Monday, May 31, 2010

Cafe Church thoughts

Well, Starbucks is pretty deserted on a Sunday morning between 10:30 and midday. I've been twice now and it was the same - people leaving as I arrived around 10:30 and barely a handful coming in between that time and about 12:00.

So, it looks like it would be a good time to have St Arbucks; plenty of space for us to move around in. But it would only work if people brought their friends. And the question is 'is this a good time for our friends to come for a coffee, a breakfast panini and some conversation about life, the universe and God?'

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sunday mornings in Starbucks

I'm having my second 'don't go to church Sunday' this morning! Instead, I will will be going to Starbucks to sit and watch and listen and probably pray. For those who fear that I'm backsliding, I shall be going to church twice later today to lead and take part in two services.

The first time I did this - at the beginning of the month - I caught up with a friend and got a picture of the traffic through the cafe at the time we're holding our morning service. The medium-term aim is to assess the value of having a monthly cafe church at Starbucks that starts around 11:00am. Having done this research, I shall convene our cafe church planning group and see whether this is a way forward.

At the same time, we are exploring whether to run a cafe church type event for the families of our GB girls, running from 5:45-6:45 on a Thursday evening at Starbucks and offering parents an opportunity to chill and find out a bit about what their girls are doing and what the Christian faith is all about.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

God on the airwaves

It's interesting that both Ashes to Ashes and Lost seemed to be suggesting that the afterlife begins with something akin to purgatory (I confess that I didn't watch Lost after season 1 because it seemed to me that the scriptwriters were more lost than the audience!). Interesting because both prime time shows were set in an afterlife at all.

For a culture where atheists and agnostics apparently dominate the media, there's an awful lot of god on the airwaves at present. Yesterday evening's Radio 4 show, Heresy, debated whether atheism was rational. A first rate trio - the ever-reliable Marcus Brigstocke, Natalie Haynes and Rev Richard Coles - discussed whether faith made more sense than Dawkins. it was both funny and enlightening. You can catch it on iPlayer here.

Are we to think that people are more interested in debating what life's all about and whether God has any place in that than we've been led to believe? I reckon so. I'm listening to the absolutely sublime new album from the National, High Violet, and it's full of gorgeous meditations on life's frailties and foibles and the possibility of faith. Earlier I was listening to Mumford and Sons - still not sure it's as good as everyone claims - and was struck by the presence of God in most of the songs.

There's something in the air. And that has to be a good thing.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Cutting the future to pay for the past

So the first round of spending cuts were announced yesterday and it looks like they'll do exactly what many feared they would. With Russell Crowe filling our screens as the latest incarnation of Robin Hood, maybe it's time to see his tax ideas enacted across the globe.

Owen Tudor, a spokesperson from the Robin Hood Tax campaign, put his finger on the issue when he said: “The spending cuts spelled out by George Osborne represent a profound sign of injustice. Those who bear no responsibility for the global recession will have to pay the price, while the financial sector, whose reckless behaviour has largely contributed to the mess which we are in, can continue business as usual.

The banks in the UK have been bailed out to the tune of £850bn and yet it is probably young people in my neighbourhood who will pay the price for their casino activities. Bonuses show no sign of abating but local authority spending had been slashed by more than £1bn. This means that a lot of projects offering front line support to some of our society's most vulnerable young and old people will be axed.

Something feels wrong about that. It's hard to see how a slash and burn approach to public finances fits with all the talk of a big society. The thing about a big society is that communities and churches can rise to the challenge of meeting real social need more efficiently than government can. But they can't do it for nothing. They rely on statutory funding as well as charitable giving to pay for their activities. Perhaps Goldman Sachs executives could make a start by donating their entire bonus pot (a smidgen over $16bn) to projects working with the poor and vulnerable in our communities.

“Cuts will not only affect a significant portion of public sector workers who will lose their jobs or see their pay frozen,' says Tudor, 'but also the general public who will no longer be able to rely on essential public services. One way of avoiding these large-scale cuts would be to introduce a Robin Hood Tax on the financial sector, which would raise at least £20 billion a year in the UK alone. Such a tax would be fair as it would target a sector that played a pivotal role in the economic crisis and that has the financial resources to cope with a levy.”

Robin Hood Tax campaigners say that the revenue raised would help reduce the public deficit, protect public service jobs, tackle poverty at home and abroad, as well as fight climate change. You can find out more about Robin Hood here

Monday, May 24, 2010

Picking through the ashes of Pentecost

Ashes to Ashes ended on Friday and everyone's favourite bigoted 1970s/early 80s copper turned out to be something akin to an angel of mercy helping dead officers find the way to heaven (pictured as a pub from which a warm, rich light emanated). If his nemesis, DCI Keats was the devil, trying to take Gene's team on the down elevator to somewhere hot, Hunt appears as a Christ figure, fighting for the souls of those who've fallen in the line of duty.

It was great telly that left you with a warm fuzzy glow. I do seriously doubt that the series creators had this ending in mind when they embarked on the odyssey that began with Life on Mars. Of course it raises loads of theological issues that are too obvious to mention (but I might return to it)!

We had cafe church yesterday evening. It's the first one we've done at church for a long time and it seemed to go well. We're doing another one next week. Maybe it'll catch on. One or two people said how pleased they were to see it's return.

I went to see Shane Claiborne on Friday and he was excellent; an engaging and modest speaker who seems to have put his finger on key elements of the gospel that the church in the West has neglected. In this he is not unique but his voice has an youthful urgency that needs to be heard and acted on.

One of the issues he's highlighted is that our churches have mastered the art of entertaining people but forgotten how to make disciples. And coupled with this, we have broken the link between economics and spirituality.

The early believers, filled with the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, pooled their possessions, used their resources to ensure there were no needy people among them, modelled an alternative way of living in an acquisitive society. As a result of these followers of Jesus taking their master at his word, God poured his power into their lives and amazing things happened.

Have we lost something in our rush to be entertaining, cutting edge, on the technological front line? I think we might have done. But what are prepared to do about it?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Marking the end of an era

I had my last Assembly Project Team meeting yesterday. After five years of running Prism, I have hung up my flip flops and made way for someone else to take the Assembly's alternative to new heights.

It's been a great ride from the first Assembly planning meeting I attended where I suggested giving the Assembly a multi-focal feel by offering an alternative way of accessing its themes. Many large Christian gatherings already offered an alternative programme and hundreds of churches across the country had been moving away from the one-size fits-all approach to events for more than a decade.

So Prism was a response to those trends and an attempt to help the Assembly appeal to those who are sceptical about the well-managed set piece celebration event so beloved of evangelicals over the past generation.

And I reckon that it has offered a fresh and worthwhile alternative to what's happening in the other place at the Assembly, giving delegates a chance to explore our faith in a more interactive, participatory and, let's face it, more personal because smaller, space.

There's no doubt that The Assembly needs this kind of fresh thinking if it's going to attract the large - and growing - numbers of Baptists who are not attending our annual gathering. In particular, we have to address the fact that the under 50s aren't turning up in the numbers we'd hope and the under 30s are conspicuous by their almost total absence from the event.

I don't think Prism is the whole answer. But I do think that it embodies an approach to gathering that could be attractive to people who currently don't make the annual pilgrimage to the seaside. So, I wish whoever takes it on every success and will be praying that they bring fresh thinking and boldness to making Prism (or whatever it will be called) better and better.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The trouble with words

A man from the midlands, asked on Breakfast TV whether he ate cauliflower, replied that he thought cauliflower was 'an inept vegetable'. I wonder if his expectations of the humble brassica have been set a little high. Has he been bringing them home from the market and asking them to do a little DIY only to find they're all fingers and thumbs?

I'm a big fan of cauliflower but have no expectations of it except that it will lie in the pan for 12 minutes and taste great afterwards. But apparently, we're not buying as many of the lovely vegetables as we used to and one theory is that it's because they are white (well, at least the bit you eat is) and we are being told to eat more greens (all part of the five-a-day thing), so people are avoiding them in favour of broccoli and cabbage.

It's good to start the day with a chuckle. And I think Britain's cauliflower growers would like you to buy more of the glorious white vegetable. So, that's my public service announcement for the morning.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Praying on the tourist trail

One of my meetings was cancelled today so I had a bit of time once I got into London. I strolled up Whitehall, picking my way over the trailing cables and manoeuvring in and out of gaggles of tourists and journalists waiting for something to happen and into the National Gallery.

It was as ever a place of tranquility and calm. There were groups of primary age children crowded round a painting having it explained to them and a few others wondering between paintings, whispering to one another.

I spent a good deal of time looking at the two wonderful Piero Della Francesca paintings the gallery has in their own viewing space.

The better known of the two is the Baptism of Jesus, a painting of such stillness it is impossible not to stop and contemplate it. The figure of Jesus is serene and prayerful but captured leaning slightly towards the viewer, as if  inviting us to share his moment of commitment to John's movement. Above him a perfectly stationary dove waits to complete her descent on to God's Son. It's as if Piero has frozen the action and invited the viewers to come and linger over the scene: Jesus at the start of his public ministry - what does it hold for him, what does it mean for us?

To the right of it is his less well known nativity. The painting looks unfinished, yet the backdrop appears very similar to the one in the baptism painting, suggesting it's drawn from Piero's own home town where he did a lot of his work. The simplicity of the execution looks intentional on Piero's part. This is not the cluttered nativity so commonly found in the work of his contemporaries. It is a sparse scene: a simply dressed Mary kneels before her infant who reaches up to his mother. A choir of angels with lutes sing to him. Joseph and the shepherds chat in the background.

Again Piero captures a moment of stillness, contemplation and devotion. Mary prays while Jesus reaches up to her, a suggestion that the Son of God responds when we call. And yet Jesus is also 'calling,' wanting feeding, affection, the tender human touch of a mother.

These are works of genius, beautifully composed and executed. But they also appear to be works of deep faith inviting the viewer into the life of prayer that is at the heart of them. It's wonderful to be able to able to step out of the bustle of Trafalgar Square into this holy space.

Praying for our new government

It's interesting listening to the various guests on the Today programme asking for clarity on the nitty gritty of policy. We're apparently obsessed with having everything nailed down, every 'i' dotted and 't' crossed. But this is day one of a new and exciting era and the rule book is being re-written.

It's to be hoped that it does signal a radical realignment of politics in this country. In particular, it is hoped that the tribal nature of our politics will decay in favour of a politics based on cooperation rather than competition, a weighing of issues on their merits and working constructively with people from parties other than my own.

Writing to the Philippians, Paul talks about the politics of the Kingdom of God with these words: 'do nothing according to rivalry or empty conceit. Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interest but each of you to the interests of the others.' (2:3-4 in the TNIV).

My prayer for David Cameron and Nick Clegg and everyone else who this morning commits themselves to making this new coalition work, is that these words, in some form or another, will echo in their heads and inform every conversation they have with one another.

These are the values that could make this coalition work for the good everyone. My prayer is that it will work and that as a result we are able to live 'peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness' (that's the reason Paul says we should pray for our government - whether we chose it or not).

Let's all commit ourselves to pray for this new government in the coming days that this bold experiment will work for the good of the whole country - especially the poorest, weakest and most vulnerable.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Good listening

Michael Portillo has just started an excellent new series on democracy on BBC Radio 4. You'll be able to catch it on the iPlayer and I recommend that you do.

His first programme was a fascinating look at the progress of democracy since 1945 and the threats that it faces today. Interesting one of the things he said was that income inequality within established democracies such as ours was one of the key threats to democracy that any incoming government would have to address.

From thatcherite poster boy to mature political thinker....

Counting the winners and losers

Well, it's getting lively down in Westminster - the comings and goings of men in suits trying to work out how to move the country forward into what could be a fascinating new politics.

I just wish the BBC would stop talking about unelected Prime Ministers. We never elect a prime minister. In our system we elect an MP to represent the constituency in which we live. The leader of the largest party (someone we never elect unless we are a member of that party) is then asked by the queen to form a government and hence become Prime Minister.

Since the war, many party leaders have stood down and been replaced by another person who has become PM as a result - Blair, Thatcher, Wilson, Macmillan....

In the new politics we also need to stop talking in terms of largest party and begin to look at share of the vote since we need leadership that reflects what the majority of the nation wants. After all, that's how democracy is supposed to work. So on share of the vote, the numbers stack this way: 36.1% voted Tory, 29% voted Labour and 23% Lib Dem. So 52% - more than half the electorate who voted - expressed a preference for parties of the centre left. If we add votes for the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales, that figure rises to around 55%

So who won the election? The honest answer was given by Ken Livingstone last night when he said 'everyone lost'; and he's right. Under our old broken, first-past-the-post system, no one got a governing majority.

But maybe we all won. If we get a government that reflects the views of a majority of the voters, haven't we all won in a way that the electorate haven't won in any election in recent history.

And a footnote. If Labour and the Lib Dems form a coalition and put a budget that proposes cuts in public spending aimed at reducing the deficit, are we really expected to believe that the Conservatives, who have been baying for such cuts, are really going to vote against it? What would that say about our politics?

And doesn't this show that in the new politics, MPs are going to have to vote on each issue as it arises in the best interests of the nation rather than narrow party interest (with implications for whipping the House of Commons). And if we want to learn it might look like, perhaps we should examine what's happened in Scotland and Wales since devolution. If we look carefully, we'll see that the world hasn't come to an end and that government has worked pretty effectively (even if we don't personally like every decision they have taken).

Monday, May 10, 2010

Looking for a leader...

Our new series on 2 Corinthians - being a holy people in an unholy world - limped into life yesterday. I say limped because I'm not at all you'd say it was launched. I'm not convinced that I was on top of the material. Still, we'll see what subsequent weeks hold.

I finished Hilary Mantell's Wolf Hall last night. It's a very satisfying read, if a little long (since it only tells half of Cromwell's life as Henry VIII's key servant) but it's made me want to read more about my favourite era in English history. So I've got myself John Schofield's The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell, the most recent scholarly life of Henry's right hand man, which looks pretty good.

So, Gordon has resigned and the talks between Nick and David are taking a long time. Who knows, we could still see a progressive alliance that brings voting and political reforms. Perhaps we need a man or a woman of the stature, humanity and political savvy of Thomas Cromwell to help us navigate these uncharted waters. If only...

Friday, May 07, 2010

The change we still need

The dust is still settling. The outcome is uncertain. Still time to make our voice heard. Why not go here and sign the petition. You could even turn up in Westminster tomorrow to make your voice heard for genuine rather than cosmetic change.

Some good results, though; the best of them being Caroline Lucas' victory in Brighton and the trouncing of Nick Griffin.

More evidence of the brokenness of our current system were the numbers in mainly urban areas shut out of polling stations, who couldn't cast their vote. As the electoral commission has already indicated, local officials should have done better. Results might well be challenged and changed in the coming days.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Will we grab the chance to fix the democratic deficit?

So, we're all off to vote.

What a privilege it is to choose the people who will make the decisions about how our country is run. This is the creation mandate democratised, everyone having a say in how we till the garden.

This is not to say that there aren't problems with our current way of operating, of course. Wonderful though it is to be able to vote, it is galling to think that the election will be decided in just about 100 constituencies (and mine isn't one of them!), leaving 500+ constituencies facing a democratic deficit of some kind.

And whichever party emerges as the biggest will still only have the backing of between 25 and 35% of the popular vote - hardly an overwhelming endorsement of any party programme!

The case for reform is pretty overwhelming. Add to that the hopelessly muddled and outdated way our second chamber is filled and it's not hard to see why many overseas observers are doubtful that if we were an emerging nation, our system of elections would pass muster.

But what chance is there that this creaking system would be overhauled by a government that squeaked home with a working majority under our first-past-the-post system? Not much judging by the past 30 years!

So a hung parliament could well be the best outcome of this voting round, providing it gives rise to a serious attempt to reform our democratic institutions, making the link between voters and parliament stronger by ensuring that everyone's vote counts.

The markets won't like it but then you know what happens when we allow bankers to run the world!

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Unpacking the Prism offer

Well, Glen has created a new compound noun - Prism-Style-Worship (I'm not sure I'd go for capitals there, Glen; sounds like you're shouting!) - and raised two really interesting points (see the comments on the previous post).

I think prism-style-worship taps into Christian tradition and practice through story telling and ritual acts. The Sunday morning communion is a case in point. our celebration of the Eucharist happened in three parts. The first involved cake with individual wine glasses stuck in it and as we sat around the tables we told stories of when Jesus partied, when he was guest at a dinner or host; what he did and what he said on those occasions.

So people spontaneously told the story of the wedding at Cana, the feeding of the five thousand, the tea with Zacchaeus, the bread breaking at Emmaus and many more. We shared how we felt when we heard such stories, what they meant to us, what they revealed to us about Jesus and why we want to follow him.

Then we produced a French loaf nailed to a plank of wood and invited people to share stories of Jesus' journey to Jerusalem, from Palm Sunday, through Maundy Thursday to Good Friday, stories of adulation and rejection, bonhomie and betrayal, friendship and fearful denial; and ultimately stories of the lonely death of the one who more than any other revealed God to us.

The contrast between the cake and the loaf caused a sharp intake of breath among a number of people around the table, even some tears. It was a stark reminder of the meaning of the meal. The stories of Jesus' suffering seem to be given context by the ritual, something tactile and visual, even visceral, was entered into our memory and story telling. And it was powerful.

In the course of these two sections - lasting about an hour, probably slightly less - worshippers were exposed to more scripture than the average church goer gets in a month. Not only that, there was opportunity to reflect on that scripture and extract reactions and responses to it.

This is just a single example of how this approach to constructing a gathering enables people to interact with one another and the Christian story at quite a deep level.

Because prismstyleworship (see I've now made a single word of it) is interactive and participatory, those engaging in it are able to ask questions, seek clarification, add insights, unwrap, probe and explore a single thought at length, write something down, draw or paint a response or reflection. The learning that happens in such a context is likely to be more lasting than that gained from just listening.

I think it ought to be an essential part of the mix of activities we offer in church but probably not the only way of teaching and learning, engaging with God and encouraging one another because one size does not fit all.

What in the world are we doing?

A final thought on the Baptist Assembly. Glen (here) has raised an interesting question in his reflections about the style of what we do at Prism that I want to muse on. I think alt worship is actually a bad name for what we do because it implies that we are merely seeking a replacement for the more traditional activities that the church calls ‘worship’ (wrongly in my view – but that’s for another post) such as singing and listening to sermons. Rather, I think we are seeking to do a number of things simultaneously.

The first is to help people see the world differently, from a strange, even obtuse angle with unexpected shafts of light falling on it. We were helped in this by the theme of the Assembly – One World, One Mission – but it is one of the key considerations I always have uppermost when planning an event – be it, a church Sunday gathering or home group. This is because we gather to engage with God who calls us to embody his values in the world in which we live and work. So having an understanding of that world is important.

It means that we need to hear what the world is saying about itself and not only what we want to say about it. Now, I appreciate that the world speaks with many voices and we will inevitably be selective in what we turn our ears and eyes to. But it seems to me that it’s essential that we hear voices from the world as clearly as we can.

The second is to suggest that God is to be found already working in this world and that if we look carefully we’ll see his shadow falling across it, notice his finger print on all we’re seeing. So, we listen to a Patty Smith album and become aware that she talks more and more intelligently about God than the average ‘worship’ album; or we see a movement working justice that inspires us even though its motivation is avowedly not religious; or we see vital theological issues being played out in a movie or the plot of a novel.

This helps us in the key task of bridging the gap that Christians are often guilty of maintaining between the world we live in day-by-day and the faith we express in our worship; the gap we express when we say ‘I come to church to focus on God without being distracted by all the awful things in the news’ or ‘we are going into the world to take the presence of God with us.’

The third is to help us see ourselves in a different way as a result of the first two. In focusing on what’s going on the world, we see that God is bigger and that our lives are more significant than we thought. We find ourselves caught up in the story of God, the creating, covenant-making, coming King; and we see that God has given us a key role in how that story unfolds in our world.

My hope is that people leave an event like Prism, with a fresh way of living in the world. I guess this is the hope of traditional gatherings, but I wonder if the traditional model tends to focus on me and God and take the world for granted as a fixed entity from which we’ve withdrawn in order to worship before we go back into the world with a changed view of ourselves and perhaps a better take on God.

The trouble is that it tends to treat the world as a given on which we will act rather than something which acts on us as we seek to identify the shape that God wants us to take on to effectively embody his values in that world.

After the first Prism – which seems like a lifetime ago in Brighton in 2005 – I wrote a series of articles for the Baptist Times on ‘alt worship’. It’s my intention to dust those off over the next few days and re-post them here.

Finally got round to listening to the Mumford & Sons album - a fascinating and rather wonderful example of hearing God in the unlikeliest of places!

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

From the Assembly to the real world

Back from the Assembly and beginning to recover. I had to hurry off yesterday morning to get back from Plymouth to chair an election hustings meeting last night (200+ people on bank holiday Monday evening, not bad!).

I can only comment on Prism at the Assembly because it's all I got to - five sessions plus a double seminar slot. I gather from the blogs that the Assembly overall was better than it's been in recent years which is good to hear.

Prism went really well. The final session on Sunday evening where we welcomed the ministers about to have their hands shaken on the stage in the other place, looked at how we communicate the good news, interacting with Billy Graham, Rob Bell and Where the hell is Matt? The fact that we shared deeply with one another and ended up dancing probably means that something gelled!

The team were great and worked really hard to make the whole event go really well. It almost makes me want to do it all again, but....

Meanwhile, back in the real world, I have a leaders meeting tonight that I'm really looking forward to. With our newly elected team of nine trustees, we will be starting the journey into the future that God is inviting us on. Let's hope we catch the right wave!

And the spell checker button has reappeared - thank you blogger!

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Baptist Assembly update

Day three in the Baptist Assembly house and all is well. Four sessions in, it's possibly the best Prism ever - good numbers, excellent atmosphere, real engagement with the issues and a tangible sense of the presence of God in unexpected and rather wonderful ways.

We had a particularly good communion this morning - but Prism communions have been special from the first. But all the sessions have gone well and, possibly for the first time, I think we have created a trajectory through the weekend and are taking delegates on a journey.

The cost of all this is that I'm totally wiped out, we've one session to go, then we've got to de-rig the space and I've got to get back to Bromley to chair a hustings meeting tomorrow night. Ah well! Tuesday I shall sleep - until the leaders' meeting in the evening.