Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Perilous steps on the journey home

I thought I'd post my piece from our church magazine this month (as I do from time-to-time) because it has a bearing on my continuing reflections on Alan Roxburgh's book.

I was talking to some friends recently about their summer holiday plans. Well, it’s the time of year for it, isn’t it? The days getting longer and warmer, we’ve found our summer clothes at the back of the wardrobe and begun to daydream about sun, sea and sangria.

Our conversation was actually more about travelling to and from our summer break destination because, we agreed, that that was one of the best parts of the holiday. Journeys are often times of discovery, finding new places, seeing things we’ve never seen before, even meeting people in hotels and restaurants who pass on tips about what to go and look at.

Journeys are like this because we are away from the familiar surroundings of home, exposed to new experiences, invited to take a fresh look at our lives. As a church we are on a journey from what we were to what God wants to be. This is a permanent feature of Christian living. We only stop travelling when we reach our destination in God’s completed Kingdom.

Some people like travelling and others would rather stay put. For some the open road is a place of adventure and discovery; for others it’s a place of uncertainty and discomfort. The temptation for the latter group is to book into the nearest inn and say ‘this far and no further.’ The trouble with this is that we are in neither the familiar surroundings of home nor the promised comfort of our final destination.

It was for nervous, even unwilling travellers that Luke wrote the central section of his gospel. Uniquely among the gospel writers, Luke has a long section that is known as the ‘travel narrative’ that tells the story of Jesus’ journey from Galilee in the north down to Jerusalem in the south and his final confrontation with the powers-that-be.

He seems to have had two reasons for compiling his account the way he did. The first is that it gave him a good place to put all the material that no other gospel writer used – the parable of the prodigal son and the good Samaritan, the meetings at Mary and Martha’s home and with Zacchaeus, for example. The second is that he enabled him to spell out what following Jesus is all about. The travel narrative is a handbook on discipleship written for small groups of Christians scattered across the Roman empire in the second half of the first century, wondering how to live as followers of Jesus in a somewhat hostile and fast-changing world.

Luke 9:51-19:27 is about being a disciple of Jesus. The focus of these chapters is on the folk who are on the road with Jesus: how does he expect them to live as his followers, what will their life together be like, what kind of values will they embody in their relationships with neighbours and work colleagues?

Through this spring we will be making this journey with Jesus and his friends hoping to learn what it means to be a disciple in Bromley in 2011. We will be thinking about the nature of our life together and how we can make Jesus known to our friends and neighbours. It is a crucial journey for us to make because we live in a fast-changing and at times confusing world where the old certainties of home have been swept away and not replaced by anything so solid and sure.

Just before Easter, I was sitting outside a cafĂ© in Victoria, warmed by the sun, watching office workers scurry in and out getting lunch to take back to their desks. He was with one of them, a young man, successful at work, happily married with a growing family. They had recently left their church and we were talking through the steps that had led up to that decision.

Neither he nor his wife loved Jesus any less; both wanted to continue serving him in the way they lived their life; both were keen to explore what being a disciple of Jesus meant with other followers. But neither of them could do church any more. He spoke of the decaying formality of it all, the superficial relationships, the tedious round of singing and sermons. He had been going to a lively, charismatic fellowship, and yet…

They had launched out on a somewhat perilous journey to discover Jesus on the road. They are looking for connection with a like-minded group of travellers who take Jesus seriously and want to live by the values of his Kingdom as they travel to their final destination. They also want to share what they’ve discovered about Jesus with people along the way.

In many ways they are living in Luke’s travel narrative, hearing the call of Jesus to follow and being prepared to leave the security of home to meet him and know him better. Are we prepared to make the same journey together?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Doing what we're put here for

Finally managed to read last month's Q magazine, featuring some great British song writers.

Guy Garvey from Elbow is fascinating on his native Bury and the inspiration for the excellent build a rocket boys album. He says that he's started thinking about songs for the next album too, showing no sign of resting on his laurels.

And PJ Harvey confirms her status as current best song writer in England with wonderfully simple and insightful reflections on her craft. Maybe it's because it's Good Friday and I've been thinking about the job that had to be done on behalf of all of us (as so wonderfully captured by Stanley Spencer in his painting Christ carrying the cross), but this comment caught my imagination:

Asked if she'll be taking six months off to do what rock stars do, she said: 'no, because there's too much work to do. And because this is my job. This is the thing that I can do best, why I'm here on planet earth. I therefore feel that I need to keep concentrating on doing as well I can. There's a lot to be said yet. A lot to do.'

Maybe we could all take a leaf out of her book.

Travelling in Yorkshire

So here we are in sunny Huddersfield after three days in a very sunny York. We're here for a friend's wedding tomorrow, so we're catching up with a load of old friends this evening over dinner.

Spring Harvest was manic - especially for the two men on the team - but worthwhile. There have been big changes at the top of the Spring Harvest tree which will probably take some time to bed down. The preaching was ok but nothing to get excited about and all a bit safe and predictable - yes, I know Spring Harvest is safe and predictable but in most years there's a surprise or two. This year felt a bit bland - despite the fact that the theme was the Bible!

York was lovely - probably helped by the sunshine and heat. We walked along the walls, checked out the shops and chilled in a selection of very acceptable tea shops and eateries. The art gallery had a show featuring David Hockney's recently painted bigger trees near Warter which is wonderful. I went to look at it every day (the gallery serves excellent coffee). The enormous work (15ft by 40ft) was painted on 50 canvases over a six week period in 2007 and then hung together to make a single large study of a group of trees. It's a rich and satisfying work.

This morning we went to the Good Friday service at the Minster. We only got to half of it due to a mix up over timings but it was a moving and effective way of remembering the passion while the shoppers and the tourists bustled round the minster much like they would have done in Jerusalem 2000 years ago when Jesus was condemned and crucified.

Another highlight of the trip was Barbican Books (part of Wesley Owen) that has a fantastic selection of second-hand theology books. I spent a most enjoyable hour in there yesterday!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Off on our travels

We're off to Spring Harvest in the morning. We'll be making our annual pilgrimage to Skegness and joining somewhat diminished pastoral team for a week. It's always a blast and hopefully we do some good in the lives of those who cross our paths.

I shall be picking up my thoughts on Alan Roxborough's book while I'm there and hopefully posting them as I write them.

After Spring Harvest, we're looking forward to a few days in York chilling, and then a friend's wedding in Huddersfield (which offers the chance to catch up with a load of people we've not seen for ages). It should be a really good few days.

An arresting case for Christian faithfulness

I caught last Friday's repeat of Desert Island Disc's which featured Martin Sheen and cam across the most intriguing definition of Christian faithfulness I've heard for a while. It was a very moving programme as Sheen spoke of his struggles with alcohol - and the pain of seeing his son, Charlie, succumb in a similar but more spectacular way - and his forty+ year marriage to a woman that he describes as the love of his life.

But the most moving section was where he spoke about re-embracing his catholic faith in the early 1980s. It is that more than anything that has given his life strength and focus. And it was here that he offered an intriguing view of christian faithfulness: how many times have you been arrested because of what your faith has led you into? Sheen has been arrested a load of times on demonstrations about a variety of causes that his faith has compelled him to embrace. And he speaks of it as a consequence of following Jesus that he is prepared to put up with.

I was moved and set thinking about what my faith has cost me...

Sinking into Rothko

On Monday, the last day of our first mini-heatwave of the year, I went to London's South Bank to stroll among the tourists and drop into Tate Modern. I was delighted to find that the Rothko room has made a welcome return. This low-lit space houses seven enormous canvases of sombre maroons and blacks by the great abstract expressionist.

This is one of my favourite spaces in London. I spent a good hour looking deeply into and through these window shapes. Now, in one sense, these paintings are just slabs of colour. Up close you can see that Rothko took great care in how he applied the paint, going over parts of the canvas with different shades of the dominant colour which, as you step back from it, gives the painting enormous depth.

The 'windows frames' seem solid and so as you look, you are invited to fall through them into whatever lies beyond. In the swirling pale maroon of the canvas illustrated, there is the suggestion of light, as if the sun is shining behind gossamer clouds. It's also possible to feel that the light is edging towards the centre of the painting where the viewer stands as it were by the open window.

In many ways, the Rothko room is a sacred space; it's a place where people, if they've the patience to sit and look intently through one of the windows, are asked questions about where they sit in the world, the universe beyond, about whether the light approaching them will illuminate their lives. Great art gently evokes big questions and has the good grace not to provide clunking great answers.

If I were running Tate Modern, there's only one thing I'd do to make the Rothko room perfect: I'd only let people in on the understanding that they would not leave for an hour. This would prevent one's meditation being interrupted by parties of people catching the greatest collection of modern art on their cell phone cameras between elevenses and lunch!

Friday, April 01, 2011

The stories we live by

Early on in part 2 of Alan Roxburgh's Missional: Joining God in the Neighbourhood which is about Luke-Acts, described as 'a narrative for shaping our time of missional formation' (p63), is this arresting statement:
Scripture is filled with amazing stories that go to the heart of the issues we're facing in our crazy, pluralist, consumer-driven cultures focused on self-actualising individuals living in instrumental relationships (in which people relate to each other out of roles or what each can get from the other. (p68)
It's not so much the idea that scripture is relevant to our context that grabbed my attention, but Roxburgh's description of that context. It's about as succinct and brilliant a snapshot of where I live as I have read in the past year! It's worth pausing to ponder.

He takes Luke as his biblical story teller because he sees Luke writing at a time when the early Christian movement was beginning to lose confidence in its story. Things hadn't turned out as these young believers thought they would and Luke writes to create a new language house that takes the context in which people live as seriously as the message they live by. So Luke is a story teller for our times too.

Roxburgh comments: 'We don't encounter this God through universal principles, formulas, visions and values but through concrete, grounded stories of God's life in the ordinary' (p72), adding that 'Luke is determined to convince them [his first hearers] that in the midst of a world of competing narratives, this is the one about Jesus and the good news of God that is worth giving their lives to because it is God's' (p73).

Our trouble is that we have turned the biblical story into a self-help guide, a handbook for making our lives work better. 'I'm aware how this orphanization of the Christian narrative has turned us ever more quickly into anxiety-laden, functional atheists needing ways to use God to make our lives work.' (p73-4) Ouch! Ponder that too...

I've always thought that Luke focuses as much on the disciples as on Jesus and mainly on their inability to let Jesus into their story in a way that would have rewritten and recast it along the lines that God intended. Being caught up in God's story and discovering where that story is being written and told in our neighbourhoods, so we can get involved, seems to me to be a hugely exciting prospect. If only we can shake off the strait jacket of our churches!