Sunday, February 28, 2010

The raison d'etre of Church

Good afternoon God,
There are times when I feel as though I am on a different planet from most people, and today is one of those days. It's like living in a parallel universe where things look vaguely like they should, the buildings haven't changed, the people are all the same, but the raison d'etre has changed and I no longer know what it is.
Please, tell me. what is the raison d'etre of Church?

I once believed that Church was the body of Christ, called out to proclaim in word and deed the good news of Jesus Christ that by your grace, people might have life in all its fullness.. Church was where people came to worship you and to share in the spiritual nurture and growth of your people in order that together we could grow in grace and holiness, striving for that perfection which you set before us. It was where we first heard the call to work with you in building a different sort of world, a place of justice, righteousness and peace, hopefully  without false piety or petty dogmas to disturb it. In Church you frequently surprised people with the gifts and graces that you had given them, and delighted them by providing them with the support that they needed to grow to be all that they could be. Church was the one place that a child could expect to be nurtured in the faith, an adult challenged to respond and a senior Christian invited to take a lead role as a Spiritual leader - because of their knowledge and depth of faith.
It was these things that made Church so dynamic, so compelling a place (or rather an activity) that wild horses couldn't keep us away from it.
At least, that is what I believed it was and could be - and it was out of that belief that I felt called to serve.
So tell me God why does it feel like I'm living on a different planet?

I don't believe that the Good News has changed, neither do I believe that it is no longer relevant to the world. I remain convinced that we need Christians who believe the good news to take leading roles in politics, community welfare and education so that the world really is changed by the influence of the Holy Spirit and that these Christians need supporting by the body of Christ through prayer and worship.
I know that you are still calling young people to be open to ministry, to leading worship, to building community and to growing in grace, but these too need to be nurtured and supported by the Church, not discouraged or ignored. I am persuaded that there has never been a more opportune time to reach out in love to those who have not yet heard, to work to save the lost, while some of us can still remember the way! But I am also persuaded that if we do not get the raison d'etre right then it will not happen.

SO, please, tell me. what is the raison d'etre of the Church today?
I really need to know.


Good morning God,
There have been several blogs recently about discipleship which have made me think about my own involvement in the disciple making process and, in particular, the relationship between ministry and discipleship.
Ministers often use the get-out clause that their task is to build up the people of God through the ministry of the Word and Sacrament, but in Methodism, these are believed to be converting as well as confirming ordinances. This means that it is beholden on us to ensure that we always preach for conversion as well as for confirmation or formation in discipleship. I'm not sure I always do that God - sorry. I sometimes lose sight of the fact that even though I have seen these faces week in and week out - these same people may not yet have seen your face, or know your grace.

Worse, there is a very real danger of the service of Holy Communion being conducted as a service for those in the 'know' rather than for those who need to know - even if they don't know why! So sorry God - I have missed so many opportunities to minister your prevenient grace in this way.

Discipleship is more than conversion to a belief in you, discipleship is the choice to make that belief definitive of the rest of our lives. It entails change challenge and choice - which is not easy.
Change requires us to rearrange the various parts of our lives in order to accommodate a new top priority - YOU. It's the sort of change of life that is normally only associated with marriage or childbirth or death because it impacts every relationship we have. This is just one of the reasons that discipleship is challenging. It may well be that family and friends resent the fact that You have become such a priority and that as a result certain other things seem less important. Disciples make choices about what is and isn't important and a good use of their time, resources and life, and not all of those choices will be approved of by others.

All of which makes discipleship sound difficult and 'religious' and a bit of an anachronism.
But it's not like that at all..
Being invited to discipleship is about being invited to discover what it is to be more fully who we were created to be..  We are changed, yes, but for the better (and no - I dont mean that we become 'good' or 'pious') We discover abilities we never knew we had and are challenged to use them as we work with you in building a world worth living in. We are freed and empowered to make choices we never knew we could before, about ourselves and the way in which we live and die. We discover that we have far more power than we knew to change the world for the better - that we really can make a difference, regardless of what our parents, or our partners, or teachers, or politicians might say. Every life counts when lived to the full in the power of the Spirit to your praise and glory.

It's important to not equate discipleship with holding office in the Church - that's what membership is all about! Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is about learning how to discover and release the divine potential in the human, being a member of the Methodist Church is about being willing to work for the kingdom of God in a particular place with a particular group of people who subscribe to a particular set of beliefs and practices! The one might assist in the other but they are not the same.

But, you are right to challenge me God:  What am I doing to make new disciples, and to build up those that you have asked me to minister to?

Friday, February 26, 2010

Bad Theology

Good morning God,
I've been thinking about bad theology and the damage that it does, and trying to think of a way in which we are better able to identify it and stop doing it!
The trouble is that many people dont even know what theology is these days, they think its the 'hard stuff' that people have to do at seminary or university. It never seems to dawn on them that the really telling theology, the theology that changes and transforms most people's lives is actually done by the rank and file membership of the Church by what they do (or dont do) day in and day out as Christians and by what they say (or dont day) in response to what is happening in the world and in their lives.
The first theology that most people encounter comes out of the mouths of their friends when they are invited to attend Church or house-group or something similar.

Theology is nothing more or less than our conversation with, for, and about you - and like all conversation it can suffer from some very obvious problems:

It can be boring when people simply repeat the same old thing time and time again as though it gains meaning in the retelling. This sort of one sided conversation very quickly puts some people off as it presents you as effectively dead or deaf, or perhaps just as boring as you never seem to respond or react to the retelling... On the other hand, some people take comfort from the fact that they know exactly what is going to be said - it means they don't have to listen too hard, and they can feel a part of things because they know the lingo..
A boring conversation can often slide into a shouting match - this is where it is still the same old thing being said, but now the bore is concerned that they are not actually being heard anymore so they start shouting it - as though they can make up in volume what the conversation lacks in substance..  This conversation is often a crowd puller at first, people come to see what all the noise is about, but they seldom stay to listen for too long - its hard on the ears as well as on the soul!
Or the conversation could be rude with people just interrupting what is already taking place, without bothering to take into account the subject matter of what is being talked about. The mistaken assumption that their interruption is either pertinent or welcomed is based on the idea that any conversation with you can be improved by a few stock phrases, or quotations (which you must have heard a million times before). This conversation often begins by being quite interesting, it looks initially as though there is an opportunity for wider dialogue, but it soon becomes apparent that the stock phrases are just another way of forcing the conversation back to being boring..
It is also possible to have an ignorant conversation, this is when people interrupt an important conversation and hold forth without stock phrases, but also without any real knowledge of what is being talked about, what has already been said or even why the conversation is taking place. This conversation can be interesting if not informative. It's always good to hear people's opinion, and there is a real opportunity to engage.. but a lack of the most basic knowledge of the earlier parts of the conversation tends to limit the potential of the conversation and often silences it just as it begins to get really  interesting.
But the most damaging sort of bad theology occurs as a result of insensitive conversations, when people just dont think before they speak.. worse, they presume that they already know what you will say and so attempt to speak for you rather than engaging with what you are currently saying or doing. In so doing, they effectively discount you from the conversation altogether... making it a conversation about you rather than a conversation with you, and it is this that allows them an insensitivity that I suspect you would simply not tolerate.

There are of course, good conversations to be had with you, but I was asked about bad theology..

Monday, February 22, 2010

PC Bullying

Good afternoon God,
From the time I was 10 until I finally managed to bore my tormentors at aged 14 I was bullied. I look back on that time with a mixture of remembered self-loathing and grief for a childhood lost. I have images of standing as a punch bag, being used as an ash-tray and being burned by cigarettes, of having hard earned paper-round money taken from me,  of books being trashed, hair pulled and clothes torn - but most of all - I remember the sound of scornful laughter. I know what it is to be the subject of abject ridicule for no other reason than for being small, being dyslexic, being stupid, being unfashionable, being religious.. for being me.

So I find it odd that bullying is now apparently all about being 100% politically correct in one's attitude and behaviour. There is little similarity between my childhood experiences and what is being described as bullying today... perhaps that is why I find the hypocrisy of the media as they report on the supposed bullying by the Prime Minister so transparent and abhorrent.

Sir Alan Sugar - note the title - is a publicly renowned media hero bully - the whole point of The Apprentice is that it supposedly takes hard nosed bullying to make it in todays secular dog-eat-dog capitalistic entrepreneurial world. So people queue up to try their hand at being his apprentice, at taking the abuse he dishes out in the board-room all in the hope of learning how to bully their way to job and maybe even their own  knighthood. And better yet - the whole world delights in watching as Sir Alan shreds the hopes of the candidates by pointing a finger and rudely announcing - You're Fired!

What is OK for Sir Alan - in front of the cameras - is apparently not OK for Mr Brown - why? I wish it were because bullying in the work-place - bullying in any place is not acceptable.. but of course, that is NOT what this is all about. This is about the forthcoming election.. in this case bullying is simply not politically correct.

It never is.

Bullying and party loyalty are often linked - in politics it is politely referred to as the whip.. in religion it masquerades as fundamentalism, extremism or denominationalism. But whether the bully is a prime minister or a district chair, a civil servant or a church steward, bullying is still repulsive, repugnant and de-humanising - and therefore a denial of you.

Sadly the Church is full of bullies.. and over twelve years of ministry I have met far too many 'Christians' who remind me of my earlier tormentors. From those who insist that everything they are doing is for the sake of the church/gospel, through to those who insist that they do what they do to me out of love for me! From violent tormentors through to passive aggressives .. the Church attracts them all.. as well it should, for the Church exists to welcome sinners as well as saints... but it has no place for their sins or for their perversion of the gospel.

Perhaps it was my earlier experience of bullying that has made me take such a strong stand against the bully's version of the gospel which attempts to present you God,  as some sort of super-bully. In their obsession with sin and hellfire You are presented as the one who waits for an opportune time and then demands all that I have, all that I have worked for, all that I am - for nothing! You are the bully who punishes me for simply being me, who delights in tormenting me and who has no real interest in me, other than as a source of  amusement, or entertainment.

Thankfully, my first-hand knowledge of what it is to be subject to such relentless humiliation means that I cannot and will not substitute the harder gospel of love, forgiveness and of grace for this cheap abusive gospel.

You have taught me to see Christ as the one who emptied himself.. so that I might have everything, who chose not to play party politics with the Pharisees and the Herodians, but who chose instead to speak the truth and name the hypocrisy he saw around him.  Christ never bullied anyone into belief, or denied a single soul their dignity as a fellow human being.. Christ offers what no bully ever does - choice - and the freedom to choose.

And that's the difference between the bully and you God - the bully does all that they can to deny freedom of will... they seek to diminish the will of their victim, by tormenting them, ridiculing and abusing them, by making them believe that they are of no account.

You offer life - in all its fullness.. and the freedom to choose it - or not.

I guess we will never know exactly what goes on behind the closed doors of 10 Downing street, but I do know that you give to us the responsibility to pray for those we elect to positions of power and to uphold them. Which means we do have a choice, we can buy into this politically correct form of bullying - or we can do as Christ did and name the hypocrisy and refuse to participate in it.


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Albert Booth on Us and Them

Good morning God,

I've been mourning the death of a good man that I was privileged to serve as minister to for eight years. The Right Honourable Albert Edward Booth taught me politics by being a principled politician because he was a Christian.
 Justice without honesty, dignity and integrity was no justice at all, so Albert didn't speak of 'them' when referring to the people he tried to serve - whether they were his constituents, or his fellow Church members at Beckenham Methodist. He was frequently disgusted by the 'them and us' political inspeak which actively promotes the culture of tabloid vs broadsheet, Eton vs Lewisham, class vs crass and which portrays society as inevitably, if not divinely, divided by breeding rather than by wealth, education and privilege.

I couldn't help but wonder what he would have made of the current electioneering and Labour's shameful attempts to reignite the class war as evidenced by Brown's most recent dishonest appeal:
 “If you, like me, are from Britain’s mainstream majority, from an ordinary family that wants to get on and not simply get by, then my message to you today is simple – take a second look at us and take a long hard look at them.”
Does Mr. Brown seriously think that he has anything in common anymore with Britain's mainstream majority? Does he have any idea what it is like to live a life condemned by the political classes to be a permanent social underclass, the cannon fodder for our wars and the disposable factory fodder for our economic engine?

The simple fact is that Labour now NEEDS a working class mentality to exist in order to win this election - but wasn't it New Labour who held out the hope that the class war was over - that they too could flee the council estates, attend university, build a future for their children that did not depend on the dole or lager to make it bearable?

Albert was one of the most honest men I ever met. His faith defined his politics, and he held to the conviction that you MUST love your neighbour as yourself whether they come from the council estate or from one of the gated private residential parks springing up in our outer suburbs. We do this not to get elected, or as a means to any other end. It is simply a part of Christian discipleship.  I was proud to march with him for peace and to stand with him as he fought for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers in his retirement - not because these were political acts (although of course they were) but because they were the acts of a Christian, committed to serving God, and in so doing, serving the people.

The house is divided, political parties are different - but Albert taught me how crucial it is that we do not allow them to divide society and take us back to the time when there was a perverse pride in being part of an underclass. As a Christian and as a minister, I am part of the privileged class. I have a good education paid for by the Church, I live in a large house on a private estate, paid for by the Church. I am therefore in Mr Brown's language - not part of Britain's mainstream majority.
Like Albert however, I recognise that if it were not for your intervention in my life God, things would be very different.
Help me then, I pray, to play my part in refusing to allow those we pay to represent us, to define or classify us as less than we are - we are YOUR Children - regardless of where we are educated or what we aspire to. Help me play a part in removing labels for votes and exposing the hypocrisy behind some of our politics - so that your vision for our future might find its way past the electioneering, and campaigning.

Albert taught me politics and religion cannot be separated if you are serious about being a Christian and keeping the commandments of Christ. He taught me well.

Right Honourable Albert Edward Booth; engineering draftsman and politician; born Winchester 28 May 1928; Tynemouth County Borough councillor, 1962-1965; Labour MP, Barrow-in-Furness, 1966-1983; Minister of State, Department of Employment, 1974-1976; Secretary of State for Employment, 1976-1979; Opposition spokesman on transport, 1979-1983; Treasurer of the Labour Party, 1984; married 1957 Joan Amis (three sons); Christian, called home on 6 February 2010.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Lenten invitation

Good morning God,

Thank you for your invitation to walk with you this Lent - I accept.

Sorry for not having accepted earlier, but like many Christians, I guess I was too busy looking for a set programme or study package to use for the next 40 days to pay too much attention to what you were offering me.
It will be different  - not being able to tick a box or cross off a week, and it will certainly be different not having to try and force my faith into some postmodern category of  discipleship or spiritual discernment based on someone else's highly selected programme of Biblical readings.
Taking time each day to just 'be' with you, walk with you, observe the world with you, and listen to you will be challenging in the extreme (I do like to DO and to be BUSY) - but, yes, I think I'm ready, and - more to the point - I want to do this.
I need to do this.

I want to see the world as you do so that I can learn to love it more, in spite of its anger, betrayal, sickness, injustice and greed. I need to listen as you do, for the beat of the heart as it quickens in hope or in a pure unselfish act of heroism. I want to hear the whispered truth of love everlasting as it kisses a soul goodnight or gurgles in a child's first chuckle of joy, peek-a-booing its parent.
I need to taste the water of life as it collects in the petals of a rose or trickles in salty rivulets past eyes squeezed shut in compassionate grief.
I want to touch the grace that passes from hand to hand as friends exchange greetings or the Big Issue is bought and sold.

I need this.
We all need this.
I need to know this first hand so that I can proclaim it on Easter day as your resurrection in a world worn down and weary with death - assisted or otherwise.
I need to know this intimately so that I can carry it in bread and wine as the mystery of your grace which takes the ordinary and renders them extraordinary - regardless of what the theologians say.
I need to know this to live and fulfil my calling - not to a routine of ministry and appointments, but to a life of discipleship that will lead to perfection.

So yes - please - I accept - with all my heart. I  joyful denounce the temptation to 'do' Lent this year.
Instead I will walk with you and allow you to open my ears and my eyes and show me the world that you so love..
Starting now.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

God's Dust

Good morning God,
I cant help feeling that the traditional Ash Wednesday refrain ought to be more poignant this year - 'Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return', but it isn't. No matter how hard I try to be dutifully penitent and conscious of my mortal existence - the whole idea of Ash Wednesday simply provokes the same abhorrence it always has at the way in which we humans have taken what you have called Good and twisted it in a vain attempt to make it small, dirty and less than it is.

Yes.. I remember that I am dust - and I celebrate the distinction. For when you created the heavens and the earth you spoke everything - except humanity into existence. Humanity was not spoken into being out of nothing, but was carefully, deliberately formed by you from what you had already made, examined and called GOOD. Humanity alone was held in your hands and given the kiss of life from you.. remember you are dust - Alleluia!

And to dust you will return.. Amen!
To know that I will return to your hands, to my most divinely created form, is, for me, still further cause for delight - especially in the light of the good news that you love all that you have made, that you have made nothing in vain and that life, like your love, is everlasting.

You see, its no good. I just cannot bring myself to buy into the human priestly cult of sin and death which has all but replaced the gospel you gave us of love and life.
Yes, humans sin - but we are also so much more than the sum of our sins, for YOU made us and breathed YOUR life into us. Yes, human bodies die - but we are so much more than the three-score years and ten (or less!) that we wear these mortal robes and which some mistakenly think define us. In Christ we live forever for your breath cannot be taken from us, we are as YOU have made us.

And the good news continues in that even before we were sinners, even before we who live now were formed in your image, you chose to give us life and to set us free (if we wish it) from all that diminishes us and makes us less than you desire us to be. You know our nature better than we, and you choose life for us. In Christ you proved beyond doubt or dispute that no matter what we think sin can do, no matter how powerful we make it,  it cannot destroy the life you give; we can murder it, even bury it, but even then you can still  resurrect it. Sin is just so much smaller than salvation - always was. 

Which doesn't mean that I enter Lent without regret, or without the need to repent - it just means that I prefer to perform my penance in the way that you suggested (according to Matthew 6) - in private.

So please, help me God to walk with you this Lent without sackcloth and ashes, not demeaning or dumbing down the journey that Christ took to the Cross, but nonetheless not losing sight of the joyous anticipation of the final victory the world so desperately needs over the cult of sin and death.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Diverse Grace

Good morning God,
Differences matter - the world is not uniform or monochrome - you designed a world that flourishes through diversity. So how come we get so hung up about differences of sexuality or Gender?
Men and women ARE different!
This is, I believe, is intentional on your part - and I can't see you changing your mind any time soon!
People's sexual preferences are different!
This is, I believe is intentional on your part - and I can't see you changing your mind any time soon!
I am increasingly convinced however, that it is how we, as a Church and as individuals,  deal with difference that ultimately defines our faith, and of course, defines us because it defines our relationship with you.
Do we seriously think that just because a certain ignorant faction of the Church complains about people's sexual preferences that you will stop gracing the world with such wonderful humans?
Or do we seriously think that just because some churches don't like the idea of women in positions of authority that you will stop calling women into your service - or finding a way for them to do your will!
Who do we think we are?
Whose Church do we think it is?
It is easy to find reasons for or against embracing the full recognition of the extent of human diversity as gift of your grace - but most of them are anthropological rather than genuinely theological. Any argument for exclusion has to deal with the fundamental fact that you are the creator, that you love all that you have made and you have made nothing in vain.
By your grace, you have given us the opportunity to become more than we are by discovering and relating to that which is other than we are. If we cannot accept diversity as part of your gift to humanity - how will we ever be able to relate to the diversity that is part of your divinity?
(I suspect this is why the Trinity perplexes people so, and why many persist in trying to give YOU a gender!).
You are not like us - you make this plain to us..Yet you invite us to grow to become like you, to realise our true nature by losing it in yours.. only by embracing you as truly other than ourselves can we become more than we are.
You became like us - so that we can become like you.
The Word became flesh - so that flesh can become like the Word
(or if you really believe in Sanctification - so that the flesh can become Word)

The idea that we can command or control this process is laughable - but also blasphemous..
Grace is yours to give and ours to respond to.
Diversity is your gift of grace - how then shall we respond?
A church that repeatedly excludes others on the grounds of difference is repeatedly disabling itself - the body of Christ is not just wounded but rendered incapable of acting by having vital organs cut out as soon as they begin to flourish. A church without the ministry of women, of gays, of children, of the sick, of the dying is not the body of Christ - no matter how respectable it might seem, how 'normal' it might look, or how powerful it might think it is.It is what it is - a broken disabled body cobbled together by insecure humans too frightened by difference to trust that you know what you are doing when you make us all so wonderfully different. It becomes the last bastion of bigotry and prejudice rather than the place of Genesis of  salvation and liberation.

Of course, those who do hold to their prejudices do so by clinging to a particular interpretation of Scripture, choosing all the time to forget the opening verses of John's gospel and the fact that you are a LIVING God, still interpreting, still speaking, still revealing your way by the power of your Spirit leading us into all truth.

There have been many times in my life when I have been ashamed of the Church but in the past I have been able to find a means of reconciling myself to its brokenness and so seek to work for its healing.
I confess however to a growing sense of shame which no longer abates, a shame that increases the longer that the church preoccupies itself with its obsessive prejudices and thereby excludes itself from the important questions of life, death, salvation, resurrection, liberation, equality, justice, peace and happiness being asked by those outside the Church as a result of pressing issues such as mercy killing, euthanasia, war, climate change etc etc etc.  

The voice of the Church is no longer heard because it nolonger speaks the Word of LIFE.. its too busy reviling the life that you have created.
The voice of the Church is no longer sought because the world is weary of homophobia, mysogeny and pious searches for a westernised dream of normalised unity.

It is time for a moratorium on issues of sexuality or gender or diversity.
It is time to begin to proclaim the good news of the Gospel - For ALL for ALL my saviour died..
It is time to speak from a standpoint of love without judgement, of the inclusive nature of the love of God which sets ALL free.
WE are the Church - it's time to stand up and be counted.
If 'the' Church doesn't accept the diversity that you have created God then we must either change it or leave it.
If the debates in the Church are not about the issues that matter to the world - and if they do not reflect the desire of the members to proclaim your gospel instead of debate its fears then we must find a way to drown them out and demand debates on what DOES matter.
This is why notices of motion are SO important at Conference and Synod.
Because - as we all know - whether male or female, gay or straight, young or old - we all live and die because YOU have made us, even if you didn't make us the way that some might have wished.

God - grant the Church the grace to live rejoicing with your created diversity before we die arguing about it!