15 - disarming power through suffering so we can be forgiven and the world remade).

I'm not sure I'm expressing myself entirely clearly, so I need to think about it some more. Once again thanks, Bob, for your comment.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

God's greatness and grace

Has anyone else noticed how often people pray along the following lines: 'we thank you that despite your greatness (outlined in terms of creativity, power, etc), you still love us'? Is anyone else uneasy about it?

This has troubled me for a while. Surely it's because of God's greatness that he loves us, it's an outworking of his greatness, a sign of his greatness; indeed surely his greatness is grace-shaped, he is only great because grace shapes everything he is and does. In short, he loves what he has made. After all, doesn't John remind us that God is love...?

My disquiet about the language of 'despite' is that it defines greatness in the way fallen humans exercise it. The great men (and women) of history are men of power, military prowess, the iron fist that creates the context for the odd velvet touch; people to whom acts of mercy are a condescension not their default position.

Mercifully this is not how God expresses his greatness. He expresses his greatness by raising the poor from the ash heap, pouring his grace into sinful people so that they might choose to follow the way of his Son. Hence Psalm 72 models human kingship on this divine way of handling power and not vice versa.

Perhaps if we got our picture of God right, we'd get our ethics as the followers of Jesus sorted.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Lessons in preaching with Walter

As part of my sabbatical reading, I've been tackling Walter Brueggemann's new book The Word Militant: Preaching a Decentering Word. I thought I ought to read at least one text that will help me in my day job.

In fact, I'm also reading Chris Haigh's new book The Plain Man's Pathway to Heaven, an investigation of the nature of belief in post-Reformation England, which as well as being fascinating (and beautifully written) is also offering considerable insight into the formation of disciples in our context (not sure this could possibly be Chris' intention!)

This afternoon I read Brueggemann's essay 'Preaching as Reimagination' which consists of 16 theses about where preaching currently finds itself. It's truly stimulating stuff.

In particular, I really appreciated his insistence that we need to preach the text that's given and not our theology (and how the text informs it). I was always taught at college that we need to preach what the text says (a pretty obvious lesson) rather than what we want to say. And we need to avoid at all costs makiing the text fit our systematic theology by bringing in caveats from elsewhere that flatten the meaning of a text or lesson its impact.

Brueggemann offers an even more nuanced take on this. 'the preacher, if taking the text seriously, does not sound the whole of "biblical truth" in preaching but focuses on one detailed text to see what it yields.' This is crucial, in his view, because the text constantly questions our theology, what he calls 'the long term stabilization of a larger reading.' I agree.

The essay as a whole suggests that preaching should be helping listeners to reimagine the world in the light of a particular text. Such reimagining happens as listeners are taken into the narrative world of the text being read, encounter God as a character in that story (and respond to him in one way or another) and then reflect on how encountering God as that character in our story in the context we live it out would change the way we see - and even construct - our world as followers of Jesus.

I wonder if this would work? I wonder how you do it? I'll have to see when I get back in the saddle...

In the meantime, I'm loving the Fleet Foxes eponymous first album - a sort of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young meet Fairport Convention in post-grunge Seattle. It's quite lovely - though I haven't got a clue what any of the songs are about (I'm just marvelling at the wonderful harmonies they achieve).

Thursday, July 03, 2008

the trials of car buying

Well, we've just bought ourselves a (nearly)new car! It happened quicker than I expected but it's good to get it over and done with.

Having agonised about what type of car to go for - Focus C-max, Citroen C4 Picasso, Volkswagen golf - we decided this morning that we really wanted a more comfortable version of the car we've got - a Renault scenic.

So, off we went to the dealer, having checked websites for used car values, talked to him about what we wanted, test drove a vehicle that's only six months old and done just under 9,000 miles and was on their books at a very competitive price. And we decided to buy it! Well, it's something we only do once every six or seven years, so why not?

Apart from having everything we were looking for - a wheel at each corner, low C02 emissions, power steering, central locking, you know the kind of thing... - this one has a six CD changer located under the front passenger seat and a good beefy sound system (how sad am I to think these things matter)

We get it next week...

Now we're having a cup of tea wondering what we've done!