Saturday, January 30, 2010

A place to Confer...?

Good morning God,
Are we impoverished as a Church when we actively seek to limit or control a means of grace?

Conferring was once considered a valuable means of grace, an opportunity to discern your will as your people, inspired by your Spirit, debated your purposes.  Its a dying art however, and few these days are prepared to really confer.. to state their own opinion and listen as attentively for the contra-opinion, to be open to being transformed by what they hear as something of your will and your truth is revealed in the debate - regardless of whether it is on matters of faith or Church order.

I think God, that we become a smaller people somehow -  we invest too much of ourselves in our opinions and hence are unwilling to be challenged or contradicted.  The idea of 'being wrong' offends us, rather than opens us up to the opportunity of learning something new. Image - personal or corporate  - seems all important and bizarrely, 'not being right' seems to be considered a failure and provokes shame, or anger - all of which closes us down to the potential implicit in still having something to learn - especially when the something is something about You!

The history of the Church is, after all, a history of conferring - of debate - of seemingly wild and opposing opinions being thrashed out in councils, nailed to doors, proclaimed from grave-stones - and at one time  even argued out at Synods and Conferences.. The means of conferring have included every possible means of communication - from the spoken word to the printed.. from great rhetorical speeches to tuppeny tracts.. Our conversations about you, and about your will, have required great investments of time, effort and energy. The more important the topic - the wider the debate needed to be.

But these days, the Church seems to think that the more important the topic is - the more important it is to get it 'right' before the debate happens!

How odd..

Challenging what others think is 'right' is then seen as 'wrong' instead of as conferring.

Holding a contrary opinion to a stated/considered/official opinion is then deemed somehow disloyal, rather than potentially a means of grace..

And so conferring stops..

And a diminishing Church is diminished still further.

Which is why I joined the blogging set - to be a part of your conferring Church, to play my own part in opening up a small space where conversations on matters of life and death, faith and order - and yes, the Methodist Church of Great Britain could still be had. I wanted to be free to promote and participate in Christian conferring if only via the on-line debates on twitter and facebook on subjects as diverse but essential as the Bible and the media, racism, pioneer ministers, same-sex marriages, emergent Church, politics, the role of Mary.. etc etc

So how do I receive the paper currently before the Methodist Council on social media.
Sadly, as inevitable.
I quote the best part..

These guidelines should not limit or prevent constructive debate or discussion through social media. People should be free to engage in discussions and debates within and beyond the Church on any topic, but should also remember their responsibilities to the Church or to any bodies they are members of when they do so. There is a wide range of opinion within the Church on some topics, and one of the attractive features about Methodism is our ability to disagree constructively.
There is a fine line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour online, and this line will move with time. One of the benefits of a healthy online community is that it is this community that provides the best guidance to
others and to itself. The aim of the Church should therefore be to foster healthy and active online and social media.

Healthy and active online and social media are, in my opinion, those that promote Christian conferring - where robust debate for and against 'official' positions can be had. The current bloggosphere conversations about this are evidence of what I mean.

Richard Hall thinks its a sensible move forward David Hallam, is dismayed at the lack of understanding of social media; David Faulkner sits somehwere between these two and Pete Philips is concerned about fostering a more positive view of social media. 

For my part God, I guess I would simply remind those who might feel stifled by the guidelines to remember their responsibility to the Church - to make available those means of grace that enable us all to grow in holiness.. We are called by you to confer with one another - as widely as possible - as often as possible - in whatever means possible - that is a higher responsibility than mere obedience to corporate loyalty.
We have a shared responsibility as the Church to hold the Church accountable - not for getting it right or wrong - but for opening up those debates that will enable your people to be moved by your Holy Spirit to participate in the conversations you want us to have so that we may discern your will.
If the guidelines ever became rules..
If a minister was ever disciplined for tweeting out of time...
If the contrary voice was ever fully silenced..

Then I suspect it will be time to be honest about having ceased to be a Church that believes in the means of grace.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Questioning Grace?

Good morning God,
Do I ask you too many questions? Are there some no-go areas that you would rather I didn't probe? I ask because my questioning often seems to disturb people in the Church to the extent that it can make me wonder whether I have  perhaps missed my calling after all.
Take the one question that I just can't seem to stop asking - 'Where are you God in this?'
From earthquakes to acts of appalling violence - the apparent absence of your providential grace begs answers to questions of mercy, forgiveness, love and hope - the very pillars of faith itself.

Where are you in the lives of the two boys imprisoned indefinately at her majesty's leisure for having tortured and abused two other boys of a similar age when they were only 10 and 11?
Where were you before that abuse took place - when the desire to inflict pain and suffering grew so strongly in them? Where were you when they committed this horrific act of violence, and where were you when they sat - seemingly unrepentant through their trial?
And of course - where are you now - in the lives of the victims and in their future?

What difference would it have made to any of the boys involved to have known you, If they had been suffered to come to Christ, to know a different way and have a different answer to their anger, violence and pain?

I have to believe that knowledge of you would have prevented this attack ever taking place..

Which puts the onus back on me - and on the Church
We invest thousands into safeguarding the Children who want to come to Church, doing police checks on church members, making sure of sufficient adult cover etc etc  - but how much do we spend on safeguarding the children we have never invited to Church from physical, sexual and moral abuse?
I know its not supposed to be an either-or  but at the moment it is definitely not a both-and.

'Where are you God in the use of our buildings, our money, our time and our energy?'

But these are the questions that disturb people the most...
Is it wrong to ask them God?

I need this questioning grace, the grace that will not let me close my eyes to what a possible knowledge of you could do. The grace that begs the question of you and prompts me to listen harder still for the answer. The grace that challenges me to read Scripture not as a personal devotional but as a Kingdom manifesto which pleads for the rights of the widow and orphan, the lost and the outcast. God grant me the questioning grace which refuses to allow me to cushion my faith with the platitudes and prayers of Sunday serenity. And above all this, grant me the courage to voice the questions before the answers are known, so that I can hear you speak through the mouths of babes and infants - even whilst they are busy bludgeoning one another with bricks.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

God of the Earthquake

Good morning God,

In the book of Kings, it says you were not in earthquake - the people of Haiti will be asking - where were you when the earthquake hit Port-au-Prince?

Were you in the earthquake as the God of wrath envisaged by the prophets, wreaking havoc and death in retribution for sin?

Were you in the earthquake as the Almighty God, the compassionate, the just, who sends the earthquake as a warning to flee from the wrath to come?

Were you in the earthquake as the creator God, bending and shaping the will of the world to your own purposes determined to reverse the contamination of human ignorance and pollution?
Were you in the earthquake at all..?
Or were you in the fires that it started and the wind that it generated?
Were you in the lives that have been lost, in the screams that have been sounded, the tears that have been shed - in the panic and confusion, the dread and despair..
Or are you now in the stillness which has followed as the world holds its breath in order to hear the faint tappings of those buried below mountains of rubble..

Because one thing is certain..
you were not absent, or asleep.

So where were you God?

And where are you now?
What is the good news this day for those scrabbling in the rubble, binding up the broken, or laying out their dead?

We do not have the luxury of saying this was just a 'natural disaster' for, as Wesley says..

what is nature itself, but the art of God, or God’s method of acting in the material world? True philosophy therefore ascribes all to God,…”
But neither do we have the luxury of easy answers for you insist that your ways are not our ways...
And perhaps therein lies the key..
If we stop seeing the happiness of humanity as the be all and end all of your attention and motivation, then the earthquake looks very different.
Making us feel good, giving us what we want, helping us live out our lives is not your primary purpose for being is it God. It's not that you DONT care for each and every life that you have created - you do.. passionately... thankfully, you care enough to not limit your action in the world to that which will ensure something as small as our 'happiness' - rather than the redemption of all humanity.

The good news is - there is more.
Death is not all that there is and surviving is not the most important thing about being alive.
Pain and suffering are not negative in themselves, as you demonstrated so vividly in the cross, they can be a force for creative and constructive change and growth..

You responded to the cry of all of humanity with an earthquake when we had nailed our rejection of life in all its fullness to the cross. You shook Christ's pain, and collapsed his suffering, and buried the hope that he had for the future deep in the earth, buried it under a rock.
And in the silence that followed, you made all things new.

This is still good news - there is more
You promise more than happiness
You promise life in all its fullness...
And then remind us - Behold - I make all things new.

God of the earthquake,
hear our prayer for those in grief and distress
Support and uphold them
and grant them the knowledge and strength of your resurrection power.
Comfort those who mourn
Restore the faith of those who falter
And move the whole world to work to ensure
that life, hope and justice may be salvaged from the rubble.
though it pains us, and grieves us,
continue to use earthquakes wind and fire we pray
to shake us from our complacency,
from our petty self obsessions
until all our pretensions collapse
and we are forced to rebuild the kingdom
According to your directives.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Go and sin no more...

Good morning God,

I have a problem..
If the writer of the first epistle of John is correct then Wesley was right in his insistence that Methodists do not sin. To quote:

'Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. ' (1 John 3:9)
So why does almost every act of worship include a prayer of confession for sin?
Where does the Church's emphasis on sin come from - who keeps fueling it and why?

Could it be  (and this has got to be the worst explanation possible!) that nobody has been born of you God..?

Methodism once proclaimed the gospel of freedom from sin coupled with accountability before you and your people for their growth in grace and holiness.  They took seriously the commandment from Jesus to 'Go and Sin no more'.. trusting and believing that Jesus meant this literally, that it was and is possible!

But form and Liturgy say otherwise!
There is almost always a prayer of confession following a prayer of adoration at the start of worship.. with many people claiming that they cannot proceed to receive the Word unless and until they have been absolved of their sin.
Which begs the question for me God:
Have we in our need to be 'Church' and claim our share of the riches of the great liturgical movement, fallen into the trap of  unwittingly promoting the sort of cheap grace which makes no demands on the recipients and offers no hope of a permanent cure for the sickness of sin?

Are there many Methodists left who still believe that we cannot sin once we are saved?
Full marks to Maria Briggs for her succinct proclamation of this doctrine..
How many more Methodists are there who still think this is one of our best doctrines?

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Dr Who and reward theology

Good morning God,
I really enjoyed Dr Who last night -
it provoked me into wondering whether or not there is a 'reward' for being good.. and if so, what it should be.. The Doctors reward for being willing to die to save one 'insignificant' life, was the ability to go back in time and change the lives of his friends... for the 'better' of course.. except who is to say which future was the 'better' future..?
The reward was the answer to the cry of 'its not fair'

But life isn't 'fair' - it never was - and was never intended to be. 'Fair' is the idea that if you do something good, only good things will happen as a result - but humanity is just too small to know what is good for it.  History suggests that humanity grows best when it is stressed, pushed, challenged and provoked into doing so. As a group, humans have a strong propensity for doing nothing..
But when challenged - or set a target - or best of all - when the odds are stacked against us - then we seem able and willing to rise above ourselves, we become motivated to reach for the spark of the divine in us and we strive to do the impossible.

Terrifying generalizations I know - but true nonetheless..

And with Christ - all things are possible..

Christ's reward for being willing to die to save each of our insignificant lives, is the ability to go back in time and change the lives of his friends... for the 'better' of course.. and who better than Christ to say which future is the 'better' future.. even if it is one we would seldom have chosen for ourselves!

Which is what makes the Christian life so full of surprises and challenges.
In Christ's company we discover the ability to experience all of what it means to be human. We learn to live life to the full, as a saving adventure, dynamically rather than comfortably, enthusiastically rather than timidly, determinedly and purposefully fighting evil and injustice - because no one is insignificant and every world and every person matters. Our eyes are opened to see how grand your creation is, and how we are an intrinsic part of it... We lose our smallness in you and so learn how to live in a world where things are bigger on the inside than they appear on the outside.

When we journey with Christ, we join in the task of making the impossible possible by  helping to answer prayer, by moving mountains and by transforming lives -  our own included.
We might not have chosen the new life that Christ creates for us but it could never be called 'dull'. It probably isn't 'fair' either,  but slowly and surely it can and does help to change the world - and us - 'for the better'.
Who could resist such a challenge?

It promises to be another exciting year...