Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Excited about preaching from Scripture..

Good afternoon God,
Just a quick word of thanks for the book of Revelation - I'm loving it!
I can't say that I'm making too much sense of it, but I'm beginning to think that's that whole point of it. Let the mind go.. leave logic behind and see where your vision takes me..
I've noticed that there's just enough of a hint of normality in the book to entice my mind to play with the possibilities - it really is just like one of Escher's drawings, makes perfect sense as long as you don't look or think about it too long!

It makes me excited to find out what happens next - after all - everyone is dead already - the righteous have been harvested, the unrighteous too.. the grapes of wrath trodden - blood flowing higher than a horses bridle.. and we're only on chapter 14!

And yes.. it certainly makes writing sermons far more of a creative process
For tomorrow's Eucharist the text is Revelation 15:1-4..
So I've got bread, wine, seven angels, seven plagues, seas of glass and fire and victorious people with harps singing to you..

And the message for the day is...?

Love it !
Thank you God..
Did anyone ever tell you - great book this!

Monday, November 23, 2009

An embarrassed silence in heaven?

Good morning God,

Did heaven keep silence for the recent talks between the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury? I ask because it has been reported that they talked for about half an hour. Half an hour to discuss what is (sadly) for some a crucial life-defining, if not eternity deciding, issue.
Is the Church to be enriched by its differences, or destroyed by its diversity?

But this is not about the future of the Anglican communion or the success of the Catholic Church is it God? What is really at stake here is the ability of the whole Church to hold on to and honour the gifts of grace you have given it over the last two centuries and refuse to crawl back into the dark ages from which you dragged it to reform it, re-educate and reshape it.

I acknowledge my bias God, but I really cannot believe that it is your will for the Church to still promote what amounts to a medieval ordering of society as the best way for the gospel to flourish. The Gospel is GOOD NEWS for all or it is nothing, Once - for all - my saviour died.

But how is it good news for women to be told that they lack something so fundamental that you would never consider calling them to serve you in some forms of public ministry? Likewise how is it good news for people's humanity to be defined by their sexuality, and for their worth before you to be determined by those who are so afraid of their own sexuality that they willing choose to suppress it and pretend to a 'virtue' of celibacy?

The bitter gall of these conversations is that they once again appear to present the whole Church to the world as being concerned about nothing more than sex and bigotry. The embarrassment of these two supposed great world religious leaders meeting to compare sticks is surely enough to silence heaven - isn't it God?

Why couldn't they have met to talk about freeing up and using their Church's combined wealth to offer a Christmas gift of AIDs drugs or Tetanus Vaccines for Africa? Or better yet, to issue a public apology to all women whose lives have been ruined as a result of the Church's teaching on the rights of man?

God, forgive me, but it's hard to be associated with this broken, disabled body of Christ sometimes.

When I talk to young people about your love, about your desire for them to grow and flourish, to become all that they can be in your eyes - I believe that you mean for them to exceed the expectations of the world, regardless of their gender or sexuality. I believe that in every generation you raise up women and men to proclaim the good news and celebrate the mystery of faith, not as a means of wielding power, but as a means of setting all free.

The discussions that have just been held are perhaps a sign that religion as a force for the advancement of humanity is all but spent. The so-called 'traditional' established and historical Churches seem stuck on pack leadership, Alpha males and the size of the harem.

It's time for the reformed traditions to end their silence and publicly name and shame this behavior as un-worthy, un-Christian and sinful.

So, please, will you help us God?

Before the body of Christ becomes even more broken and crippled, will you grant us sufficient grace to work for its healing? Will you raise up voices, who are more interested in you and your grace than in power games and politics - and grant our Churches wisdom and courage enough to let them speak? Will you instill in us a longing to proclaim the GOOD NEWS that you LOVE the world - all of it?

But above all - will you help us to name and shame the sins of misogyny and homophobia masquerading as doctrinal rectitude and so help us to finally consign to a shameful history the petty medieval bickering's of the fearful and faithless in their palaces?

For the sake of the next generation
Please God - don't let your people be silent on this matter.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Pioneer Ministry and Fresh Expressions of Church

Good morning God,
The launch of my new book today finds me thinking about all the things I didn't think to include in it rather than all the things I did.
The book is specifically targeted at Church ministers and at members of Congregations who want to engage with pioneer ministry and fresh expressions of Church without losing everything they love or value of what they already do. We wrote it to be deliberately practical and constructive, a 'how to' rather than a 'why bother' sort of book because, as you pointed out God, most Church people want to rethink what they are doing about mission and especially about evangelism and worship - but aren't sure how to start. They have convinced themselves that its not for them, they are too old, or too set in their ways, or too...

This is partly because the role of Pioneer ministers and Fresh Expressions Practitioners has been so hyped up by Bishops and the Church press. They have become the Church's equivalent of the yuppies of the 80s and 90's business world. They are the new kids on the block, with everything to live for, nothing to lose. They are invariably presumed to be below a certain age, male, casual, entrepreneurs who sit lightly to any form of authority or accountability..

The book shatters that image and shows how a fairly 'ordinary' or typical Church or minister, determined to respond to your grace, can begin to pioneer and explore Fresh Expressions.

But of course.. if you put your head above the parapet...
I know that I can look forward to receiving more comments about what I didn't suggest than about what I did.. perhaps enough for a sequel?

Sorry God, I'm wondering off the track again... what I wanted to say was simple enough..

Please, bless all those who read this book.
Use it, if you can, to inspire people to be creative and constructive for you and for your kingdom. And may the joy that I had in the writing of it, be communicated to those who read it, so that the hope that inspired it, of your people renewed and enthused for mission, might be the end result.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Riding out the storm of life

Good morning God,

Thank you for your company last night, I really appreciated it. The wind's fury may not have been stilled by a prayer, but its ability to disturb and distress me was destroyed by your presence and the lesson you taught me.

Thank you.
I wont forget.
This small boat of a body that sails the seas of life may well be rocked and tossed and turned in The days and weeks ahead - but you are with me.
I need have no fear

Though not all howls will be silenced with a whisper from your lips, you will never allow a cry from me to be snatched away by the wind or to be drowned out by the thunder. For You are with me - and - best of all - you invite me to step out of my safety zone, and join you striding across the waves.

I have always known that there is a place for storms and a need for waves. There is a power in the fury that is part of you and is essential to salvation and creation. But last night you taught me that daring to join you enables me to be caught up in the continual genesis of your grace when power and passion floods the soul with a love of peace and a hunger for new life.

Though I did not sink beneath the waves, I woke this morning to find that my legs are still trembling with the memory of how last night, we did not calm the storm but walked the waters till its fury was spent, new life was given and your rainbow heralded the dawn of a new day.

So in future, though my knees may be weak and my steps uncertain, I will try to remember how important it can be to let the storm rage. I will remember too how important it is to leave my place of relative safety, for I know now that you call us to master our fear and make a miracle happen. You invite us to step out and walk with you, wherever your Spirit thunders at the injustice, poverty, crime, and hatred in our world until we rage and long, as you do, for its cleansing and healing. For then, and only then, I suspect, will the storm be stilled for all time.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Education and Ministry - Wesley's lists!

Good morning God,

You are going to need to explain to me why so many good people seem to automatically presume that an educated person is somehow less Spiritual or less caring, or even less practical than an uneducated one. I just don’t get it – especially not with regard to what is necessary for ministry.

John Wesley was adamant that those called to the ordained ministry should possess several qualities in order to be able to fulfil the duties of their calling. These he categorized as being either acquired or inherited by grace or nature. In 'An Address to the Clergy' he says that the natural gifts should include 'First, a good understanding, a clear apprehension, a sound judgment, and a capacity of reasoning with some closeness'

As might perhaps be expected, given the extent of his own learning, Wesley also deemed 'a competent share of knowledge' of each of the following to be desirable acquired qualities:
  • Firstly: the office of a minister, 'of the high trust in which he stands, the important work to which he is called'
  • Secondly: the Scriptures
  • Thirdly: Greek and Hebrew
  • Fourthly: history, including ancient customs, chronology and geography.
  • Fifthly: Some knowledge of the sciences, of logic, metaphysics, at least the general grounds of natural philosophy, as well as of geometry,
  • Sixthly: the writings of the Church Fathers
  • Seventhly: of the world; 'a knowledge of men, of their maxims, tempers, and manners, such as they occur in real life.'

Wesley also expected clergy to have acquired both prudence and ‘good breeding’, a good voice and 'good delivery both with regard to pronunciation and action'

All of which makes my request for every minister after 2013 to have to have a degree before being ordained seems rather small!

Of course Wesley was also convinced that such an education was not, of itself sufficient for ministry. 'For what are all other gifts', he insisted, 'whether natural or acquired, when compared to the grace of God? And how ought this to animate and govern the whole intention, affection, and practice of a minister of Christ!

The problem comes when people insist on an 'either-or' mentality instead of one that says both-and.

Yes, I confess, this is personal, as you know only too well.
I have never got used to the fact that some people presume (and delight in telling me!) that I cannot possibly be pastoral or spiritual because (in their opinion) I am too 'cerebral'! Throughout my ministry, you have had to help me live with, and learn how to forgive, the spiteful comments and criticisms of those who do not know me and have never taken the trouble to get to know me, but who have judged me and found me wanting in faith and grace, simply because in their opinion I am ‘too clever’.

Such anti-intellectualism is evident in the bizarre form of political correctness in the Church’s conversations about this subject which makes it almost impossible to dare to suggest that education is AS valuable as practical ministerial skills and that – yes - this might mean - horror of horrors - that maybe, just maybe, not everyone IS called to ordained ministry.

The charge is that I am being elitist by wanting every ordained minister to possess a degree, but this presumes a view of ministry which I simply do not share. I believe that YOU equip the Church with all the gifts and graces it needs to flourish and grow - but I also think that this has become a source of embarrassment to us, God, because – well, you don't always seem to give everyone the gifts and graces that they want, do you (in our humble opinion)!

Of course you do, but there is this misguided idea that you have established a hierarchy of ministry rather than a diversity, and that hierarchy is based on how 'clever' someone is.

Rubbish! Those are the not the values of your kingdom. I find nothing in scripture to suggest that you order the gifts and graces that you share amongst us in that way. The parable of the talents seems to suggest that what matters is not what grace we are given, but what we do with it for your sake!

So help us out God, instead of teaching us how to devalue or dumb down ministry teach us instead how to get ourselves to the stage where we can genuinely celebrate its rich diversity and the gift of the ‘the priesthood of all believers’.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Qualified to Minister?

Good morning God,

The news this morning is that all new nurses in the UK from 2013 are going to have to spend at least three years being educated to degree level. Hallelujah! As someone who has to be in hospital on a regular basis, I think this is great news. But of course there are already some who insist that education has nothing to do with caring and that you don't need a degree to be a good nurse..

We have the same problem in ministry.

It will come as a surprise to many readers of this blog to know that the British Methodist Church has no formal graduate educational requirement for ordained ministry. Someone can enter training for the ministry without a degree of any sort and can complete their time in seminary without having acquired one in the time they have spent there.

The failure to achieve what is clearly becoming the minimum professional academic standard is not thought sufficient reason for the Church to reconsider the individual's suitability for ministry and delay their ordination.

But it really should be.

In the twelve years that I have been involved in training our ministers I have witnessed many who have really struggled with academic work, who would never have thought of themselves as 'clever' in any way, but who have nonetheless worked and worked to obtain the degree or diploma which forms an integral part of their seminary training. Ministry matters enough to them for them to really want to do well. They strive to be worthy of their calling by learning all that they can for the sake of those they will minister to.

Sadly I have also seen far more 'clever' students who fail to submit work at all, who plagiarise the work of others or cut and paste something from the Internet or just knock out an essay in an half hour thinking that anything will do. They often leave seminary as uneducated as when they arrived - and are usually stupid enough to think that there is nothing wrong with that!

And inevitably the work of the Church really suffers. The body of Christ is sick, but is being ministered to by some ministers who weren't prepared to learn how to take its pulse (but who do, of course, have an uneducated opinion about how to do it!)

The British Methodist Church at the moment does not seem to believe that ordained ministry requires people to be educated to what is fast becoming the national standard for a vocational profession. Obviously we presume our ministers know enough about you God by loving you and that they shouldn't need formal qualifications to prove it.

The government believes that a nurse needs a degree in order to equip them with 'the decision making skills which they need to make high level judgements'.

But Ministers...? Why would they need a degree?

What use is theology in ministry anyway God?

None of the disciples had a degree did they?

It's not just that I am ashamed of the poor standard of ministerial education compared to our European and American counterparts, I am also horrified at the biblical and theological illiteracy which we foster on our people as a result.

The lack of ability of all too many ministers to engage critically and analytically with the rest of the world using the resources of the faith, (Scripture, reason, tradition and experience) is one of the main reasons that the gospel is often deemed irrelevant and anachronistic. It is widely thought by those who must wrestle with global problems such as ecology, justice, the war on terror and human trafficking that the Christian faith is as much use in such matters as belief in the tooth fairy is.

Surely the best way to begin to change this and to recover a national voice which can speak confidently and intelligently of Your concerns in these matters, is for the Church to follow the lead of the government. All ministers from 2013 should need a minimum qualification of a recognised Bachelors degree in theology or ministry before they can be ordained.

The fear that this will prevent people from offering for ordained ministry must surely be set alongside the fear of what is happening to the Gospel because we don't!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

An end to ordained ministry?

Good morning God,

What does it take to persuade a minister to leave their church? The process of becoming a minister was so arduous for some that it seems almost inconceivable that anyone who put themselves through it would walk away casually - unless of course, they enjoy self harm! And then of course, there are the practicalities of having to find a new job (what ARE the transferable skills of the clergy?) and of course, a new home - few jobs outside the Church come with a place to live. And for some, there are other concerns, like health insurance, car allowance etc etc.

Yet in spite of this, more and more ordained Christian ministers are leaving the Church.

  • It isn't that they don't want to minister,
  • it isn't that they don't love the people that You have placed in their care -
  • it isn't even the inevitable petty squabbles that happen each and every week which the minister is routinely expected to resolve..

Almost without exception, those who leave state that they are just as convinced of their calling to ordained ministry as when they first offered to serve You.

So what is going wrong God?

The majority of those I have spoken to about this cite a breakdown in the relationship with the 'institutional' Church as the main reason why they left. Some speak almost bitterly of the lack of support, of isolation, of mismanagement and even of betrayal.

But they are not talking about doctrines, about Scripture or even the traditions of the Church. Neither is this about belief in You. It is about the perceived failure of the Church to practice what it preaches at every level - including the institutional. The trend towards treating ministers as corporate employees, with contracts and line-managers, HR departments and handbooks, is a step too far for some who claim it dehumanises ministry, negates 'pastoral care' and replaces YOU with the Church at the heart of ministry.

The other side to this of course, it the appalling standard of ministry which local Churches have to endure from ministers who insist on doing their own thing, who cannot be disciplined except for major offenses, who will not hold themselves accountable, and who sit lightly to the practices and doctrines of their Church. Not surprisingly - such ministers seldom leave of their own volition! The frightening increase in the numbers of such ministers persuades many that the only answer is for the Church to embrace models of leadership, management and governance borrowed from industry.. which encourages others to leave..

The challenge for the Church is to find the balance...

I'm not convinced that there was once a golden age when the Church took better care of its ministers, but I do agree that the institutional Church seems less and less conscious of, or even concerned about, the part that You play in ministry and the needs of the minister for pastoral care and the opportunity to grow in grace and holiness rather than to be 'managed'.

I am also forced to agree with those who say that there is an increase in the number of ministers for whom the word 'sacrifice' is not only archaic but simply 'not in the contract'.

There is however, little to suggest that the Church has either the courage or the confidence to act to obtain the balance we need.

Which begs the question - has ordained ministry perhaps had its day..?

The simple fact is we could do without it..
The Church has always grown fastest when it didn't have it..

What do you say God?

Friday, November 6, 2009

The sad story of Fort Hood.

Good morning God,
Yes, I am afraid. The shootings in Ford Hood in America or more importantly, the reporting of it, bring us dangerously close to the religious war that no sane person could possibly want - except of course, the reporters. It makes for a much better story doesn't it if the killer went wild because he is a Muslim. If he had been a Christian who didn't want to be deployed in Iraq - would we have been told what his religion was? It should grieve us, not incite us to mass hatred and prejudice, if someone is so sick and disturbed that they kill in this way - from the Hungerford massacre to the school killings.. a tale of human tragedy.
Islam is not as the press are portraying it, anymore than Christianity is. The media MAKE a story where none exists, playing on perverse caricatures which demean and betray ALL people of faith - and we let them.
There is no such thing as a 'typical' Muslim or a 'typical' Christian - for all are made unique - for all are made in your image God. So when we allow our perceptions of our fellow human beings to be defined by the ignorance and prejudices of those who need to sell a paper for a few pence.. we shame ourselves and You, God.
If we were really determined to follow you, and to keep your commandments - especially the one which says we should love our neighbour as ourselves then every time a Muslim brother or sister is caricatured as ignorant, violent, backward, stupid or fundamentalist - Christians the world over should demand that the record be put straight. In time that might lead to the situation where every time a Christian sister or brother is caricatured as being homophobic, racist, misogynist and ignorant - Muslims the world over will demand that the record be put straight. That would leave the media having to find another source for their fear mongering.
But we are far removed from that state at the moment
God - help us, please, to reign in our fear, and pull back from the brink of a war caused by the the need for some to find a sensational angle on the all too common sad, sad story of human sickness...

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Poppys and Peace

Good morning God,

I am troubled by the news of the deaths of five British servicemen in Afghanistan - especially, if I'm honest , this close to remembrance day. I struggle with the idea of remembrance Sun day - with its mixed up messages of faith and nationalism giving people the mistaken impression that
  1. this is a Christian country and
  2. that only Christians fought in the war
and when we are effectively still at war in a country that is a Muslim country, participating in what is clearly for some a predominantly religious war (even if we don't see the Talaban in that way) - then my unease multiplies. Islamaphobia is a sin - Jesus taught us to love our neighbour.

I have bought a poppy - but this year I have chosen not to wear it when I am wearing a clerical collar, I just can't bring myself to reinforce the association of Christianity with nationalism, or war.. especially not when I am so conscious of the rise of fascism, racism and religious intolerance.
I also can't, as a minister, bring myself to only pray for 'our' fallen heroes. You have taught us that we should pray for our enemies, not those we love.
When we are prepared to remember the lives we have taken, as well as those we have lost, and remember the cost in terms of religious, economic and political freedoms won and lost - I will be a lot happier about 'remembrance' day. But I think I would still want to break the link between remembrance day and the Lord's day.

Only one, in all of history, gave his life and died that I might truly live - and I want people to remember that.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

listening and speaking out.

Good morning God,
I saw you in my dreams last night. You were speaking with the judges in the Hague, the court of human rights, trying to plead a case. From my place somewhere at the back of the courtroom I really strained to hear what you had to say, but every time you spoke, there was a great rustling as every court official and spectator shuffled and searched through reams and reams of paper. The sound of beaurocracy and legalism effectively drowned out the sound of your voice and your wisdom was lost to me and to the court. I wanted to scream for silence, to demand that people just leave the great mounds of legal briefs alone so that we could all LISTEN but I discovered to my horror that I had no voice, and that the only way I would be able to communicate was to write a letter to the judge.. and add to the pile of paperwork!
Just as I realised this, you turned and looked straight at me, the whole room fell silent, as you called me by name and command me to speak.

And I addressed the court and said it was a fundamental human right - by the grace of God, to hear the voice of God and that every human, every single child of God, has the right to hear God speak their name in love, no matter how they are judged or thought of by their peers.

Thank you God, for helping me to know just how passionately I feel about that basic gift of grace.

Now I know that the origin of the dream lay in listening to the news on the World Service as I fell asleep and on its report of the progress of Radovan Karadzic's trial - but it was nonetheless a multi-layered dream, and it will take some time to unpack it all.

This morning I was particularly struck by the similarity between the courtroom and the Church. We don't mean to, but I suspect we drown out the possibility of all too many people hearing you speak by the 'noise' of our religious communication. Inadvertently we turn Scripture into a legalistic brief and our liturgies into petitions. We push so much 'paper' into people's hands as they enter a place of prayer... and my cheeks burn with embarrassment as I think on how many people over the years must have left an act of worship I have led, having strained to hear what YOU were saying instead of what I was saying, or the Church was doing!

So help me God to rethink how I can help to create opportunities for people to hear YOU, not hear ABOUT you.

And - meanwhile.. keep calling - I'm listening.