Friday, July 31, 2009
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Sunday, July 26, 2009
Thursday, July 23, 2009
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Good morning God,
I’m puzzled. When Christians talk of liberation theology, they are usually referring to the way in which they try to read and engage the Bible and the Church in a search for the liberation of all your people from poverty and/or oppressive unjust or corrupt political systems. From its contemporary roots in the slums of Latin America, this sort of theology has grown to embrace the many diverse freedoms being sought and demanded in an enlightened age: Black theology. Feminist theology, ecotheology and disability theology all take as their basic premise the freedom that you give for us to read, understand and interpret Scripture as a direct commentary, your critique of whatever ‘imprisons’ or inhibits the equality, grace and Spirit of humanity as created and blessed by you.
What is so surprising, so depressing and ultimately so soul destroying for me therefore, as one of your ministers, is how little Christian theology actually engages with the primary source of enslavement and disempowerment, and how endemic this source is in Western Christianity. As Aung San Suu Kyi has noted – “the only real prison is fear and the only real freedom is freedom from fear.”
To be fair, God, most people are totally unaware of how scared they really are, or how their fear betrays their lack of faith. It was, after all, only when the storm hit the ship on which Wesley was sailing to the States that he discovered just how weak his faith, and that of his fellow Englishmen was, in comparison with that of the Moravian women and children who were not afraid to die. Similarly it is only on being told that I have cancer that so many of my staunch Christian friends discover how painfully weak their faith and their confidence in you is, and how deeply enslaved they are to their fear of sickness and death.
It grieves me to see how prayer can be reduced to a sticking plaster and how quickly faith is invoked as a means of barricading the door of life against the fury of the coming storm. To be told by friends that ‘everything will be alright’, that you will ‘look after me’, because ‘they can do wonderful things these days’ makes me weep with sorrow at a wasted life. If after preaching the gospel all this time, I still haven’t managed to communicate your message that life is eternal, that we need have no fear – and that life in all its fullness doesn’t mean a life without pain or sorrow, then I despair that I will ever succeed in helping to set people free.
I am puzzled that people don’t see the contradiction in their offers of prayers for my healing – this is a slow growing cancer which probably began over twenty years ago – do they think that You were not with me then? Do they think that you didn’t hear the prayers of those who love me and who have been continually upholding me, or that you only choose to act now – when people are afraid?
Of course not.
You have never left me, this cancer is not some evil sent by you to punish me, neither is it some test or trial of my faith or, worse yet, something that you have inflicted on me in order to teach me the miracle of prayer and healing!. Prayers for strength make sense to me, but prayers for healing of body mind and spirit have only ever made sense when there is a complete absence of any fear of death. Life is, after all, a death sentence, we just don’t choose to live it as though it is. In Christ you died to end the fear of death, so that there is nothing that can separate us from your love – even our deepest darkest fears.
No God, I know of no reason why I shouldn’t eventually die of cancer, or of food poisoning, or in a road accident, or even of old age, just as I can think of no reason why I should. But I am thankful that by the time that I die I will have known joy and pain, laughter and tears, faith and doubt. I will also have known fear, and the freedom from fear which saves – the truth that sets me free.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
What we wanted has already existed for a long time in our standing orders - it's just that none of us have had the will or the heart to fight for it.
Let me rephrase that - I have not had the will or the heart to fight for it.
I have tolerated racists in a congregation because I have not known how to deal with 'the problem' without causing offense or damage to the Church's reputation. Like many ministers I have challenged racist comments, but know that I have not really dealt with the underlying racism which prompts and provokes them. People might know that I wont tolerate racist remarks, but they were still members of a Church that I was appointed to share in pastoral charge of..
Even though I could have, should have - I never made an official complaint or sought to remove their membership via a properly convened Church court.
I worry now that this resolution simply gives each of us a Connexional decision to hide behind when, or rather if, we choose to challenge someone in our Church whom we believe may be a member of the BNP or some other racist organisation. I worry that what many are actually hoping for is that this resolution will dissuade such people from ever wanting to become members in the first place. That way we will never have to confront them or deal with the issue.
Connexionalism as a corporate cop-out clause - not a nice thought.
I guess many of us are no longer individually willing or able to name and shame injustice - we are far too 'nice' to want to be confrontational. So much easier to have the Church collectively do it for us.
So - yes I rejoice that we have publicly made explicit what was always implict and present in our standing orders - we have spelled it out, and in so doing have attracted a lot of attention. We have, I hope helped others to rethink what their faith might actually mean in terms of their allegiances.
But I'm not under any illusions, the real battle is still to be done.. inside me.
Will I ever have the courage to act on this, to do more than speak or blog about it...?
God help me to find the courage, for I fear this resolution may be nothing more than posturing otherwise.
Sunday, July 12, 2009
Whenever people tell me that the Bible has nothing to say about politics, or about affairs of state – I am reminded about how and why John the Baptist died. In that small event, immortalized in amazing art and drama we have what my mother would say was – a dance with the devil.
Now I’m not a great believer in the devil - It’s hard enough to believe in God such that God can make a real difference in my life. There is simply no room in my theology or my relationship with God to introduce a nasty figment of other people’s imagination. But I know what my mother means. it’s a wonderful shorthand way of saying – be careful what you ask for, you will surely get it – or Pride comes before a fall – or more importantly – pride and grace make awkward dancing partners.
Pride - Politics and religion – that was the start of Herod’s undoing. Not because religion and politics they don’t mix – they do, but because human pride has a bad habit of overturning the good that they can do. For Herod separating religion and politics simply wasn’t an option. The ruler of Israel could not disown the faith of the one true God, it was what gave him his right to rule, even if the Romans thought that he was their man in Jerusalem. No, Herod needed the priests, and the people, to hold on to his position. Herod was, above all – a Jew. So with that in mind, let’s take another look at the story of that infamous dance.
John the Baptist had been arrested by King Herod because John kept reminding Herod that even the King was not above the Torah. “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” So said the Law, so said God, and so speaks the prophet. Herod had married his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias – whilst Philip was still alive. In other words his wife was an adulteress and hence an improper companion for the King.
It would be easier to understand what happened to John if that was all that there was to it. If the story was simply about an angry man upset that his wife was being publically named and shamed as an adulteress… But the gospel is seldom that simple to understand and, as usual, there is more to this story than meets the eye. We are told that in spite of his ranting and railing, Herod actually liked to listen to John, He believed that John was a holy man. Scripture even records that Herod tried to protect John. Perhaps, in Herod’s mind, locking John away was one way of removing him from the harm that his wife could do to him. After all – hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
So even if the king found what John had to say about his marriage offensive, it was certainly not bad enough to warrant killing him. Herod was afraid of John and was loathe to harm him.
But life has a funny way of pressuring us to do things we would not normally do.
Herod’s story is a story about a man who caved in to social peer pressure. It serves as a poignant open question to us all. ‘What can we learn from this deplorable moment in the life of a King, a moment when the King danced with the devil, and couldn’t say no?
Can it help us to reflect on the way in which we ourselves give in to pressure from our peers, find ourselves caught in a trap of our own making – and lack the courage and the confidence to call a halt – to say NO when we need to – to stand against the crowd – even if we were the instigator of the situation? To stand with God, not with our pride when the two are brought into conflict by our stupidity, or our passion..
There is a real mystery in the way that God works. We believe in providence not fate, by which we mean that God is in our decision making process. But at the most crucial moments in our life– we tend to forget to include God in our deliberations. When key personal decisions have to be made, when puzzling problems present or ethical dilemmas torment, we tend to look, not to Scripture or to God, but to the strength of our own reason and the force of our own emotions.
There is another way – we can seek God’s help in moments of crisis, God has provided the means of grace that we need and prayer is only a part of the answer.
We can, of course, as the hymn says, “take it to the Lord in prayer”, but MORE is needed if we really expect God to be a part of our every day choices. Paul tells us that we should pray without ceasing, and he is right. But that doesn’t mean we are to plead without ending. It doesn’t mean beg, beg and beg again or PUSH God – ie Pray Until Something Happens. Jesus stressed that all we need to do is ask, knock, seek – and we will find. We need to live a life that expects to find God’s answers to the questions that we ask, not because we are begging, but because we KNOW that God opens every door for us, often before we even have time to knock.
What is needed is not just prayer – but presence. We need the presence of God in our lives every day, every minute of every day, and every second of every minute.
God’s ways may remain a mystery to us, and that is as it should be, we cannot hope to comprehend the mind of God. God’s presence however can and must be real to us, and be the greatest, most important influence upon us.
We need to be so closely linked to God through the means of grace that God can powerfully affect our decision making. We need to be real followers of Jesus, not just admirers of his teachings.
Making Christian Decisions is not about asking one another what would Jesus Do, it is about living as a Christian such that we can ask Jesus – ‘What are you asking me to do with you?‘ To use an old saying it’s about letting the cross be the only weight that bears down on our deliberations.
Sadly we are all too often more concerned with not upsetting others, than we are with not upsetting God.
As a result we are more commonly swayed by what society says than what our memory of the Gospel tells us and so our decisions are based on external, economic, political and social pressures. It’s as though we believe God to be incapable of contributing to the debate, somehow inaccessible to reason with, and unconcerned about what troubles us. This, in spite of the fact that the only times God cannot help us are when we aren’t prepared to meet with God.
Lloyd J. Ogilve, in his book Life Without Limits, tells the story of a minister who in the space of one week heard the following comments from various people: A woman said, "I'm under tremendous pressure from my son these days. I can't seem to satisfy him, however hard I work. He really puts me under pressure." A young man said, "My parents have fantastic goals for me to take over the family business. It's not what I want to do, but their pressure is unbearable."
A college woman said, "I'm being pressured by my boyfriend to live with him before we are married. You know...sort of try it out...to see if we are right for each other." A husband said, "My wife is never satisfied. Whatever I do, however much I make, it's never enough. Life with her is like living in a pressure cooker with the lid fastened down and the heat on high." A secretary said, pointing to her phone, "That little black thing is driving me silly. At the other end of the line are people who make impossible demands and think they are the only people alive."
A middle-aged wife said, "My husband thinks my faith is silly. When I feel his resistance to Christ, I wonder if I'm wrong and confused. As a result, I've developed two lives; one with him and one when I'm with my Christian friends."
An elderly woman said, "My sister thinks she has all the answers about the faith and tries to convince me of her point of view. I feel pressured to become her brand of Christian, but I keep thinking if it means being like her, I don't want it at all. When she calls, I just put the phone on my shoulder and let her rant on while I do other things. A half-hour later, she's still on the line blasting away, but I still feel pressure." A young minister at conference said, "I hardly know who I am any more. There are so many points of view in my congregation, I can't please them all. Everyone wants to capture me for his camp and get me to shape the church around his convictions. The pressure makes me want to leave the ministry."
All of these persons have one thing in common. They are being pressured by other people. We all, at one time or another, experience people-pressure. The question is how will it effect our judgment? That is the question Herod faced. After making an oath to a pretty young girl that she could have up to half of his kingdom, she surprised him and asked for the head of the Baptist. The King knew it was wrong, but he couldn’t bring himself to refuse her. What if he had simply said NO.
Lest we think too harshly of Herod, we need to realize that few, if any of us, have the sort of courage needed to publicly back down from a statement we have made or just admit that we were wrong. We see it in the reluctance of our politicians to apologize, in the failure of the Army to properly prosecute those involved in the death of Baha Mousa whilst in British custody in Iraq. We see it too in our own reluctance to stand apart from the crowd – even when we know that what is being asked for is the life or soul, the peace or welcome of a brother or sister in Christ.
Can’t you just hear the dancers demanding - bring me the heads of all the Blacks in the Church, - those with the mark of Cain – and all the daughters of Sinful Eve – behead the prophets who proclaim that God’s love is for all instead of for us.
Transpose Herod’s story to today - and dare to ask - how many heads are served up on silver platters because we lack the courage to say NO when we are confronted with the truth about our blatant injustice, discrimination and critique?
How many lives are wasted because we dance with the devil – wanting the respect and admiration of our friends more than the respect and love of God?
Standing up for human rights – for the conviction that all are equal in the eyes of God, daring to name institutional racism as the sin at the heart of the Church, pointing out that more female ministers feel abused and patronized by our Church than affirmed in their faith by it – owning up to the hypocrisy which welcomes homosexual Christians but wont bless their unions - these things will not win anyone friends – but the alternative is caving in to peer pressure and being complicit by our silence.
Herod’s actions can serve as a warning to us – for we too often end up doing what we know to be wrong, because we believe we are bound by decisions which we made, not under the guidance of God, but under pressure from others often from our desire to please others. Know now - Christ sets us free from such bondage. Hear the amazing words of Grace – God loves us – every one of us, including the Christians the racists, bigots, murderous, and adulterers - even when we get it so disastrously wrong.
More than that - God stays with us, and continues to try and make the better way, the way of truth and life, known to us. It is not always easy to discern, but it is never completely hidden from us, for it is made known to us in Christ – in love and in grace. God calls us to dance to a different tune
Can you hear it?
Friday, July 10, 2009
1) Actually be understood by the majority of our Church members
2) Inspire action and lead to greater growth in grace and holiness
3) Enthuse the Church for mission
4) Motivate the Church to act to address the concerns raised.
A tall order...
As was said repeatedly in one way or another from the podium, (and no - not just by me!) the information we have been given almost needs to be translated before it can be digested. The Christian conferring which took place at Conference is, at the moment, so deeply buried in the bullet points and sub-paragraphs of the Agenda that it will need significant unpacking if the conversations are to continue.
But continue they must.
We are increasingly a disconnected Connexion, with fewer and fewer local societies knowing anything at all about what happens around the Connexion or why. If we are to preserve and perhaps even rebuild our identity in order to fulfil our calling then we must confer about our theology, faith and passion at the local as well as national level.
It isn't enough to just have a summary report at Synod or Circut meeting or Church Councils
So where will I begin?
The obvious starting point for me will be the new statement Hope in God's Future.
This is a complex and quite detailed report which we have commended for serious study in the conviction that it should lead to real and decisive action. I will therefore be preparing the material so that it can be used by our Church housegroups and class meetings by breaking it into managable sections, adding pictures, film clips, and audio content. I will also set discussion questions to help us reflect on the issues personally, communally and globally.
Perhaps more importantly I will do what I can with our Church stewards and Junior Church leaders to link it with key liturgical and worship events - the obvious one here being this year's harvest festival. In addition, I'll look to frame our Sunday evening teaching services, Cafe Church, and bible studies over the next three months around issues touched on in the report. My hope is that by our next church council, when we ask how we can begin the process of implementing the recommendations, members of the council will better prepared and able to weigh up the Gospel imperatives against the usual financial considerations.
The faith and order report will take some re-thinking - but we ought to be able to link it to the main anniversary of mission early next year, perhaps even including a trip to Edinburgh..?
Some of the smaller reports can also be translated into meaningful Christian conferring by writing appropriate prayers, liturgies and sermons and by constructing inclusive acts of worship which allow others to share in the decisions we have made before God.
So - yes - we will be celebrating 140 years of Action for Children - probably as our Christingle service this year.
The revision of section 9 might well lead to a rededication of the Church building (maybe with a commitment to its 'greening'!)
It would be interesting to have a Worship Consultation with a difference and spend an evening revising the language of old favourite hymns or even writing new ones to send to the music resources group. We might make a competition of it by asking the choir to sing one new hymn a week up until Christmas and then vote for the best..
We could celebrate the notice of motion about the World Parish along with the World Church report by perhaps writing our own letters of greeting to Methodists in Albania, Serbia, Russia, Macedonia, Germany and inviting them to share with us in a special prayer on an agreed Sunday...
It just takes a little creativity and a real desire to do it!
Perhaps here might be a good place to share some ideas and material for making it possible?
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
'The Team' features quite prominently, quite rightly too as we need to get to know who they are.
'Strategic leadership' had quite a field day on Monday, but was seldom heard yesterday.
'Mission' is doing quite well.. rumbling away in the background every day so far
'the Future' is obviously something the Conference is interested in
'Mapping a way forward' surged forward in the popularity stakes yesterday - mainly due I think to one particular notice of motion - and 'Fresh Expressions' - last years key contender - is back for another bite of the cherry.
By far the most popular repeated word so far however, is I think 'risk'.
All of which illustrates that the newly configured Connexional Team have done, and are doing far better than might be immediately obvious from the Conference Agenda...
If these are the words that are on our lips when engaging with the business of Conference, then the task of stimulating the Methodist people by the Team by means of strategic leadership to think about mission for the future, and how to map a way forward which encourages fresh expressions of Church and leadership, regardless of the risk.. is being well done.
Hats off to The Team - a job being well done in spite of some painful teething problems..
Our language makes it clear that they have made a great start at delivering what was promised against ridiculous timescales and, as we have heard, often appalling conditions.
Take a bow Team - its well deserved.
Now its the turn of the Whole Church..
The words that I miss being top of the poll are - Jesus, God, Spirit, theology, Salvation, Scripture, Christian, Perfection (an oldie but a goody) Grace, Wesley..
Whilst the team can stimulate the Church's thinking, the relatively low frequency of these words from our lips (other than in superb choices of hymns and prayers - thank you) suggests that we may be in danger of forgetting what we are doing all this FOR
FOR WHAT PURPOSE has the Church implemented a layer of Strategic Leadership?
WHAT is our Mission?
WHOSE future are we concerned for?
WHY do we need to Map a way forward?
WHAT is the POINT of fresh expressions?
The task of the team is to make sure we can achieve our calling by holding us to our agreed priorities, But we also have to make sure we keep focused on what the Priorities are FOR..
The priorities are not the end, they are a means to the end - and the end is not even 'our calling' it is GOD.
We have to find a way of communicating this more effectively so that we become increasingly less concerned with the HOW and more concerned with the WHAT of our proclamation.
The team are demonstrating that the Church can trust them with the how, they are working flat out to ensure that the Church is able - should it choose to - to proclaim and affirm the love of God in Christ.
Which begs the question.. 'When we cannot blame our failures on a lack of resources, on a lack of support, or a lack of information or commitment - who or what will we blame for our failure to keep our end of the bargain?'
The challenge comes back to the full Connexion - we have been, and are now increasingly being given the means to fulfill our calling - will we?
Do have we the heart, the will and the conviction to save souls and make new disciples of Jesus Christ?
Will we open the Scriptures to the world so that all people are able to hear and respond to the offer of God's grace which they reveal?
Moved by the Spirit will we actually take the risk of making ourselves 'yet more vile' as Wesley said, and proclaim the love of God for all through our commitment and action for social justice?
Do we still know enough of our theology to not just sing new hymns but to remember our calling and use all our worship to the Glory of God and to accept it as a means of grace so that we might grow in holiness and press on to that perfection promised us in Christ?
It is time to talk of God..
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Hymns matter to Methodists.. but some are no longer quite sure why. One of my favourate quotes from the Conference floor sums it up.. when one speaker said Methodists are creative with their hymnody - we know how to do things with them - the reply was whispered - yes, we make sandwiches with them - a play on the old hymn prayer sandwich service.
Actually Methodist Hymns are the Methodist equivalent to Anglican Stained glass windows - they tell the Gospel Story in a way that those who are not religious or scripturally literate can begin to understand and appreciate it. Even if the person doesn't quite 'get' it, they can still appreciate the tune!
This means that hymns carry a great weight in our tradition -they are part of our Kerygma something which helps to proclaim and make us aware of, Christ's presence with us. They communicate our theology, our conversations with God and with each other. They are required to inspire and instruct us - and to do for the heart and soul what a witty little ditty will do for the brain - get stuck - and endlessly repeat until what it says becomes an intrinsic part of our life with God.
So sing it people - when it is approved - and let's save the souls of a new generation.
Sunday, July 5, 2009
Being received into full Connexion is something that can only be done by the full representative body of the Connexion, it is the continuation of the deacon's or presbyter's covenant relationship with the Church which began at their baptism and was confirmed at their membership. It is not the start of their journey - neither is it the end, but it is a powerful signpost of the full demands of the covenant we have ALL entered into - namely to love our neighbour as ourselves.
The Conference worship, in which the reception into full Connexion is set, was this year beautifully crafted by Micky Youngston, a very gifted and able minister who really should consider applying for the post of head of Christian Communications, Evangelism and advocacy cluster. For me however, what made the service a work of the Holy spirit was not the excellent liturgy, or the beautiful solo voices used to such good effect, it wasn't the choice of hymns or the readings.. it was the way in which God spoke through the faith and movement of two deliberately unobtrusive, almost invisible people who signed the service for the deaf and hard of hearing. No liturgical dance has ever spoken to me so powerfully as when these two women signed the hymns that we sung. Suddenly words took on an expression, a meaning which I had never 'heard voiced' before, For the first time, I found it possible to believe that if I ever did loose the power of speech, i would still be able to learn how to communicate the truth, beauty and power of the gospel in a way that people could be moved to joy, to tears, to love the Lord.
At one point I actually wanted to stop up my ears, so that I could hear them more fully.
If any one of those received into full connexion today is able to speak to those who are deaf to the Lord with the same power and conviction of God's grace as those two signers did to me today, then the Church really is in safe as well as Spiritually expressive hands.
Thank you ladies, for such a powerful living parable of the signs of the SPIRIT at the Methodist Conference.
David Gamble delivered his address with his usual charm and grace, wit and wisdom combined are rare, but evident in this senior secretary.. and we can look forward to hearing more about the need for the Church to be a safer space.. for all sorts of things... worship? Growth in grace and holiness..? following Jesus..?
Richard's address was passionate, considerate and wonderfully unambiguous. He tackled head on the things that have served to alienate people - well - like Richard, Male, Lay and professional - and no - none of that was said sarcastically or with even the slightest tongue in cheek. He is right this IS a significant missing group in our church and the Church in ten years time will be vastly different because of their absence.
It would have been easier to hear his call for the Church to do more to attract men to the Church - had it not been the case that the only women present on the platform at the time, were not only silent, they were only there to mouth or sign the words of men..
Is it possible that we could combine the main thrusts of both addresses? could David really help to make the Church a safer place for all those who have been abused - but especially those who have been abused by a patriarchal system which waste the best years of a significant number of Church women through its refusal to accept or encourage female leadership unless the woman is effectively post menapausal.. and could one of the ways of achieving this be by listening to and acting on Richard's plea? For surely only when a lay calling is valued and recognised as essential, and NOT second best so can we explore new and creative ways of transforming our current patriarchy and recognising that we have so much more to offer young men than a plastic collar..as an incentive to serve God.
Interesting days ahead I suspect..
Thursday, July 2, 2009
this will be a strange day and one which, if I am honest, I am not looking forward to, so here I am at Wesley's preaching hour, trying to make sense of it all, theologically of course.
As soon as we have finished our conversation, I need to go and pack for Conference. As always I approach Conference wanting to contribute positively to the life of our Church through the means of grace you have provided: in worship, in the celebration of the Sacrament, in prayer and fellowship and through our Christian conferring I will be trying to attend to your voice, to seek your will for us as a people called to love and praise. But never before have I attended with such a sense of personal dread.
I have been attending Conference in one capacity or another for almost 15 years and it has usually managed to humble and inspire me, as well as (if I am honest) frustrate and challenge me. Lately however it has seemed to me to be more like a party political Conference than a means of grace, something which has troubled me deeply. A friend who's wise counsel I value, has pointed out that for those just starting their covenant life with the Church, this is 'normal' and what it means to be 'Methodist'. He's right of course, and it helps to know it. I can rejoice for them even whilst grieving for my own loss of identity and belonging. What I dread is having this feeling that I no longer belong to this party - being confirmed. At the moment it sort of feels like a small malignancy eating away at my love of you and my vocation, growing bigger each year while I try to ignore it.
My prayer to you this morning God is that Conference will do exactly the opposite, that instead of confirming my worst fears, it will, by your grace, once again confirm me in my calling and assure me that what I have been feeling is nothing more than a bad infection of 'in my day we did things differently' (apparently we become more prone to catching this when we get older!) In which case a good dose of Spirit filled enthusiasts on fire for the Gospel with a burning desire to change the world for the sake of your Kingdom will soon put me right.
So God, today and throughout the Conference, please, grant me a heart to share in this work of building up your people and equipping them for the future; bless me with the courage to speak graciously but also boldly in response to your urging, and continue to prompt me to think theologically so that YOU stay at the heart of all I say and do.
'Jesus, confirm my heart's desire,
To work, and speak, and think for thee;
Still let me guard the holy fire,
And still stir up thy gift in me.