Sunday, April 28, 2013

Wondering where the tornado left us

I've been having an interesting exchange on Twitter with some good friends and colleagues over the future of our movement. Thanks to Neil for the initial stimulus and to Andy and Anthony for the provocation thereafter. I feel  need something more than 140 characters to set down some thoughts - hopefully to stimulate further conversation and creativity.

We baptists stand at the crossroads - we've been here for a while - and at the forthcoming Assembly (which I'm unable to attend), some sense of the new direction in which we will be travelling will become clear with the appointment of a new General Secretary. God will need to give this brave soul great and continuous supplies of wisdom, creativity, stamina and chutzpah.

As well as this strategic appointment, Neil pointed to the creaking structures of finance needing a thorough overhaul. He suggested the current model could remain in place for a while; I'm not so sure, though it depends on how long the 'while' turns out to be.

Undoubtedly the church in the UK needs to change. It's older, more set in its ways and less nimble on its feet than most of its neighbours; and for that reason fewer younger, agile people see it as essential for making sense of their lives - and hence are not joining.

My church needs to change. And thereby lies the problem. When I outline dreams that suggest that what so many people mean when they say 'church' will be replaced by something more flexible, more missional, more responsive, more dynamic, more connected with our neighbours, I can smell the fear; I can see the anxiety in people's eyes, hear it in their (often supportive) observations and questions.

Like Dorothy at the start of the Wizard of Oz, the realisation that we aren't in Kansas anymore is unsettling. Everything that has given comfort and security, the familiarities of home, has been caught up in a tornado of change and we have been deposited somewhere we don't recognise even though we are waking up in our familiar beds.

So, we need pioneers - and a movement that is supporting them - but we need to find stories that help those who do not feel like pioneers, rise to this fresh challenge. This is because Neil's second point is as true for local churches as it is for our movement as a whole, namely we need change to be bankrolled by the very people who want things to stay the same while we are exploring new ways of funding the kind of mission we're called to do and the communities that such mission creates.

As a minister paid by the church, I can smell my own fear about that!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Riding a wave of grace

So, here's this month's contribution to the church magazine that I blogged about the other day. Hope you find grace in it.

I'm sitting on the south bank of the river Thames. The sun is bathing my face in the first warmth of spring. The sky above London's iconic buildings is luminous blue. Nearly everyone around me - tourists, office workers grabbing lunch and fresh air, joggers, cyclists, human statues, sellers of trinkets and soft drinks - is as good humoured as the day. I find myself half-muttering, half-singing (under my breath) 'God is good'.

An elderly man next to me is checking stock prices in a pristine copy of today's FT; behind me skate boarders clatter in the brutalist under-croft of the national theatre accompanied by squeals of delight from young spectators; a lean African man entertains us with lilting Kora music; and an Eastern European artist offers original artwork to bemused passers-by (his subject matter jars with the lazy spring feel all around).

I'm on my way to a meeting with the guys behind the Community Bible Experience that so many of us have found has led us to fresh understanding and appreciation of scripture as we've read it and talked about it in groups. But I'm grateful for fifteen minutes in the sunshine and fresh air, grateful for the reminder of God's opulent, extravagant creativity. 

And as I watch the water and people, I can feel the cares and anxieties that I've been carrying through the day slipping from my shoulders, to be replaced with a serenity born of the reminder that whatever's happening, God's on the case. As he is creating this day, so he is gently showing me that whatever I'm wrestling with, he has the measure of it.

It's a reminder of grace. A reminder that God is constantly favouring us with his glance, his presence, his glory, his unexpected arrival in the midst of busyness and hassle, with refreshment, laughter, an unexpected word, a hug...

The Macedonians had experienced this. In the midst of their struggle to make ends meet, the sheer hard graft of putting food on the table and clothes on their backs, God had refreshed them with his grace and they wanted to return the favour by being gracious to those in even greater need than them. Paul tells us about this as he announces the offering in 2 Corinthians 8. They gave themselves to God because God had given himself to them, lavished the goodness of his presence on them in such a way that they couldn't help but trust him and pass it on. 

That's what grace does. In the midst of the pressures of life, the voices telling us that things are too hard, that we haven't the resources to make it through the day, that the forces ranged against us will grind us down and bring us to our knees, God comes and sits next to us and says 'hey, remember me!'

I'm sitting with a lemonade and Joe Stiglitz, musing on the state of economic chaos engulfing us and pondering the whither and what and why of inequality. Of course, Stiglitz is only with me in a book of his I’m reading. And Paul reminds us that grace is the great equaliser. He's not wanting the Judean Christians to be lining their pockets at the expense of the Macedonians or the Corinthians; he just wants equality, everyone to have enough. He's reminding us that our God became poor so that we might become rich and we should be modelling our lives on him. 

And this too is grace at work, God's great work of giving, seen in the provision of manna in the wilderness, now seen in the way his grace opens the hearts, hands and wallets of his people, so that they become the means by which equality is made and maintained. And in a crazy world where the cost of my lemonade, enjoyed in the Southbank's spring sunshine, is all a family might have to live on anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, Stiglitz makes a lot of sense (he's won a Nobel prize, after all), but Paul makes more.

When we are recipients of grace in the way the Macedonians were, we instinctively not only want to see those in need helped, but also to play our part in making that happen. For if God lavishes his grace on us, so generously, so relentlessly, so continually, why would we not open our hands and let it flow through our fingers to those around us who need it as much or more than we do.

We live in days of change and turmoil – in the world around us and in the church so close to us – when our ability to trust is being stretched and tested. And I am feeling, as the sun warms my face and chases away the memory of a hard winter, that his grace will be sufficient to deal with whatever comes my way. The challenges we face may be many and various, they might be things we’ve never faced before, they may be causing us acute anxiety. But one thing is true: God’s grace has the measure of them and mastery over them; he can be trusted to lead us through whatever comes our way with open, generous hearts and an eye on those who need to realise for the first time who made the sunshine that brightens all our lives.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Writing and thinking

I discovered something about writing and thinking yesterday, as I was penning my contribution for the church magazine sitting in the sunshine on London's South Bank. It's a simple thing really, something I've known for a long time but maybe not as clearly as I saw it yesterday. It's probably something you've known forever, so you'll be able to cheer that I've caught up!

The process of connecting words leads to new avenues of thought. Like synapses in the brain firing and making new connections between brain cells (someone will tell me that's old science!), so the very act of linking words together on the screen or page, creates new thoughts which, more importantly, leads to fresh lines of enquiry.

Sometimes I sit at my keyboard, needing to create a sermon, write a lecture, compose an article and  find my brain is suddenly and spectacularly stripped of any inkling of what  might write. So I start typing and the every act of joining words together opens up the possibility of something to read that will be worth reading, that means something.

Inevitably what I first keyed into the machine is worked over and reworked out of existence as by the third or fourth paragraph something is emerging what looks like a train of thought, an interesting reflection. But this is not always the case; yesterday's first paragraph stayed remarkably intact!

I was always told by editors and, more recently by my MA supervisor, to write and then find out where the gaps are in your knowledge, rather that to read and research until you think you are ready to write. It's good advice. I'm going to try and follow it over the coming few weeks and see what emerges.

What I wrote yesterday will be posted here in the next day or so as it emerges in print form in our church magazine.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Public service versus public pomp

I don't have much to say about the death of Margaret Thatcher. I felt she was a divisive PM wedded to an economic model whose whirlwind we are currently reaping. But this comment from Peter Oborne in today's Telegraph (here) is, I think, very apposite.

In particular - and he's not alone in this - he contrasts the funeral of Clement Attlee with that proposed for Thatcher. You could argue that he was the prime minister who most profoundly shaped the post-war world in which we still live. And yet just 150 friends and family attended his quiet service in 1967.

I wonder whether this tells us something about how attitudes to public service have changed for the worse over the past generation. Politics seems to be less about serving the public good than about promoting sectional interest. A selfish and self-serving society gets the politicians it deserves, I guess.

The most poignant comment on Thatcher's death was from Russell Brand (of all people) in yesterday's Guardian (here) where he said: 'The blunt, pathetic reality today is that a little old lady has died, who in the winter of her life had to water roses alone under police supervision. If you behave like there's no such thing as society, in the end there isn't.' Everyone deserves better than that, even those who create the conditions for society to fall apart around us.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Kingdom of God is a party – so let’s throw one….

Here's the piece I wrote for the church magazine about our forthcoming 150th birthday celebrations. I will reflect on the planning process for this in a subsequent blog...

The baffled café owner, not quite sure how to process what he’d just been part of, asked ‘what kind of church do you belong to?’ The tall, balding sociology professor from the US East coast thought for a moment and then said ‘I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning.’ To which the café owner said: ‘no you don’t. There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. I’d join a church like that.’ Wouldn’t we all?!

The story comes from a book by Tony Campolo, the American Christian leader, activist and sociology professor. He puts his finger on a key aspect of what Jesus is all about. His book’s called The Kingdom of God is a Party. Jesus spent more time at parties than in church; he was constantly surrounded by the wrong kind of people, eating and drinking with them, celebrating their lives and talking about the Kingdom of God. To the surprise of the religious folk of his day, he likened the Kingdom of God to a party that he was throwing and inviting any- and everybody to come along to it; a party where life in all its fullness was on tap for everyone.

It is in that spirit that we are approaching our 150th birthday. On 2 June, we’re throwing a party for Bromley. Along the high street, we will be celebrating the Kingdom of God by offering food, games, fun and conversation to anyone who wants to join us.

We have begun talking to traders and restaurant owners along the stretch from the Partridge to the Swan and found a really positive response from them. More conversations will follow. The town centre manager is offering all the help she can to make the event a success – and a template for something she’ll put on when the improvements in that part of the town are complete in 2014/5! And we are talking with a Christian organisation that specialises in throwing community parties who have offered to come and help us as we gear up for the big day.

So, why are we doing this?

Our church was born in a pub in a world that knew and honoured the Christian story. It grew in such a world and has enjoyed years of fruitful mission and ministry in the town. We are celebrating our 150th birthday in a world that neither knows nor particularly honours our story. People who have any impression of the church think of us as a group that likes to say ‘no’ to the way people live, who deal in guilt and judgement. We want to correct that mistaken impression and the best way to do it is to throw a party. We will say thank you to God for his blessing over 150 years by blessing our neighbours.

2 June is the day of the big lunch, an initiative of the Eden Project in Cornwall. Its founder Sir Tim Smitt, says “If you get to know your neighbours, not only does it create a happier, safer environment to live in, but you will probably find they are happy to help you out with your pets or water your plants when you go on holiday. You never know, you might even end up with a new best friend, simply from knocking on your neighbour’s door to say hello.”

As church people we often bemoan the fact that society today isn’t as neighbourly as it was when we were growing up; there is a lot of fear and suspicion of strangers; the world we live in isn’t as friendly a place as it once was. As Christian people we believe that Jesus came to bring reconciliation not only between us and God but between people of kinds. Paul reminds us that the dividing wall of hostility has been broken and we have all been brought close to God and hence to one another. So, of all people we believe that neighbourliness is a good thing; that anything that brings people together and helps them to get to know one another can only be positive.

That’s what we’ll be able to do on 2 June on our high street with a whole cross section of our neighbours. The aim is to provide food from a variety of restaurants and fun for all the family. The advantage of buying the food from the restaurateurs along that part of the high street is that it blesses them. Over recent years they have seen trade suffer as a result of developments around the Glades, along with the recession. In some small way on 2 June, we can bless them by bringing them business and, perhaps more importantly, introducing a whole load of people to their food which might result in increased custom over the longer term. In that way we have made a significant contribution to the livelihood of some of our neighbours; we will have sought and brought the prosperity of the city where we live!

After Easter there’ll be training events for the day facilitated by Marty Woods, an Australian who has organised street events across the world and was last year involved in a range of Olympic-related community parties. There is a time line elsewhere in this issue of In Touch giving more details.

It just remains for you to be doing two things. The first is to pray for all those involved in the organisation of the day and all those who will come; pray that the Lord will bless them. And the second is to take a stack of fliers when they are ready and invite your neighbours to join us. There will be fun through the day for all the family, for people of all ages from toddlers to senior citizens.

So, get praying, come along and be part of the blessing of Bromley to celebrate our 150th birthday.