Monday, March 29, 2010

With Thomas and Bono in the embrace of life

So, here's the piece I wrote for our church magazine which has just come out. I thought I'd share it in this format as probably as many members of my church will see it this way than in the print form. It's a generational thing...

We head into Easter with the world still reeling from two major earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, armed conflict in 38 countries and an economic recession that is blighting the lives of millions across the planet. Against such a global backdrop, our troubles can seem trivial. Except, they are our troubles and we feel their weight each day – whether it’s ill health, uncertainties at work, family and relationship pressures or just a feeling that life is hard work.

Easter is an explosion of life and joy after the fast of lent and the dark agony of Good Friday. But so often we feel stuck on Saturday. The battle is over, the tomb is sealed, everyone’s gone home and that’s it. Sometimes we feel too tired to realise that Easter has dawned, the sun’s up, the Son has risen. We need some one to remind us.

So many of us are like Thomas, sincere, well-meaning, loyal and shattered. We’ve had enough, as he had had enough. For him the cross was the end of the dream. He might have been the Eeyore of the disciple band, but he wasn’t alone in feeling that the world ended on Good Friday.

And he wasn’t going to be taken in the wishful thinking of a group of friends who wanted to keep the spirit of their movement alive. So when Peter and the others excitedly told him that they’d seen Jesus, he didn’t believe them. He wanted to see the evidence. Like any of the heroes of CSI he wanted to get up and close and personal with whoever his friends had seen to assure himself that they weren’t being deluded. Handling the wounds was the only proof that would persuade him.

John tells us that Thomas got his chance. Jesus invited Thomas into the embrace of life. Yes, the man before him was wounded from the cross but he was gloriously, triumphantly, luminously alive. No wonder all Thomas could say was ‘My lord and my God.’ Thomas knew what it meant that the battered and beaten Jesus was standing in front of him. By some great mystery that was beyond his ability to compute what had happened on Good Friday had created a new world and Jesus was at the heart of it. So whoever he was, he must at least be God.

Jesus is the one who brings God into focus. But more than that, he is the one who, having triumphed over all the forces ranged against us, invites us into his new world of love and life, justice and joy, the adventure of being caught up in his mission to put everything right. What this means for us, as Jesus says, is that as we believe, so we get to see who he is and what he’s doing. And he invites us to join him so we can see him more clearly.

As so often, it takes a great popular theologian to spell out what this means for us. So here’s Bono, sometime singer, sometime campaigner, a scribbling, wine-drinking, bible-reading band man.

'True religion will not let us fall asleep in the comfort of our freedom,' he says. 'Love your neighbour is not a piece of advice, it's a command. That means in the global village we're going to have to love a whole lot more people - that's what that means.' He adds: ‘if you’re going to enjoy having your sneakers and your jeans made by developing communities, you are already involved with these people. You cannot therefore just ignore some of the problems they’re negotiating. They’re living on your street. There was an old definition of generosity, which is that at the very least the rich man looks after the poor man on his street. Guess what? Now that street goes round the globe.’

And he reminds us that 'the poor are where God lives...God is with the poor and he is with us if we are with them. This is not a burden, it's an adventure.'

The words have a liturgical as well as rhetorical rhythm. I love that last sentence. Our lives with God in mission among the poor, in sharing what we have, in pooling resources and energy, insights and hard labour is an adventure not a burden.

And it’s an adventure because it’s led by Jesus. He invites us to travel through Good Friday to Easter morning, through the cross to the new world of resurrection, through suffering with a world in pain to the daw of a new creation with pain or tears.

We are Easter people because we follow a suffering servant who broke the tomb and spreads life in his wake everywhere he goes. Are we up for the adventure?

Purifying the temple with Nehemiah and Jesus

The trouble with the new blogger editing suite is that I can't find the spell checker. So if there are spelling infelicities in this it's down to me not being able to spell. Ah well.

We've had a good weekend. It's been lovely having our grand daughter staying with us for the past week - we went for a walk in Knole Park on Saturday which was full of deer and beginning to emerge from the winter with buds and leaves breaking out all over.

And yesterday evening we finished Nehemiah (hallelujah!). It's been a challenges 12 weeks. I think some good things have come from our wrestling with this text, but I can't escape the feeling that Nehemiah was the world's first spin doctor (as David Clines suggests in a fascinating essay on the book) and that it would be great to have Sanballat's autobiography on the same events!

But yesterday we pondered what we might learn from the two cleansings of the temple - one in Nehemiah 13, the other in the gospels; one by the outsider Jesus, the other by the insider Nehemiah. And we wondered what these events might have to teach us regarding creating missional communities (the subject of our journey through Nehemiah).

My reflection was that Nehemiah and Jesus, while superficially poles apart, are on the same continuum, with Jesus (as you'd expect) fulfilling and completing what Nehemiah was involved in progressing. In particular I drew two conclusions about being a missional community from all this.

The first is that to be a missional community we need to have a firm centre. A key lesson from Nehemiah is that at the heart of the community he was seeking to build was a covenant, the scriptures and prayer. These are the key to knowing who we are; these give shape to the values and lifestyle that creates the community that can truly be a city within a city.

The second is that a missional community needs to have fuzzy edges: We learn this from Jesus and the way he allowed any and everyone who wanted to to attach themselves to the band of disciples, to listen in and ask questions, to come along for the journey to see what it was all about.

It is in this way that Isaiah 2:2-4; Micah 4:1-4 (key Old Testament prophecies about the calling of God's people); Isaiah 61; Acts 3:17-21; Ephesians 3:5-7 (see the temple imagery in 2:20-21) will be fulfilled in little groups of Jesus followers; groups where people are moving from the edge to the centre, drawn by the possibility of becoming aware of who they are in Jesus and through that of discovering life in all its fulness.

It seems to me that that’s mission, that’s our calling; this is what it means to be a missional people.And if this is what Nehemiah has taught us, then it's been twelve weeks well spent - especially if we have actually learned it!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

history lessons

Apropos of yesterday's post, I've just listened to Bettany Hughes' programme on women in the early church. It's worth a listen (on iplayer for the next couple of days before part 2 is broadcast on Sunday). It seems well informed though it doesn't really tackle the first century at all except in a few passing references to Phoebe and Priscilla.

I love her description of the early Jesus followers as a guerilla church, an underground movement where jobs were done by those who could do them regardless of gender. This seems spot on as a description of the gatherings we encounter in the first two or three centuries of Christian history.

Perhaps if we could recapture that sense of being a movement rather than an institution, our debates about who exercises 'power' would be seen in proper perspective. Of course, we can't shed 1500 years of history. But we can learn lessons from the early days of the movement that might help us to navigate our way through our post-Christendom culture.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Reflections on drawing the short straw

A couple of stories caught my eye in this morning's paper, hidden away from the torrent of speculation, supposition and spin about today's budget (easy boys, all will be revealed...)

One concerned the death of the singer-songwriter Lesley Duncan, a woman whose pin-sharp tones and lovely turn of phrase brightened up my university days. Her Earth Mother album was a particular delight.

The obit in today's Guardian tells the story of her and her brother touting songs in Tin Pan Alley in the 60s and being taken onto retainers, him at £10 a week and her at £7 because she had fewer songs and was a woman!

The other story concerns, in passing, Anne Moffat, deselected by her Scottish constituency for allegedly not being up to the job. As the ever-presceient Anne Perkins observes in her column 'how remarkable that in a thousand years of male MPs there has never been a case of deselection for incompetence before.'

I think I might have sensitised to these stories by David Kerrigan's insightful blog on the recent BU Council's discussions about women in leadership.

My heart sank as I read it and even more as I read the comments from able, gifted women like Julie and Catriona. Why after nearly a century are we still having this conversation? Why after accepting in the 1920s that God calls women just as he calls into men into church leadership, inlcuding full time ministry, do women find it such an uphill struggle to be settled in pastorates in our churches?

We have a truly exceptional minister in training serving with us at the moment. She is one of the sharpest thinkers I have the pleasure to converse with regularly, she preaches with insight, clarity and purpose, she is developing gifts as a listener. She would be an asset to any church anywhere in the UK of any size. When it comes to her turn to go through settlement, I would expect that she'd be snapped up by a church that recognises her gifts and calling.

Will this happen? Sadly, it seems, we baptists, like tin pan alley, undervalues the assets God has given us because some of them come in female form and, like constituency panels, seem to judge women more harshly than men.

And it's got to stop because it's an offense to the gospel, a cause of grief to the Holy Spirit and a major impediment to our mission.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Jets overhead - but no need to duck

I'm just rediscovering a rather wonderful Canadian band called Jets Overhead. I got their 2005 album Bridges (download for whatever you wanted to pay for it) a couple of years ago. And I've just downloaded last year's No Nations. It's rather lovely.

You can check them out here and listen to the whole album before committing to purchase. Give them a spin; I don't think you'll be disappointed seeing as how as you're all discerning music listeners with impeccable taste!

I'm also using the upgraded blogger software which is smooth and easy...

Figuring out the reasons

I've been pondering the church's teaching programme on off over the past few months (as regular readers will know). I've completed the first draft of a feedback form for sermons which I will distribute to interested parties for comment this weekend.

But as we veer towards the end of our series on Nehemiah, I have been asking myself whether some books of the Bible lend themselves to Sunday ministry better than others.

I've made no secret of my struggles with Nehemiah as we journeyed through his memoir and I think I'd have to say that I'm not alone. this series has seen attendance at our later service drop off quite significantly.

And most noticeable among those who aren't attending are our young adults. This is a major disappointment. Clearly what we're offering is not seen as essential or even worth checking out.

In this we are not alone. Earlier this morning I read a series of papers posted on the EA website (here) examining why churches struggle to attract and hold onto 20s and 30s. The stats have been available since Peter Brierley published The English Church Census in 2005. They tell us that while 12.84% of 65-74s are in church on Sunday, only 3.5% of 20s and 4.5% of 30s attend regularly. I gather the figures for Scotland are if anything worse.

Only 7% of the average congregation of an English church is aged between 20 and 29. You don't need to be a genius to work out the implications of this for the future of the church. As David Voas, consistently the most interesting and challenging commentator on the sociology of church life in the UK points out: 'on average people experience little change in their beliefs and practices once they reach their early 20s.'

He draws a wider lesson from this with implications for church thinking across the board: What secularization does is to change the environment in which children are raised and the likelihood of an effective religious upbringing.'

Those looking across the pond for answers on this will find only questions. Barna tells us that six out of ten teenagers who are active in church will drop out in their twenties and Pew Forum figures suggest that only 17% of the members of evangelical churches in the US are aged 18-29.

I'll reflect further on the implications for us in due course. This is one of the challenges facing the new leadership our church is choosing at the moment. My prayer is that we'll be up for it.

Monday, March 15, 2010

More than a stand-up

There's a lovely Times article by comedian Frank Skinner about how Christians should live in our society. He revels himself not only to be a very funny man but also one who is well acquainted with scripture and church history.

In particular, he says that Christians should stop whingeing about people being beastly towards us and start living as Jesus wants us to.

He says: 'Lord Carey feels that Christians have been too soft. He said that if you behave like a doormat, you get treated like one. I’m a little wary of muscular Christianity. It’s been used to justify everything from the Crusades to the shooting of abortion doctors. It seems to be in direct contradiction to “Resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also”. This is the doormat as positive role model — a doormat who’s more concerned about the “welcome” than the muddy feet. Surely the central image of Christianity is someone who can shoot fireballs out of his fingertips allowing himself to be nailed to a wooden cross — submission as the ultimate show of strength — love as impenetrable armour. Most British Christians are badly dressed, unattractive people. We’re not pushy and aggressive members of society. We’re a bit like Goths — no one can remember us being fashionable and we talk about death a lot. I love the glorious un-coolness of that.'

I reckon there's a lot of wisdom here.

He adds: 'I went to a debate this week. The motion was “England should be a Catholic country again”. I ended up voting against. The marriage of Church, any church, and State seems alien to the teachings of Christ. Power corrupts and British Christians should be happy to continue relinquishing it. The Catholic Church lost more than it gained when it got into bed with the Emperor Constantine.'

Can't argue with that, can you?

And then he concludes: 'Christians tend to save their best work for the “voice in the wilderness” genre. We are most impressive when operating as a secret sect, kneeling in small, candle-lit rooms and scrawling fishes on walls. I’m enjoying this current dose of persecution. It’s definitely good for the soul.'

Read the whole article here while I listen to my old mate Alan Billings on Thought for the Day (he's one the reasons I'm a Christian!)

Friday, March 12, 2010

Let's hear it for the album

Pink Floyd have struck a blow for the album. In the age of the track-by-track, pick n mix digital download, the finest purveyors of concept albums in the history of the genre have won a case preventing EMI from filleting their best work and selling it track by track.

It means if you want Wish You Were Here, you have to buy the whole thing and not just your favourite song from it.

It seems to me, however, that the album is actually very much alive and well. For my birthday I acquired the lean and lovely debut album by Lonelady on CD which comes with a track listing indicating side A and side B. And when you listen with that in mind, it makes perfect sense that Immaterial would open the second side of the album.

This week I've been listening to the stunning new album from Gorillaz which has an obvious beginning and middle and end and demands to be listened to in the order of the track listing. It's not an album made for shuffle.

The Decembrists Album, The Hazards of Love, one of the best releases of last year, is clearly a concept album and demands to be listened to in the order in which the tracks appear on the CD.

Such works are more than just the sum of their parts, more than a collection of songs thrown together in random order. Listening to them from start to finish is to be taken on a journey, invited to see the connections that are made as songs are put in a particular order. So, let's hear it for Pink Floyd.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

health, wealth and the credit crunch

I'm on the train testing out my new dongle (they can't touch you for it), on my way to Didcot for an Assembly Project Team meeting (less exciting than it sounds).

Yesterday I was preparing for the final leg in our look at what the Bible says about money and how that informs how we live. I'm doing some stuff on prosperity teachiung and the jubilee (building on what we last time).

I came across a great piece in the Atlantic, a US political and cultural monthly magazine. It's headline says it all really: 'did Christianity cause the crash?'

It shows that many churches promoting prosperity doctrine are in US sub-prime hotspots. On top of that, many of their ministers or senior leaders were loan oifficers at banks at the forefront of the sub-prime boom. Who is prospering whom? cherck it out here.

Monday, March 01, 2010

How to create a dialogue in church

It's been great to read the responses to my post on Lent with Stanley over on Facebook - especially as they're from members of my congregation!

What is really encouraging is the genuine hunger they reveal for having their lives shaped by God's word. This is, of course, music to a preacher's ears. So thanks for your responses.

For those who haven't picked this up on facebook, here's what people said:

Sara said
I have never commented on someone else's conversation but have been thinking about this a lot. If you guys want to know what is happening as a result of your sermons you have to ask. If there were a bit more testimony about then you would feel better and others would be inspired. My suggestion is to ask 5 people to feed back to you the next week what they thought God was saying to them in the sermon and how it played out during the week. We would all become a bit more accountable and focus on God changing us and our circumstances.

Becky said
Feedback and more testimonies....i like it! It is always great to have more people from the congregation involved in the services. .....and I would also love to have a 'bit more' to the sermons...I've been listening to a series of hour long sermons and they have been really challenging me - although i do pause and rewind and relisten fair amount!...not sure that would go down well in a Sunday service!

And Rob suggested longer sermons!

So, this week, I'm going to be working on a simple questionnaire/feedback form to give a few folk the chance to respond to what they've heard which could then form the basis to a testimony slot a week or so later that would enable people to hear how people's lives are being affected and shaped by what they are hearing.

It would also give the preacher the chance to clarify and expand on things said so that over a period of time a genuine dialogue between preacher and people would develop.

Yesterday, I had a number of people say to me how helpful the sermon was. This is always great for a preacher to hear but what I wanted to ask everyone who made such comments was 'So what? What difference is this sermon actually going to make to you this week?'

Well, some kind of feedback form would help me get a handle on this which in turn would help me to shape future sermons in the light of reactions to former ones.

And a regular testimony time would give the opportunity for people to say what they were learning, how it's affecting their daily lives at work and challenge the preacher to develop thoughts or even return to material that hadn't been clear enough first time round.

It's quite an exciting thought.