Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Pioneer Mission Leaders..

Good morning God,

Is there really such a thing as 'general' Christianity?

I ask because I find myself increasingly wondering whether or not you approve of British Methodism's concerted attempt to do away with what once made it so distinctive. After all, it was you who gave us the desire to be far more interested in the growth of disciples than in the growth of our denomination, but it used to be that these things worked together for good - as we responded to our particular calling so we made disciples who wanted to grow in grace and holiness.
Methodists were evangelists because they wanted to share the doctrine of grace that you had revealed to them. They reached out to others because you gave them a passion for social justice combined with holiness and the knowledge that these things really could transform communities as well as individuals.
The resources which you gave us to further this work were spent in spreading scriptural holiness across the land - and - yes - combating the many heresies of the ages. It was sometimes every bit as important to declare what we did NOT believe in as well as what we did. And there was once a sense of purpose that was fed by the knowledge that we belonged to something that was bigger than we were, we were a part of your plan for salvation for the world.
We didn't need to beat the drum about who we were, but we were known for what we believed in, for what we held precious and what we were trying to achieve. We were different from the parish church, not just because of the shape of our buildings, but because of what we did - how we lived as mission minded gospel people.
There was no 'golden age' of Methodism I know, but there was a time when being a Methodist mean more than worshipping at a chapel rather than a church, it was a commitment to a way of life and to mission which is continuing to transform the world - except here in the UK.

I support the call for pioneer mission leaders, and believe that it will be Connexional Money well spent to recruit from amongst our numbers Pioneer Leaders who would (in a more modern way) repeat the work of the Wesley's and the Holy Club and reach out to the unchurched - and try to seed a whole new generation with the gospel of Grace..
But I am distressed to discover - once again - that there is no specific requirement for the Pioneer Mission Leaders we are currently advertising for to be Methodists.. it is expected that applicants will usually have been a member of the Methodist Church for at least two years, but the bottom line is that they simply need to be:

Able to embrace fully and advocate the ethos of the Methodist Church as expressed through Our Calling and Priorities for the Methodist Church

I KNOW that there are many many Methodists who are capable of being nurtured, trained and matured as Methodist Pioneer Mission Leaders. But I am not so confident that they will be given the opportunity to do so in a Church which does not seem to place greater value on the fact that they are Methodists! Will it be the case in this recruitment, as in the recruitment of the new Connexional team, only 2/5th of the Pioneer Mission Leaders will end up being active members of the Methodist Church?

And should it matter? This is the real question for me - should it matter - what are we responding to in this initiative - is this a valid response to our calling?

Help me out here God, after all, my love of the Methodist Church was a gift to me from you,

Should I be pleased or dismayed that we are not limiting the recruitment of future Methodist leadership to Methodists?

Have you stopped calling us - by name - as the people called Methodist?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

It's all in the packaging

Good morning God,

I was not surprised to learn that the Bible is still the world best selling book - what did surprise me was the claim that it is also the most shoplifted book. It seems odd to think of someone stealing a bible - what do they do when they come to the 1o commandments and read 'You shall not steal'? Do they take it back?
Bookstores say that the most common reason people give if they are caught is that they believe the Bible ought to be free to whoever wants to read it - but those who steal it seldom take the cheap paper-back version, it's usually the leather bound, red-letter, gold leaf edition that goes missing.
The packaging doesn't change the message, each Bible still has only four gospels, but the appearance, the binding, the type-face, the cost, all seem to affect how people engage with it. It's just one more illustration of how we have been 'sold' false values. The more 'expensive' the product, the greater its value, and the more we should desire it - after all we are 'worth it' - aren't we?
But its all just packaging..
We know it, but seem helpless to resist it, in every area of life..
As part of their campaign to lure shoppers back, for example, many supermarkets are introducing a 'basics' range. This includes items like fresh fruit and veg which might not LOOK perfect, but which are just as nutritious. Carrots have kinks, marrows are curved, tomatoes have bulges, apples have marked skins.. the taste and the calories are the same as their more 'perfect' cousins. But even when we KNOW that there is no health or financial advantage to buying the more aesthetically pleasing product we insist that if it looks better, it must be better.
But its all just packaging
And what is true of bibles and carrots, is even more true of people and faith..

The truth of your love and grace may not be 'free' in its highly packaged form, but that doesn't mean it needs to be stolen. You give it away freely in its basic form, in the presence of the risen Christ, and in the friendship, love and grace that you offer.

God, keep me from ever selling out and trying to peddle a perfect faith for perfect people.. help me to help those who seek you, to find you in the content rather than the presentation of your gospel, in the way in which it is really lived out, with all its messiness, insecurities, challenge, doubts and vulnerabilities. Help me to shatter the myth of the white-nightie Jesus with his perfect people, and give me the courage and the confidence to proclaim the 'basic' truth - that each of us are made by you, unique, special, different and good - regardless of how we are packaged!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Sound of Prayer

Good morning God,

I woke to a familiar sound today, even though the language was foreign, the voice unknown, there was no mistaking the sound of prayer. The muslim daughter of the woman in the bed opposite was saying her prayers, her mother joining in, as and how she was able.
They included me into this small intimate circle and so I was able to meet with you in the company of friends, understanding for the first time ever, what speaking in tongues really means.
As the daughter prayed, it was obvious when she was using old familiar words, gifted words from saints long since passed. These she wrapped around us like a winter blanket, their undulating cadences being like the folds of a cloth which she absentmindedly rearranged so that they fell comfortably, snugly around us. I could hear the words of the Lord's prayer as she prayed her morning prayers and the words of the psalms as she recited her morning Suras.
And when the familiar words had lulled us into warm, safe and secure spaces, she spoke from the heart - her words losing nothing of their rhythm, but now taking on an almost musical quality , a sweet lullaby for those she loved.
And you were there, and I heard and understood, her prayer for me, for her mother, for herself, for the hospital staff, and for the wider world. Her language universal, even though her vocabulary was foreign to me.
She called you Allah, and I heard it as Abba - and I swear they were the same, for you were with us. And your gift of tongues enabled me to utter my Amen, in the space you made sacred beside a hospital bed.

Thank you God.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Good morning God,

I do like the words of the Psalmist - 'I will praise the Lord for I am wonderfully and fearfully made'. They have provided a real focus for my thoughts as I lie here strapped to a monitor which measures my life potential by the beat of my heart, a heart which is racing far too fast for the doctor's liking. I can't be too upset about it though, after all, the rapid pulse was the only hint we had of the dangerous clot in my lung.
The bed opposite me has held a young girl of 19. She was due to start college yesterday to study to be a forensic scientist. Her heartbeat however is far, far too slow. She had been able to hide her frail thin body from most prying eyes, but her heart knew the full story of her anorexia nervosa. From 22st. to 6st in a year.
One heart that beats too quickly, one heart that beats too slowly.
I long to live, she longs to die. For the last two days she has wept, begged and pleaded to be allowed to go home - and I have been powerless to share with her the extra beats of my heart.
I have too much, she has too little - and I want to know why God.
I want to know why you saved me, and how I can help to save her from herself and from a society which does not see how we are killing our young people by failing to teach them that they are wonderfully and fearfully made GOOD.
Would 'inviting Jesus into her heart' make it beat faster - or would it just give her something else to beat herself over the head with if she failed to live up to what she thinks are the expectations of the other Christians she meets. She doesn't need religion and a new set of thou shalt nots, she need a friend who can see her and tell her who she really is, a wonderfully, fearfully made - and easily broken - child of God - whose life should not be measured in stones or kilograms but in opportunities and heartbeats.
Tell me God, where are the friends of your friends? Where is the counter-cultural voice that speaks the truth not in piety but simplicity, loud enough so that it can be heard wherever young women and men sacrifice their lives to the media manufactured idols of our day?
This is not about young people in the Church - this is about young lives being lost, wasted, in the pursuit of false gods which will only tell them they are 'worth it' when they spend their money and their life trying to be what they are not.
They are worth life now - but they no longer believe it.
The young girl opposite cannot see herself with anything other than self-loathing. She is so disgusted with herself and so afraid that she will become 22st again if she eats normally that she would rather continue starving herself to death. She does not believe she will die, she does believe she will get fat - and belief is a powerful thing - people are prepared to die for their beliefs as well you know God.
so help me God,
give me the words to say to spark a new belief in her of her own intrinsic worth. Help me to share something of what makes me believe my life is worth fighting for so that she might begin to see and hear what it means to be wonderfully and fearfully made, by YOU.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Practicing Forgiveness

Good morning God,
I need your help in untangling the pseudo-religiosity and 'niceness' of contemporary Christianity from the way in which you call us to forgive.

Now I know I need to tread carefully here; it is all too easy to presume that just because I am angry, I have a right to be angry, or worse, that just because I am angry it is a righteous anger... but I am beginning to believe that the greater danger lies in always trying to damp down an anger, in the mistaken presumption that practising forgiveness means denying the pain and the hurt that has been caused and being placid (or should that be passive), and 'gentle'.

Being able to recognise 'why' people do things which cause you hurt or harm is often the precursor to being able to 'forgive' their weakness, ignorance, mistake, stupidity.. whatever.. But does the practice of that forgiveness mean that from that time on, the anger which it provoked, or the hurt which it caused, must/should be forgotten, ignored, or just 'lived with'? Is there some magic switch that can be turned on to turn the hurt and the anger off - because if there is, I haven't found it yet. I can acknowledge the desire for forgiveness, I can 'accept' that someone has said 'sorry', but I can't always 'pretend' to reconciliation - especially if I don't really believe that the person would behave any differently next time around. The old saying - 'make a fool of me once, shame on you, make a fool of me twice, shame on me' - is a real hindrance to the practice of forgiveness.. even whilst hearing the echo of 'seventy times seven' ringing in my ears.

I guess, God, what I am talking about is atonement theology.. not on the grand scale of saving the world, but on the smaller scale of saving souls, one at a time - mine included.

I know that I am supposed to forgive everyone everything.. but what I am less certain about is whether this forgiveness should automatically mean living as though nothing has happened - when clearly it has.
Should a paedophile be expected to be reconciled and allowed to presume a 'loving' relationship with their victim - as though nothing has happened - after simply seeking forgiveness? Should an adulterer presume that nothing has changed in their relationship with their spouse once they have said sorry for the betrayal? Should a bully be able to presume a friendship with their victim once they have repented of their bullying ways?
And so the demand for restitution - for penal substitution or sacrifice begins..

The reason that this all feels wrong, upside down and inside out is that it puts the entire burden of care on the victim - which makes them a victim twice over.
When a wife is raped or beaten by her husband, does the gospel really demand that she be expected to be reconciled to him as though the rape or abuse never happened - simply because he asks that it be so? Because when he is sober he is 'sorry'? When a man is denied access to his children at the key stages in their life as a result of a divorce which he did not want, or did not instigate, does the gospel really demand that he be reconciled to his ex-wife as though the loss of that precious time with his children was as nothing to him- simply because she now desires it?

Are we trying to be like gods when we demand such of ourselves and of others?
When we dare to proclaim such a gospel - is it any wonder that domestic violence, paedophilia, racial abuse, and bullying are rampant in the Church?

How is this 'life-giving'?

But what are the alternatives?
I believe that the practice of forgiveness is an acknowledgement that forgiveness is not immediate, it cannot be demanded or presumed, it is not a right- but is a gift of grace, which you and you alone can grant.
Practicing forgiveness means honestly owning the hurt and the anger, until sufficient grace is given by you to be able to release it. Often this is not given until 'justice' is done, the violence exposed, the situation is changed.
Practicing forgiveness means not making a lie of reconciliation by pretending to an affection or a relationship which does not exist, but offering both to you in trust.
Practising forgiveness means not being crucified time and again, but acknowledging that the time in the tomb is an important part of the process of healing and reconciliation. The gospel story suggests that it is important for humans to take the time to experience the hurt, to allow the anger to be expressed, to be transformed into the new creation which is the end result of all that has happened.

So God - this is my prayer to you this day, that all those who need to, myself included, might learn what it means to practice forgiveness by taking the time to wait on your grace, not by burying anger or hurt, but by burying the lie that everything is OK.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Safeguarding - who are we trying to kid?

Good morning God,
The new vetting and barring scheme being introduced by the government to protect children from paedophiles in the UK poses many deep and profound theological questions concerning human nature. Above all, it highlights the real cost of independent as opposed to interdependent living - and our desperate desire to hide the consequences of the breakdown of community and family life.

Whilst the new government guidelines will require 1 in 4 adults in the UK to register for the new database, it will do nothing to address the frightening statistics gathered by Childline and similar charities
These statistics tell us that:-
Over 50% of children who are abused are abused by a member of their immediate family - the most common offender being the father.
40% of sexual abuse of children can be attributed to older siblings
Aproximately 30% of sexual abusers are themselves teenagers..

None of this will change as a result of the new vetting procedures, but we will appear to be doing something - which is all that matters really - isn't it - after all, the government will be seen to be doing something about what is obviously a serious problem.

What the legislation really does is to safeguard the prize of moden civilisation - independence, it does little to safeguard a child. An Englishman's home is his castle, complete with dungeon where wives can be beaten and children can be abused, but that's nobody else's business and it is impolite to even mention it.

There is an African saying 'it takes a whole village to raise a child' and we find that sentiment echoed throughout the scriptures. The gospels as I understand them, proclaim the importance of a community of interdependence, of watching over one another in love. Jesus pointedly extends the boundaries of the traditional family, including in those who would otherwise be excluded - especially children. Nobody is without value, and all can be saved - yes - even the paedophile. And all this is possible because Salvation is communal not personal. You came in Christ to save the world, not the individual. You talk repeatedly in the Scriptures and through your prophets about the salvation of people, not persons.. something that we are too quick to forget in our desire for our own, personal, independent salvation.
I do not believe that we can be made safe by making outcasts of our brothers and sisters. Neither can we be saved by 'not being like them'. If I understand the purpose of the incarnation correctly - the whole point to comming as one of us, it is that we can only be safe and be saved by loving our neighbour as we love ourselves - whoever our neighbour is.
That means tearing down the doors that divide us, living more consciously and determinedly as part of a saved community.
John Wesley proclaimed that there is no holiness but social holiness, meaning that there is no such thing as a private Christian - we are all accountable to each other for our growth in grace and holiness, for our relationships and our behaviour not just for our Church attendance.
It IS a stain on the Church that it has harboured so many paedophiles amongst its clergy and staff, but dont you think God that is is a bigger stain on its character a greater disability of the body of Christ, that we have encouraged the idea of private religion and downplayed or ignored the imperative to watch over one another in love. I am convinced that it is the failure of us all to hold each other accountable, to be 'family' which lies at the real heart of this particular problem.

I deplore the idea of a single child being hurt or abused, but I am under no illusions about what this change in law will and will not do. It will not make us more accountable to each other, it will not make us care more for each other or for each others children, it will not encourage us to watch over one another in love. It will not teach us or enable us to love our neighbour as we love ourselves.
It will divide us into those whom the government considers 'safe' or 'unsafe', but will do little to increase the safety of our Children behind closed doors,
- and will do nothing to save the lost.
God - save us all - please.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Whose ordination is real..

Good morning God,

I was startled to find someone in our Church yesterday who was impersonating a minister. What an odd thing to want to do! Yet, it is not the first time I have met someone who seemed to see something so desirable in this vocation that they pretended to the office. Some buy their ordination certificates from the internet, set up their own 'church' and spend their time clerically attired. I wonder what they get out of it?
The man I challenged in our cafe area ran off when challenged, he had engaged one of our visitors in conversation - what was trying to do- feel respected, feel valued, or just con them out of money?
The woman I knew was a failed candidate for the ministry. She simply could not agree with the Church's decision and so when she was turned down, she tried to claim that she had been accepted by another church. She not only bought her ordination, she bought a Doctorate too and became a Revd Dr.
So sad..
But it has had me rethinking what value do I place on my own ordination, and on its visibility to to others and - what makes my ordination more 'real' than theirs?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Incarnational Pastoral Care

Good morning God,

How are we to bear one another's burdens if the person with the burden doesn't want to share - or more peculiarly, doesn't believe they have a burden to share?
How are we to build one another up in love, if the person we want to build up, doesn't seem to think they have fallen down?

My blog on Ordination is for Life has posed many questions for Christians who take seriously their call to pray for the sick and those in any form of distress, and to offer what support they can. It has hurt some who genuinely believe that they are doing their best to care for me, to respond to 'my situation' in love and with grace. There is puzzlement and pain at the extent of my anger and distress at what was offered in pastoral care for my benefit.
And in helping me to see that God, you have graciously given me the pivot I needed for my anger so that it could be realigned to combat the negative theology and belief systems that cause such problems in the first place.

I'm pretty sure that that at the root of the problem is a tendency to offer projective pastoral care instead of incarnational pastoral care.
There is a tendency for all of us to project our fears, dread, pity, and sorrow onto the person we think is in some need based on what we know of the need, and on how we think we would react if it were us. This is often compounded by presumptions we make based on our experience of how those we have known in the past dealt with a similar situation (or didn't!).
This leads to us thinking that we know what is best for the person, by which we really mean - what would be best, what we would want - if it were us. So we 'well' people - do what we can for the 'sick' people. We draw boundaries around ourselves, and the first step in caring for 'others' is making them realise that they are 'other' than us.

The reason that YOU are such good news however, is that you didn't and dont do that. You modeled a very different way of caring and building one another up. In Christ you shattered the boundaries we like to build between clean/unclean, well/sick, whole/broken, pure/impure. Christ made a point of touching and including into your kingdom those who were outcast and untouchable in the opinion of others. In Christ You taught us the true meaning of 'com-passion'. We are all called to stand with those who suffer, not apart from them.

Christ's earthly ministry showed us what equality means - for all fall short of the glory of God - we are ALL less than we should/could be - BUT - in Christ we can have LIFE.
Incarnational ministry frightens us because it pokes and prompts us out of the ancient heresy of docetism - you didn't just appear to be human, in Christ you really were human. You chose to be with us as one of us. That equality was a step too far for some..
But it makes all the difference in the world, because it means you didn't do our salvation TO us, you invite us, as Wesley said - to work out our own salvation WITH you.
You never impose your care, even though you alone have the ability to truly see what is needed in each and every situation. You simply offer your presence, your life-giving, life-affirming, truth that we are who we are with YOU.

Incarnational pastoral care is different because it does not do things for the other person, but with them. It is different because it makes no judgements based on the knowledge of how others have been, but sees each person as your unique child. It is radically different because it is an invitation to be compassionate rather than an imposition of presumed suffering. It is a statement of equality which transcends false boundaries and restores the dignity and value of common humanity.
It is not care which is imposed by the 'well' on the 'sick'..
it is the interdependence of equals who build one another - not just the other - up - in love and which makes no attempt to carry some people's burdens as though they have none of their own.

So where does all this leave me God, and those who want to care for me?

It leaves me where I was before - a whole person.
My diagnosis has not changed who I am before you. I refuse to be defined by an illness. Cancer is a part of my life because it is buried in my flesh, but it is not all that I am.
So I deny the idea that my cancer is a burden to be borne - or a trial to be endured - my life was and is a gift from you God - all of it. I also abhor the very idea that some seem to have that You have given me as a 'burden' for anyone else to carry - or that you have somehow laid my needs on the hearts of some individuals.. you least of all, see me as a burden, and the idea that you would be so particular and specific about my needs when there are thousands upon thousands of nameless, faceless children, men and women suffering in the world is so offensive I lack the words to articulate it-
BUT you have invited some amazing people to stand alongside me, to be with me, to share life with - and for that, for the knowledge that I do not stand alone, that I am not made an outcast - I give you my thanks and praise.