Thursday, October 29, 2009

Corporate Disciples?

Good morning God,

What is the Church for? I ask because that question seemed to run throughout the day yesterday, and it had all the hallmarks of one of YOUR questions rather than one of mine!

It started with a conversation about Pastoral Care - and the emphasis that we choose to place on caring for our members. It DOES matter that we visit the sick and the elderly, that we maintain fellowship, but do we remember why we do it - or do we simply do it because its what the Church does. I suspect we presume that those we visit already know you and love you God, that they have no need to be 'saved'..

Then there was the conversation with one Church member who is concerned about the way in which the Biblical histories are read and believed. The Bibles credits you with initiating various acts of war and bloodshed, particularly with regard to the lands in the Middle-East, but are these the acts of a God of love? The conversation was really about what the Church teaches and what people are supposed to get out of it. Is that what the Church is for - to enlighten people - or not?

And then, last night, at a finance meeting - the question was properly asked - are there other ways in which we can increase our income..

What is the Church for...? To meet the needs of those who belong to it, attend it and pay for it.. or to reach out to those who do not know you, to proclaim the Good News to those who have never heard it, and to give cheerfully to those who have nothing?

I know its not an 'either-or' situation, but I suspect most Churches ARE more focused on meeting the needs of its members than they are on seeking the lost, (even the lost in their own congregation!)

But that's right isn't it?

It is the task of the gathered Church to build one another up in love so that each member can engage in evangelism, discipleship and charity in every part of their life - not just at set times when the Church has commissioned, authorised or appointed them to do it!

The Church gathers to enable your people to grow in grace, so that they can respond to you in grace, and serve you in the WORLD (not just in the Church) It is not the task of the gathered Church to DO the work of the disciple, but to raise up disciples who will do the work of Christ.

So help me God, please, to work with the Church to break the 'corporate' responsibility mentality which makes the 'church' the focus of Christian Kingdom expectations so that we can rediscover and release the potential of personal discipleship to reshape and remake your world according to your will.

Friday, October 23, 2009

It's all in the name..

Good morning God,

Having listened to Nick Griffin of the British National Party on BBC Question Time last night repeatedly refer to himself as both a Christian and British I find myself wanting either a new identity, or some means of redeeming/defending the name 'Christian'.
Instead, God, perhaps I need to face the question more honestly - Is it True? Do I really share a common identity with this man?

Of course, Nick Griffin is not the first, and will not be the last to bring the name 'Christian' into disrepute. The tag of 'Christian' has long been used to provide a false veneer of respectability to cover a multitude of sins - the link between paedophiles and the Church for example, is well known, as is that between Politicians and the Church. Being considered 'Christian' is still for some people taken as a form of short-hand for being 'respectable', or even trustworthy, - dare one say 'good'?
All positive attributes..

Except that increasingly, largely as a result of fundamentalist parties (both religious and political, here and abroad) the name Christian is also associated with being Islamaphobic, Homophobic, Nationalistic, as well as ignorant, violent, fundamentalist, unreasonable and - well - put bluntly - anachronistic.

Which is why confessing to being a practicing Christian in some circles will earn you a polite embarrassed smile, the sort usually reserved for eccentrics who suddenly announce something highly inappropriate, often very loudly, in the middle of a dinner party.
Being a Christian, believing in You God, is apparently, something people did before they knew better, before they grew up and began to take responsibility for themselves. For some people, an intelligent adult believing in you is as sad and embarrassing as someone still believing in Father Christmas or the Easter Bunny when they are more than six years old.

Nonetheless, the fact is that both Nick Griffin and I are Christians by public confession. He is, just as I am, your child.

To disown him would only make me less Christian, and help to make his particular understanding of the faith and what it stands for - the accepted understanding, rather than the aberration that it really is.
The problem is, of course, that according to the faith I profess, I should WANT Nick Griffin to be a Christian, I should be GLAD that he wants to follow Christ.

Which leads me to thinking that the slur on the name Christian maybe my fault not his, for I at least know better, clearly he does not.

Perhaps if I had been a better Christian, if I had made it more evident by all that I say and do that Christianity is nothing to do with nationalism, but everything to do with inclusivism, that Christianity has nothing to do with racism, but that the Gospels proclaim the equality of every child of God in every time and place.. If I had borne the name Christian more faithfully, then he could not have so publicly claimed the name, without earning either incredulity and ridicule or at very least being expected to change his views.

Christianity's name - now as always, is drawn from the practice and proclamation of its members. At one time, in meant - followers of Christ, now, in some parts of this Island, it simply means a way of life.

The fault is not Nick Griffin's, he is the Christian he thinks he is supposed to be - He is someone who has been raised to sing with pride the hymns 'I vow to thee my country', ' Jerusalem', 'Lift high the Cross' and even 'Onward Christian Soldiers' .. I have no doubt that he will attend Remembrance Sunday Services, and take comfort and delight in the marriage of faith and nationalism being so publicly broadcast. He will nod with approval at the death of brave men and women in defence of the values of British Democracy being likened to the death of Christ..

God, forgive me, for I have played my own part in associating being British with being Christian. I have heard and not always denied the claim that this is a Christian country - even when I know that there are more practicing Muslims in the UK than there are practicing Christians. I have allowed the mistaken association of 'British Values' with 'Christian conduct' - as though Christianity is all about democracy or adherence to a particular form of moral or social code rather than about loving God and loving my neighbour, welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, setting the captives free, and trying to grow in grace and holiness.

Like many God, last night's broadcast woke me up to the realisation that only by finding the means within me to publicly proclaim in word and deed the real truth of the faith which Nick Griffin mistakenly claims to confess, can I help to ensure that the name Christian will mean something other than 'White British and ignorant in defence of homophobic, Islamaphobic, racist and xenophobic exclusivism.'

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Bblical invitation

Good morning God,

I've been re-reading the Bible again (always dangerous I know) but I find I'm really struggling to understand how we got to Christianity (Churches, priests, hymns, doctrines, sacraments etc) from what I am reading..

Of course, I do know that the Bible wasn't the only source of our theology and practice, and that we borrowed all sorts of interesting bits and pieces from Judaism and elsewhere.. as well as added on a few rules and regulations of our own.. but even so.. the gap between what is taught/shared/narrated in Scripture and what we do/teach/preach in practice in church is startlingly large when looked at head on.

I can't find anywhere where Jesus requires me to sing hymns for example, he offers no model for 'acceptable' worship - and gave us only one model for prayer. If the Church's peaching is supposed to be like his, then we should preach in parables and ask more questions than we are prepared to answer, expecting those who are wanting to follow you to discern their own meaning most of the time.

Perhaps most challenging for me at the moment is the lack of concerted emphasis on sin and confession in the teachings of Jesus. I know how the Church managed to get so concerned about this - but really God - I would have thought that by now we would have rebelled against it, thrown out the priestly power games and religious party politics which such teachings thinly disguise, and reclaimed the joy of the simple expression - go and sin no more. Why haven't we?

Leaving that old chestnut aside, what's really exciting me again and got me writing to you this morning, is the rediscovery of how much of Scripture is an invitation - to be a part of something that you have initiated which is challenging, radically new, politically liberating, religiously simplistic, humanly transformative and genuinely creative..
Taken as a whole, it reads like an amazing invitation and a challenge for me to dare to become, by your grace, so much more than I currently am, for the sake of those who are so much less than they should be or could be. If I am reading your Word right, you are offering to transform me, and anyone else who responds to your invitation, into someone who can play an active part in your creative purposes for the world.

I'm game God, so now all I need is to know how to share your invitation with others without dumbing it down in a 20 minute sermon or a wrapping it up as a liturgical letter.. Have you got any modern parables for me to share?

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Late developer

Good morning God,
We humans really are the oddest creatures aren't we. Without thinking about it, we take the very best of what you have given us, our individuality, creativity, curiosity and spirituality and do our utmost to force it into some measurable form of 'normality'.

By age such and such, if we are a 'normal' human being - we ought to be able to do this and that. We become quite obsessed by this measurable normality - height, weight, hand-eye coordination, spelling, grammar, arithmetic, logic, spatial manipulation etc etc etc. At every age in our 'formative' years we measure and grade against a plumb-line of perfection - which is nothing more than a cultural average. There is a new report out today that says formal learning shouldn't start until 6 years of age - but who is to say that formal learning teaches us what we need to know to be human anyway? Surely all formal learning does is try to ensure that we all have the same average ability to process information, engage in social interaction and be more or less as able as everyone else is?

What odd creatures we are -
For you delight in making us above average - every single one of us. There is no such thing as an average human being, for everyone of us belongs to you, and you just don't seem to 'do' either 'normal' or 'average'. You do spectacular, unique, mysterious, wondrous, miraculous. Which makes me wonder whether or not the greatest threat to humanity is not our deviation from a government standard, but our socially constructed fear of difference from the norm.
We are trained from an early age to avoid drawing attention to ourselves. Nobody really wants to stand out from the crowd - unless of course, its in one of the acceptable ways, sport, creative talent, beauty.. etc.
And so we make a sin of the spectacular, a misery of what is majestic and a shame of our acts of gleeful spontaneity. We covet conformity, and strive for standardization. Meaning that millions of women starve and force themselves into predefined acceptable figures, and men suck chests in and pay for hair-implants - not because we actually need to, but because we are worth it! (and because we have been taught to be afraid of being different!)

Not so with you. In your company I can be me because wherever the gospel is preached everyone is free to be who they fully are before you. Like many, I was a late developer, but I finally realised that there is nothing average about a single Child of God, every human is different, special and gifted by your grace. There is no average sin, nor is there an average salvation. I am not a typical Methodist, or a typical minister ( God forbid!) I am not 'normal' - thank you God - I am me. Thank you for making me too small, not quite clever enough, a loud mouth with a BIG heart and a passion for truth and justice that scares me sometimes.

So vive la difference - not just in formal learning, but in ministry, preaching, living and being.

And now comes the hardest task - resisting the temptation to persuade everyone else to be 'just as abnormal as me!' Because, that, of course, would be just another way of trying to make us all the same again!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Connexional not individual Pioneers and ministers please

Good morning God,
We really do seem to have got ourselves in a mess again - trying to respond to what we think are the needs of the age, the call for pioneering ministry and mission leaders who can communicate to the diverse and disparate cultures which thrive outside of your Church..
It's as though we have forgotten who the author of the message is, and who it is that does the commissioning. The Church is so caught up with the need to break free of the things that some people think have shackled or limited our outreach, that it is in danger of throwing out the ministers with the message, in its desire to communicate culturally..

But communicate WHAT? Individualism reigns, personality triumphs, Marketing matters, entrepreneurialism succeeds?

Ok, Ok, I know - cheap rhetoric - but this is the knife edge balance in pioneer ministry - the skill set SEEMS to call for individual gifts and graces which give primacy to self-sufficiency, initiative, charisma... almost the Church's equivalent of the cult of the celebrity.
But this is the lie of our times. What the Church needs most is community, interdependence not independence, interrelated networks not individual nodes.
A modern Connexion.

Which means the Church has to play ITS part and NOT simply delegate all the risk and responsibility for responding to the call of Pioneer ministry on the would-be pioneer mission leader.

The timing of the VentureFX scheme this year means that all Presbyters who have applied who are also in stationing will be expected to withdraw from stationing BEFORE they know whether or not they have been accepted for stationing as a Pioneer Mission Leader.

The Presbyter has to take ALL the 'risk' of discernment.

The dilemma for the Presbyter who believes they may be called to this form of ministry is this:-
Should they stay in the stationing process and see whether or not God is calling them to serve another Church and Circuit, or should they withdraw, knowing that if they are not successful in their application for Pioneer Mission Leader status that they will have to reenter the process at a later stage - when there are fewer churches and circuits to discern a calling to, and which are less likely to be looking for the gifts and graces they believe they have to offer.

But WHY should the presbyter or deacon carry all the risk?
Why have we demanded such individualism for what we hope will grow the Connexion?

Surely - If the CHURCH is issuing the call for pioneer mission leaders, then it must accept a share in the calling process. If a presbyter or deacon is matched with a circuit, and is then successful in their application for Pioneer Ministry Status - why can't it be the CIRCUIT that has to renter the stationing process?

Wouldn't that be a better expression of Connexionalism, of the Priesthood of ALL believers?

It's time to call on all Chairs and members of the Stationing committee to refute the creeping cult of the individual and insist on a Connexional approach to pioneer ministry. BOTH processes - stationing and the Pioneer Mission Leader application process should be allowed to run in parallel.

Let the call be tested and discerned - by offering the CHOICE .

We don't need a new classification of ministry either lay or ordained - we need a new approach to discernment and stationing - of the priesthood of all believers!
We need a CONNEXIONAL approach to pioneer mission leaders which invites the circuits and districts to play their part in their selection and deployment, not least by sharing the risk, and perhaps thereby assisting in the testing of the call.

The alternative is simple - we say deacons and presbyters are not expected to be pioneer mission leaders..
Sadly this already seems to be the message we are sending out, loud and clear.

And when Conference asks once again (as it does with increasing rapidity) why so few younger people are considering ordained ministry, why so few are willing to respond to the call of God to serve in this way - who will have the courage to answer truthfully?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Giggling God

Good morning God,
I've been wondering just how different the Church would be if the smallest verse in the bible had been Jesus giggled instead of Jesus wept.
Now of course I know how important it is for us to know that you care for us, that you grieve for us, that you are capable of being moved to tears.. but I really do think that we would all be so much better off if our faith, and particularly our Church's were based on the knowledge that you meant what you said - that our joy will be complete - instead of that our suffering should be endless.

Sorry God - but you know what I mean - so much of Church life and teachings seems to be based on misery. We dwell on sickness and sin and dare to use these as a call to salvation. We almost always seem to forget to talk about the joy and delight of being made GOOD, or if we do, its as a sort of consolation prize for having to give up sinning! Never mind - we say - God loves you!

Dear God - please! Save another generation from the misery of modern Christianity! From the daunting lists of thou shalt nots and the endless rounds of confession and forgiveness.
This is not just about worship in Church on a Sunday (although that really DOES deserve laughter) This is about something far more fundamental - its about YOU and US and life in all its fullness.

How would it be if the Church was the one place where a person heard the real truth about themselves - that they are made GOOD - that they have the God given potential to become something so much more than an accountant, lawyer, clerk, cashier, dentist, minister etc etc.. You have made us all apprentice messiahs, star makers, world shifters, mountain breakers and miracle workers - the sisters and brothers of Christ.
What would happen if the Church was the place where the first thing that people heard was the real truth about life in all its fullness - that their life is an opportunity to laugh, to grow, to heal and to discover what it is to transcend mediocrity with divinity, to appreciate beauty through majesty and know, really know that there is more.. that fear can be defeated, that suffering is not the end, but can be overcome, that life is SO full, that you can't ever destroy it.

God giggled -
you've got to admit God, it would have re-written the history of the church if that verse had been the shortest verse in the bible.

Priests would have been dressed in anything BUT black, churches would have been designed to be full of light and colour, sound and dance. Laughter would have resounded at the heart of the Eucharist which really would have been CELEBRATED - a JOYOUS thanksgiving. We would have written prayers of encouragement instead of petition, prayers of delight instead of confession. You never know - we might even have sung Hymns with decent melodies!

What say you God - too radical - too impossible?
Are we too far gone now, too stuck with our misery, with our petitions and pleadings, our solemnity and suffering, our sins and our sorrows?
Is the best we can hope for the charismatic moments - Toronto blessings, outpourings of the Spirit when giggles interrupt sermons and disrupt services?

Surely not..

Giggling God, teach us how to recover the GOOD in the Good news of the gospel.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Lo - I am with you always

Good evening God,
Sorry to be so late, but as you know, I've been sleeping, and dreaming. Every time it looked like I might wake fully, I was given something to send me back to the land of visions and dreams in order to give my body a chance to rest, to heal and recover.
It's been a strange two days,drifting in and out of consciousness, not least because you have been so strongly present to me in both my waking and my sleeping. The Psalmist was right, there is nowhere we can go where you are not - even it seems, in the drug induced twilight zone of semi-conscious will.
It has made me marvel anew at the gifts of discernment, communication, presence and awareness. Even whilst 'asleep' I was able to discern the presence of those who cared for me. They were able to communicate with me. Their words and prayers penetrated the mists of sleep to find expression in my dreams. I was aware when there were people 'waiting' for me to rouse myself, and of the need to take whatever time it took. I always seemed to know the difference between what was 'real' and what was dream - the work of my imagination.
The amazing thing however was you. You were as real and as present to me in my dreams as you are in my waking moments. You are not changed by my state of mind - I am!
Waking and sleeping - You are always you.
So thank you, for the confidence and inspiration that this has given me, I shall sleep much easier knowing that it really is true - wherever I am, no matter how deeply I sleep, there really is nowhere I can go - where you are not.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Pioneers..Called or hired?

Good morning God,

Our Pioneer Mission Leaders project has me worrying about Esau, and Barnabas, and a whole host of other 'also rans' who appear in scripture. How did those who were essential to the plan of salvation and the proclamation of the gospel, but who are even now still perceived by many to be of secondary importance, feel about their role?
Did Barnabas resent not being Paul? Did John Mark leave because Paul did not think he was of the same calibre as a missionary as Titus or Timothy?
What will the creation of 'Pioneer Mission Leaders' do to the current understanding of Presbyteral and lay ministry for those with a passion for mission?

What's in a name?
Everything - for you call us - by name.

Ministry is not a job that people do, it is an expression of who they are before you. I do not do the job of a Presbyter, I AM a presbyter.
If the same is not true of those we are calling Pioneer Mission Leaders - then who would want them? If all we are looking for is hired hands, then we would do well to recall Christ's words and the comparison that he draws between the hired hand and the good shepherd.
This is the problem when we 'recruit' instead of 'call' people to discern ministry - lay or ordained.
We create the impression that we want people with particular skills willing to DO a particular job for which we will offer suitable remuneration. What we actually want is for people to discern the name you are calling them by, and be prepared to stand up if they hear it called.

Most of the Presbyters I have met and trained over the last ten years already believe that they are called to pioneer the proclamation of the gospel for this generation. They are rightly convinced that they are already engaged in Mission, and the church has already placed them in positions of leadership - so should they apply for the new posts?
Or should they stay in circuit ministry?

When they hear the word Presbyter they hear the words Pioneer Mission Leader', but presbyters are stationed, and pioneers are appointed - WHY? Why aren't at least 50% of these posts part of the stationing process?

Where does a presbyter best discern your call - in the stationing system with members of the Church, Circuit and District or in the job application process and an appointment panel?

Has the Church considered what will it do to a Presbyter's self-understanding, to their sense of call if they are not 'selected' or 'appointed'? Are they prepared to support those who will return to circuit ministry no longer believing that they are called to mission, to pioneer or to lead?

What's in a name?
Esau or Isaac?
Benjamin or Joseph
Barnabas or Paul?
John Mark or Timothy?
Presbyter or Pioneer?

It really shouldn't be the difference between being called or hired.

I think God, that we are stuck in an uncomfortable position - for a church that has always placed great store on discernment as an essential component of ministry, we are in danger of losing something very important by hiring rather than discerning our pioneer mission leaders.
Why not use our candidating process - open it to both lay and ordained - but require the same assent from local church, circuit, district and Conference?

Meanwhile - God - can you please shout at all our Presbyters who have a heart for mission to apply for these posts..
The Church needs to hear that most of its presbyters want to be free to pioneer mission and lead the proclamation of the gospel - its what we feel called by you to do.

Most of all God, teach our Church to call us by name - not by job title, and to call us yours, so that whatever it is we do in your service as part of this Church really is an expression of our relationship with you and our commitment to proclaim the name of the Lord.