Activism · Bible · Church · community · faith · Political · Theology

Stories Of Pain And Possibility

This post is about two ways that the Christian Church typically responds to situations of pain, and how our default settings miss something vital.

Part 1: Mercy more than Justice.

In the fortnightly online discussion group that I’m a part of we’ve been thinking about ‘The Powers’ that are in play around us, and what a Christian response looks like.

In the New Testament, the powers that are at the forefront are:
1) The Jewish religious leaders and
2) Rome.
The way that Jesus responds to the power of religious leaders is something that you might be familiar with. The conflict is right there on the surface in the Gospels.
Iff we were to look a little deeper, we would see also how he challenges Roman imperialism.
(I’m just starting to read Ched Myers’ book – ‘Binding the Strong Man,‘ a political reading of Mark’s Gospel – more on that another time maybe.

It shouldn’t surprise us then that as Christians we are called to be aware of the powers around us – economic, social, political, organisational etc which are often working for the common good, but are just as, or more likely to be pursuing their own agendas.

Being aware of how the powers are at work is the first step, but if and when we judge that the powers are not aligned towards justice and peace there comes a point where some response is called for. This response could be expressed in protest, or resistance of some kind, but as I argue below, it’s more likely to be a response driven by compassion.

Just the other day, I came across this quote from Hannah Arendt, German thinker –
The antidote to evil is not goodness but reflection and responsibility. Evil grows when people “cease to think, reflect, and choose between good and evil, between taking part or resisting.”

The first part of that quote reminds us that when we see that the powers are not aligned with the Common Good, we have a choice how to respond – with goodness or responsibility.

For example, in line with the often repeated instruction in the Old Testament, we are called to look out for ‘The widow, the orphan and the stranger,’ but over the course of history I would guess that the most typical Christian response has been through acts of goodness, service and compassion – binding up the broken hearted, healing the sick and so on, rather than through a commitment to justice.

We see the compassion response in the foundation of hospitals, hospices and a host of other projects that are driven by a Christian impulse to serve – especially those who are suffering. I would argue that the mandate to justice as well as mercy has often been forgotten, because it’s easier to help people than to buck the system. It’s easier to patch things up than getting to the root of the problem.

Part 2: Individual more than Collective.

There’s a second emphasis in the usual Christian response that I want to point out, and that’s our fixation with the individual. Not only do we find it easier to be compassionate than to confront, we tend to focus on our individual responsibility to change and be a part of bringing about change rather than seek a collective way.

I refer here to an earlier post when I quoted Walter Brueggemann’s assertion that the foundational work of transformation is not to be found in individual action as much as in Liturgy and Organising.
That is the work that we do when we are bound together in action to resist the powers, together with the organising that makes that happen.

In the context of Christian worship, I’m trying to pay attention to the different ways that we use liturgy, and how we read the scriptures, and how that might speak into a discussion on ‘The Powers.’

So, for example, in the Anglican tradition, there is a prayer of confession, usually at the beginning of a service. Here’s an example that is used most often.

Almighty God, our heavenly Father,
we have sinned against youand against our neighbour
in thought and word and deed,
through negligence, through weakness,through our own deliberate fault.
We are truly sorryand repent of all our sins.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,who died for us,
forgive us all that is past and grant that we may serve you in newness of life
to the glory of your name. Amen.

We are often encouraged to reflect on the past week, to call to mind the things we have done, thought or said that we regret, and those good things that we didn’t do. The prayer is all about getting ourselves ‘right with God’ before we continue in worship.

It’s all very individualistic. It tends to lead to a spirituality that is focussed too much on ‘sin’ and ‘me’ and the things in my life that need putting right. In the Bible, sin is a problem, but it’s not the only problem.
Two of the central stories in the Old Testament for example are:
The story of liberation from slavery in Egypt – that speaks to our bondage to the powers around us.
The story of exile and return – that speaks to our longing for home.

A suggestion put by Marcus Borg, in his book ‘Speaking Christian,’ is that we give less airtime to the prayer of confession, by using it maybe once every five weeks, and for the other weeks, replacing the confession of sin with images of our predicament as slavery, exile, blindness, sickness etc. “Imagine the absolution replaced by the proclamation that God wills our liberation from slavery, our return from exile, our seeing again, our healing and wholeness. Sin matters, but when it and the need for forgiveness become the dominant issue of our life with God, it reduces and impoverishes the wisdom and passion of the Bible and the Christian tradition.”
Speaking Christain p.152

In addition, when thinking about how we read scripture, I would suggest that in many (most ?) Christian worship services, the sermon will read the Bible through a very personal and also individual lens. Even the teaching about how we serve God will be likely focussed on what we as individuals can/should do.
This is of course tied to the point about confession made just now. If our obsession is with sin, and putting our personal relationship with God right, then it follows that the teaching in our churches will be aimed at keeping us on the right track with God, and serving God by ‘loving our neighbour.’

(This was brought home to me as I was listening yesterday to the Archbishop of Canterbury interviewing writer Stephen King. Stephen King talked freely about his faith in God, portraying it as a personal matter, that seemed to have little to do with what goes on in the world. He quoted Jesus saying ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and the things that are God’s to God,’ as a way of justifying keeping religion separate from politics. Keep God out of politics).

In the time of the gospel writers, the power that was calling for total allegiance was Rome and the Emperor. When Jesus contrasts Caesar and God, he is setting before us two complete opposites. Are we to say ‘Caesar is Lord ?’ or ‘Jesus is Lord.’ To put God first will mean that Christians are called to engage the powers of the day.

Perhaps the way we go about ‘confession’ in our worship and the treatment of scripture can help redress imbalance, moving the focus from the individual to point us towards the more collective pains, ills and injustices in the world.

If you are a church goer, you might want to pay particular attention to the way that the prayer of confession and the use of scripture are experienced in your worship services.
To what extent, if any, do they address the questions of the powers, and issues beyond our individual response ?
How as communities can we resist and challenge those powers that call for our allegiance, rather than God’s ?

Bible · Church · community · Creativity, · faith · Storytelling

I Have A Better Idea

First, a disclaimer – the ‘I’ in the title of this post is not me, in case you were thinking – what an arrogant … !

I love the way that things sometimes come together. This week a whole load of stuff has been converging for me.
Let me start with a list:
Pioneer Practice – a series of webinars hosted by the Church Mission Society and HeartEdge
Article from around 1995 in SEEN newspaper. (Newspaper of the Anglican Diocese of York)
Ched Myers on Mark chapter 6 – The feeding of the 5,000
John chapter 2 – Water into Wine
An article in the Church Times by Canon David Power
‘Total Ministry’ in the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan

Pioneer Practice
The series of webinars mentioned is about gathering the experience of ‘Pioneers’ across various Christian denominations in the UK. Jonny Baker, who works for the Church Mission Society training pioneers is the host of the webinar, which is paired with the book Pioneer Practice. Yesterday’s session was all about seeing differently.
Attendees were asked to think about these three aspects of working – Imagination, Knowledge and Skills.
What would be the order of importance of these for you ?
Most of those present had Imagination as the first. That’s why they are on a pioneer webinar, because pioneers tend to have the imagination to see things differently.

When we are confronted with a situation that we can’t understand or see a way to make progress, we often have to employ our imagination to get started. Try to see in a different way.

One of the ways that we might be challenged to see things differently is in situations where we see a need and want to do something about it. Often we might only see what is lacking, and look for ways to help by problem solving or acts of compassion.
But what if, instead of seeing what is lacking, we were to look for what is already there, and celebrate it.
This is the heart of the work of Chris and Anna Hembury who are Pioneers with the Church Mission Society in Hull.

Look for the Light that is here
Back in the 90’s, we were living and working in East Hull. At the time, as I remember it, one of the churches in another part of Hull was starting a new congregation on the Longhill Estate in East Hull. Their expressed aim was to ‘Bring the Christian Gospel to Longhill.’ An article in SEEN newspaper, written by a Christian who lived in Longhill, said something like this: ‘Don’t come to bring The Light to Longhill, come and see what is already here.’
(A well known way of working that uses this principle is ABCD – Asset Based Community Development.’)

Ched Myers
I’ve been listening to Ched Myers talking about Mark’s Gospel. Today was the story of the feeding of the 5,000.
If you know that story, I wonder how you have understood it ?
I see three ways to read this –
1. Jesus miraculously multiplies 5 loaves and two fish.
2. The disciples use their common purse to rush off to a local village and buy enough food for the crowd.
3. The crowd share the food that they have with them.

And for each of these three ways of seeing the miracle, I see a way of understanding our life together as Christian communities.
1. The charismatic church leader who seems to be able to do everything really well, and is a total inspiration
2. The leadership team that work together to serve a largely passive congregation.
3. The congregation that is active in loving and serving one another, and are a sign of God’s kingdom.

In Ched Myers’ reading of Mark chapter 6, it goes something like this:
Disciples: Why not send the people away to buy food. (But actually it’s late in the day … and this is a crowd with likely many poor people who might not have the resources to buy food).
Jesus: Why don’t you give them something to eat.
Disciples. Where would we get enough food to feed this crowd ? It would take half a year’s wages !( The disciples see the lack, not what is already there).
Jesus: I have a better idea ….

What follows is a superb example of community organising, where Jesus uses the lunch that the young boy has to teach the crowd to see what they already have, and use their resources for the benefit of everyone.

This way of seeing the Gospel will not go down well with everyone ! In our churches, we have usually understood this story as an example of miraculous multiplication. Maybe like me, you have often wondered about that intepretation, been aware of the other possibility of the crowd sharing what they had, but reluctant to abandon the ‘miraculous’ way of reading it. But perhaps Ched Myers’ way of reading it is more consonant with a Gospel that liberates people to a life of mutual care. Ched Myers would also go further and say that this interpretation subverts a whole economy that is based on self interest, and moves towards a community of solidarity.

Water into Wine
Just a brief thought about this passage. (In which wine runs out at a wedding and Jesus performs a miracle turning water into wine … a lot of wine !)
There are a range of characters here: Jesus; his mother; the disciples; the servants; the guests; the master of ceremonies. Jesus directs the action, telling the servants to fill 6 large jars with water, which, when it is tasted by the master of ceremonies, has become wine.
Notice that it is the servants who fill the water jars. The word in Greek that is used here – diakonoi – is the word that means ‘one who serves’, and is used in a variety of ways in the New Testament, but often to do with those who are committed to following Jesus, part of the Christian community and and serving God with their gifts and their time.
The servants who fill the water jars are towards the bottom of the social ladder, but are remembered here for being intrumental in the miracle that saves the day. Note again, that although the story starts with an apparent lack of resources, as it turns out, the resources are there.

Church Times article
This appeared just last week, and comes at a time when the church seems to be defined in our minds by what is lacking. Lack of money, lack of clergy, lack of people, lack of everything. And, however much we try to tell ourselves that we have the gift of the Holy Spirit, which should trump all that we’re lacking, that doesn’t seem to help.
The article, which you can read here (hopefully, as long as the link works) is suggesting that it’s high time the Church of England ditched the centrality of stipendiary (paid) ministry and moved to a different way of seeing.
(A radical move of this kind will look for imagination from our bishops, and by the way, the word for bishop in Greek is episkope – which essentially means someone with imagination, someone who is able to see the big picture, and able to see things in a different way).

The force of the article by David Power is that market forces are driving the church to ever increasing desperate measures. Lack of money forces parishes to combine, giving clergy multiple churches to lead, while congregations diminish year on year. This vicious spiral demands a new way of seeing, which probably should have been the norm all along.

The Episcopal Diocese of Michigan
A church that is going down this new route is the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan in the USA. It’s an evolving pattern that allows churches, when they are ready, to call leaders from among their own congregations. Each congregation will prayerfully choose those from among them to serve in a number of ways – as Preachers; Those who will preside at Holy Communion; Teaching the faith; Giving pastoral care; Engaging in mission to their local community … and so on. Each congregation would have a degree of autonomy (as they do now), but still be part of the wider network of a diocese, and financial resources would be directed to giving support and training to congregations. I found it inspiring to read the srticle by David Power and the way this is being lived out in the diocese of Michigan

To conclude, what I have seen here in this variety of ways is all about seeing in a different way. And particularly looking – not at what is lacking, but at the treasure that is already there.
It’s about the potential of every situation to be a place of growth and learning if we can look beyond the obvious to see what is right in front of us.

And almost certainly, this will come to pass as we tell stories of what we see happening around us when we have encountered a situation that we can’t understand, but begun to trust that there is the possibility of transformation. And in the telling of those stories, we will see signs of healing and grace, and be encouraged to continue looking for the treasure that is among us.

Grace and peace.

Bible · Church · community · Worship

Taken, Blessed, Broken And Given

I haven’t done this before – put an extended quote in a post. But on Monday I was in a conversation about the place of food in thinking about the life of faith. After the conversation, I remembered that I had just binned some issues of a periodical, * one of which was all about food and faith.

I retrieved it from the recycling and started to read one of the articles. Here’s a taster of the article by Angel Mendez-Montoya:

Food Matters

Every act of eating implies transformation of some sort. The food that we eat is transformed into energy, vitamins, proteins, minerals and nutrients that our body and mind require for proper functioning.

Our bodies can be strengthened or weakened by eating or abstaining from certain substances. Eating food not only transforms our concrete physicality and experience of embodiment, it can also transform our state of mind and heart and even awaken our spiritual sensibility.

As so beautifully portrayed in the film, Babette’s Feast, food can be transformed into a lavish meal that not only awakens aesthetic sensibility, but also transfigures time and space into a heavenly banquet that heals all wounds and brokenness.

Eating certain dishes can trigger memories from the past, of beloved people, or cherished experiences around the table. Sometimes the actual food that we eat is not that important, for what really matters is that which transforms our hearts and spirits, the experience of gathering around the table and rejoicing with people that we love and that love us, immersing ourselves into the transformation of measurable time (kronos) into an immensurable experience of eternity (kairos).

Dr Angel Mendez-Montoya currently teaches theology, philosophy and cultural studies at several universities in Mexico City, and gives lectures primarily in Mexico, USA and Europe. He is the author of The Theology of Food: Eating and the Eucharist (Oxford:Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).

Two Gospel Stories

I love the fact that the above description focusses on transformation. I love the idea that the encounters we have with one another as we share food and conversation have the power to be transformational. The central act of worship for Christians recalls a meal, the Last Supper, and our prayer is that this also is an encounter – with the risen Jesus – and is also transformational.
Christian worship has kept that Last Supper meal as the touchstone for worship, but I’m wondering if we might have missed something here ?

I’m sure it’s significant that the Gospels contain many accounts of meals. Eating is fundamental to life, and something that is, at its best, a shared experience.
Take the feeding of the 5,000 in Mark’s Gospel.
Jesus took the offering of bread and fish, prayed a prayer of blessing, broke the bread – and gave it to the disciples to share among the people.

I have put four words above in bold, because they appear again at the Last Supper – Jesus took bread, and when he had blessed the bread, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”

The appearance of those same four words have linked these two passages from the Gospel, but the Last Supper passage has taken on a particular significance in being at the centre of every celebration of the Eucharist ( Holy Communion), when we remember Christ’s death for us on the cross. The words of Jesus that are used in the communion service are “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

The way that the Eucharist has come down to us means that what Christians remember above all is the death of Jesus on the cross, and not his life. A quick look at the prayers authorised for communion in my denomination, The Church of England, reveals that there is nothing in them that relates to the life of Jesus. The same is actually true of the historic creeds, there is nothing that speaks of the 33 years between the birth and the death of Jesus.

When Christians read the account of the feeding of the 5,000 we may see it as secondary to the Last Supper, but perhaps we should take more seriously the fact that those two passages are linked by those four words – taken, blessed, broken and given – and focus our remembering not only on the death of Jesus, but also the act of sharing food with a hungry crowd of people.

This gives rise to two thoughts for me:
1. Maybe the words that we use in our services could be more holistic and include aspects of the life and work of Jesus as well as his death and resurrection. There are creeds that I have come across that do this (creeds that I have used, even though they are not authorised !), but I can’t remember a communion prayer that does. Maybe you know different ?

2. Maybe our communion services could take more account of the place of food and eating a meal rather than the symbolic wafer and glug of wine ? Would a gathering around an actual kitchen or dining table, sharing a meal count I wonder ?

* The Bible In Transmission: Food Matters. Summer 2013

Church · Climate Change · Prayer

Responsive Call To Worship Litany

We had this piece of liturgy in our service on Sunday. It forms part of the work “Liturgical Material on Climate Change” that was compiled in 2009 by The National Council of Churches in Denmark Climate Change Working Group written to be used in Creation Time. The words are especially powerful in the light of the recent COP26 summit.

Today and Tomorrow
in time and in eternity
Your kingdom come

In our world, and in our streets,
In our homes and communities,
Your kingdom come

In our lives and in our loves,
in our hope and in our travelling,
Your kingdom come

Sisters and brothers, rejoice.
We are sustained and nourished by God’s presence and love.
Thanks be to God.

As we mourn the distress and wounds of God’s creation.
God weeps with us.

As we face rising waters, hunger, and displacement,
God suffers with us.

As we struggle for justice,
God struggles with us.

As we expose and challenge climate injustice,
God empowers us.

As we strive to build alternative communities,
God works with us.

As we offer our gifts to all,
God blesses us.

Sisters and brothers, rejoice.
Sustained by God’s presence and love we worship God.

Church · community · Creativity, · faith · Worship

Set Piece And Open Play

We’ve been watching some of the Football World Cup qualifiers in the last few days, as well as the Autumn Nations series of Rugby Union. On Sunday we were with friends at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff watching an unconvincing Wales team beat Fiji, largely because Fiji were reduced to 14 for much of the game as a result of a red card, and down to 13 for 20 minutes because of two yellow cards.

Having said that, it’s always great fun watching them play, the crowd are amazing, and there were some standout moments. We felt drawn in to the occasion, cheering, singing and shouting until we were hoarse; smiling at the Fijian family behind us as they cheered for a Fiji try; standing up to see the action at the far end of the pitch, just out of our eyeline.

It got me thinking about Rugby, Football (Soccer) and Church, and a possible analogy between what kind of play is going on in sport (Set piece / Open play) and what kind of expression of worship is going on in a church service.

For example – a set piece could be a free kick, or a corner in soccer (or a minor set piece would be a goal kick or throw in). A set piece in Rugby is a scrum or a line out or a penalty. How you work with the set piece depends on where it is on the pitch, what stage of the game you’re at etc. Goals and Tries often come from set pieces. You admire the skill of the free kick taker as they propel the ball so that it loops into the penalty area, just out of reach of the goalie, for an attacker to launch themselves into the air and head the ball into the top corner of the goal.

But then there’s open play – the moment in a game of rugby when your heart is in your mouth as the ball spins from the scrum halve’s hands along the line to the centres, one of whom places a kick that will fly with pin point accuracy and be caught by the winger who dodges the defending players and touches down another try. There will be mistakes and loose balls; crunching tackles and sidesteps; rucks and mauls; (don’t ask me to explain) …. It can be exciting or it can be tedious, but always with the possibility of something surprising that will turn a game around.

In Church, a set piece could be a sermon or the communion prayer, with shorter set pieces being a reading or someone leading some prayers. You admire the way that the preacher takes a passage from scripture and draws from the text something beautiful, something that sums up in a few words what you recognise as exactly what you would say if you could. You watch the person presiding at the Holy Table, and see the way their words and actions go through the drama of salvation and include us in the story.

But I sense in the worship the possibility also of open play. Contributions that come from the interaction in the moment and from the participation and involvement of the congregation. The smile between two friends who haven’t seen one another for a few weeks; the exuberance of the child running around the outer ring of chairs, as if it’s a racetrack; The voice behind me as we sing the opening hymn, lifting the praise to a new level; the moment at the end of the service when someone tells us about their life between Sundays – we’ll be praying for them this week especially; the invitation from the preacher to respond to the reading from the Gospel with our own experiences, that earth everything into daily life. The tears of someone recently bereaved who in their vulnerability allow us also to open our lives to one another.

On a bad day, we leave disconnected, uninvolved, feeling that we were just spectators when we wanted to be more a part of things. But on a good day, the interplay between set piece and open play can seem almost magical and we leave inspired, uplifted, amazed; buzzing with the mysterious feeling that we have somehow been involved in the action ourselves, and been touched by a presence that defies logic and planning, and brings us back next week for more.

Bible · Church · faith · Following Jesus

Eating With Knives And Forks

So, I was in church this morning, and we had three readings … extracts below:

From the final words of the letter to the church in Ephesus, encouraging the community of believers to stand firm in their faith:
For our struggle is …. against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

From John’s Gospel, chapter 6, words of Jesus
It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.

And from the book of Joshua chapter 24, Joshua addressing the Israelite nation:
Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

The thing that really struck me today was the way that God works through everyday living.

I was once in a class where we were asked this question by a visiting professor:
“What is the opposite of spiritual”

As we sat around waiting for one of us to be brave enough to respond, I think we were all asking ourselves – ‘Is this a trick question?’
Eventually someone piped up – ‘maybe the opposite of spiritual is physical ?’
The professor smiled, because someone had fallen into the trap he had laid.
No, no, no! He cried.
We waited. The rest of us who had been too cowardly to answer, feeling bad for the one who had stuck his head above the parapet, so to speak.

He looked at us intently. Clearly this was an important lesson that we needed to learn.
“The opposite of spiritual is unspiritual.”

Oh. Well yes, that seems logical. But what’s your point, we wondered.

Here I quote Eugene Peterson to explain the point that the professor made. “When we talk about something being spiritual, we are talking about something that God is doing.”

The mistake is to think of ‘spiritual things’ as things going on in the ether. Airy fairy. Things that don’t have any connection with life, but are more in the realm of ‘ideas about God.’

But if we take Eugene Peterson’s definition, then we’re talking about events, experiences and actions that are very much to do with real life.

In Christian Spirituality, there is an undestanding that the words and works of God are made apparent through the material stuff of our lives. In 21st century life, it’s sometimes hard to see this, since so much of our lives are lived in a bubble that removes us from the earthiness of life. We used to eat with our fingers, but now most of us use a knife and fork. There’s something about a connection with the basic essential of life – food that we have lost. I remember being invited to an Ethiopian friend for a meal, and being given no knife and fork, but quantities of ‘Injera’ – a soft sourdough type bread, slightly spongey, to gather up the food on my plate.

In his book ‘Run with the Horses.,’ Eugene Peterson describes that ‘earthy spirituality’ in this way:
“Biblical faith everywhere and always warns against siren voices that lead people away from specific and everyday engagements with weather and politics. Dogs and neighbors, shopping lists and job assignments. No true spiritual life can be distilled from or abstracted out of this world of chemicals and molecules, paying your bills and taking out the garbage. With the current interest in spirituality, we must be on guard not to revert to an other-worldly piety.”

To get back to the passages at the top of this post.
When Paul writes about contending with spiritual forces, we might picture among those forces the drive to make us want to produce more and more to satisfy our desire for aquisition and consumption. These forces are very real, and make themselves known in work places and board rooms. In lecture halls and classrooms. In shops and on T.V. and social media. In fact anywhere and everwhere you look.

When Jesus talks about the flesh being useless, he is talking about that side of our ‘fleshly’ human nature that is all about trying to be our own gods and goddesses – a seductive temptation that in the end leads nowhere.
He contrasts that kind of flesh with his own flesh – his physical body that he will give ‘for the life of the world.’

And in the third passage quoted, Joshua is challenging the people – not so much on what they believe, but how they will live. Again, moving the realm of the spiritual from ideas and beliefs to the lived life.

We had a wonderful example of that in our service this morning. Heather, our curate, was to be taking a baptism service after our morning communion service. She explained that at the moment of baptism, the minister pours the water of baptism using a scallop shell, which has long been a sign of baptism and the Christian journey. In recent months, as well as giving a baptism candle and a bible, we now give the baptised the shell that was used in their baptism.

What a powerful lesson to take away from this! Baptism is the beginning of a journey of faith, in which we are daily looking to see what God is doing in our lives and the lives of those around us – activity which is very real, whether it is made known in work places or board rooms. In lecture halls or classrooms. In shops or on T.V. and social media. In fact anywhere and everwhere you look. And in the life of the church – it is the everyday that speaks of God’s activity: water in baptism, bread and wine that we share around the table of reconciliation, and in the very beauty of creation all around us – all of life can speak to us of what God has done and is doing.

Grace and Peace.

Church · community · Worship

The Work Of A Leader

This post is a quote from a book by Richard Giles – At Heaven’s Gate.

So with yourselves; since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church.
1 Corinthians 14 verse 12

The chief work of a good leader is to build community. The true pastor is one who works with devoted skill, tender loving care, and infinite patience to nurture a community of faith into fullness of being; surrendering to the work of the Spirit of God ‘until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity of the full stature of Christ.’ (Ephesians 4 verse 15)

Good worship springs from an authentic and palpable sense of community. Once we learn to ‘cook on gas’ as a genuinely interactive community of faith, we shall draw forth from one another a whole range of talents and ministries to create extraordinary worship …. good worship, at the local level, week in week out, depends very much on the quality of common life enjoyed by that local community. Good worship begins with a whole and happy community.

It cannot be done the other way round – for worship to be used as a sticking plaster for a dysfunctional community will not last very long. It is not much use devising creative acts of worship that we hope will somehow put the community back together again. The human heart is stubborn and contrary, and conflict will need to be addressed and wounds healed. We cannot look the other way when a community is hurting inside, for good worship continue to be beyond us if we are not right with each other, not at ease with who we are as a body.

At Heaven’s Gate pages 16 & 17

Bible · Church · faith · Grace · Theology

Which Side Are You On ?

Or – alternative readings of Numbers Chapter 16.

I’m reading the Old Testament book of Numbers at the moment.

It’s a book worth spending time on, because of parallels with the situation of the Christian church. The narrative of the book of Numbers is set in the time after Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, but before they enter the land of promise. The Christian story is also set between a time of deliverance through the cross and resurrection of Jesus, and the future time when God will fulfil the promise of a ‘New Heaven and a New Earth.’

It’s a story of a community that at times is divided because of the challenges that they face in their wilderness wanderings. it’s a time of formation, with Israel trying to work out what is their identity and mission, as competing voices clamour to be heard.

In Numbers chapter 16, we read of a rebellion headed by Korah, one of the Levite tribe.
The Levites as a tribe were given the responsibility and privilege of serving in the Tabernacle, the ‘Tent of Meeting,’ which was the focus of Israel’s worship. However, their duties were limited, and overseen by Aaron and the other priests. Korah’s issue is that some Levites were seen to be better than others. His point is that the whole of Israel have been called and have an equal status – all are holy.

16  1 Now Korah, along with Dathan and Abiram took two hundred and fifty Israelite men, leaders of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men, and they confronted Moses. They assembled against Moses and against Aaron, and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. So why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?’

When Moses heard it, he fell on his face. Then he said to Korah and all his company, ‘In the morning the Lord will make known who is his, and who is holy, and who will be allowed to approach him; the one whom he will choose he will allow to approach him. Do this: take censers, Korah and all your company, and tomorrow put fire in them, and lay incense on them before the Lord; and the man whom the Lord chooses shall be the holy one. You Levites have gone too far!’

Then Moses said to Korah, ‘Hear now, you Levites! Is it too little for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to allow you to approach him in order to perform the duties of the Lord’s tabernacle, and to stand before the congregation and serve them? 10 He has allowed you to approach him, and all your brother Levites with you; yet you seek the priesthood as well! 11 Therefore you and all your company have gathered together against the Lord. What is Aaron that you rail against him?’

As the story progresses, Korah and his large number of followers are portrayed as faithless, wishing they were back in what they see as the relative comfort of Egypt, and angry that Moses’ leadership style is too authoritarian.
Moses and Aaron are portrayed as men full of integrity, not making any profit out of their leadership position.
Then God comes into the story, and is clearly on the side of Moses and Aaron, the result being that Korah and all his followers die.

As I reflect on this passage, I’m asking two question:
1: Who wrote the account ? Usually it’s the winners who write history. In this case it was likely the priestly class who are the authors.
2: Is it possible to read it from different standpoints ?

So, reading it from the point of view of the leaders, we’ve got a revolt that threatens what God is doing and the leaders of the uprising must be punished. Leaders are ordained by God and should be obeyed, or else !

Or, could you read this from ‘below,’ from the point of view of the rebels, and say to the priestly class / leaders about their reading of events – well that’s what you would say! The truth of it is that when people without power and influence try to have their say to bring about change, they usually end up worse off, as on this occasion. The leaders use their position, and invoke God or some other power as being on their side.

The way the priests wrote it, they come down on the side of Moses, but my sympathies are with Korah. More importantly, we need to read this through a New Testament lens. For St Paul, there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, Slave and Free, Male and Female – the biggest distinctions in the world of 1st century Judaism. All are equal in Christ.

The impulse to make distinctions between people is a powerful one. It’s embedded in our culture of achievement. Some are seen to be intrinsically worth more than others. To varying degrees, this separation can still occur on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, wealth, education, class, etc, and in the church, ordination. In opposition to this divisive approach, the Gospel declares that in Christ we are of equal value, with no distinction and no requirement to meet a certain standard.

There are applications for leadership here. A reading of the incident that is sympathetic to Moses, but also trying to be a ‘critical friend,’ might say that Moses has become too remote from the people with the result that they complain without understanding what Moses is doing. We see that all the time in the church and in secular environments. Leaders need to keep in close touch with those in their care.
A more critical judgment of Moses (and Aaron) might say that they have become proud of their status, and see themselves as beyond reproach. If leaders in a church become too separate, the danger is that they see themsleves, or are seen by others as more holy than the rest. This quickly leads to a culture either of dependence or rebellion, rather than a healthy interdependence that recognises the holiness of all.

Grace and Peace, especially to all in leadership.

Bible · Church · community

The Gathered People Of God

I’ve been wondering what you might call a community of followers of Jesus if you didn’t want to use the word church.

In my daily prayers, I’m reading the book that I know as Ecclesiastes – part of the wisdom literature of the First Testament.
In Hebrew, the title of book is ‘Qoheleth’, which is usually translated as The Preacher. A reasonable name for a book of wisdom you might say.

But – the root of the word Qoheleth is the verb qhl, which means ‘to gather,’ and a more accurate description of the title of the book would be ‘The One who gathers people together.’ (In the presence of God). And our name for the book – Ecclesiastes, also means a person who gathers people together.

In the New Testament, the word that is translated as church (ekklesia) should more accurately be translated as gathering. The word church is now so much about a building, when what we are talking about is a community, and I’d like to think that we could get back to the original sense of ‘church’ as the gathered people of God.

Grace and Peace

Church · Song for Today · World Affairs

Beige, Purple, Red, Blue, Orange …

First, a disclaimer … this is not mine, nor is it Rob Bell’s but comes from academic scholarship. Rob Bell has presented it for a wider audience, and it’s very interesting. Me, We, Everybody, Part 2

I tried to outline some of what this was about in an earlier post, so I’m just going to take off from there. It’s all about human development. The first episode was about the micro, or personal aspects of human development. This episode is about human development through history.

And another disclaimer. This is just a broad outline. It’s not meant to give a precise blueprint, but I can see that it is a helpful way of understanding human development.

The first three are firmly ‘Me’ – based on the individual and their needs.

So – first – a period of time when survival was the main thing. Kill or be killed. Make sure that you have the basic essential of life. Food, water, shelter, etc. This is firmly focussed on the individual. Rob Bell assigns colours to each stage and this one is Beige.
In Beige, who holds the power ? I do

Second. This is all to do with pleasing the gods. Survival depends on food, and humans notice that crops need two things – sunshine and water. So we pray to the rain and the sun gods, and if the crops fail, we look for ways to ask the gods to help us. Rituals and sacrifice become ways that we use to pray to the gods. This period is magic, and the colour is Purple.
In Purple, who holds the power ? The Priest/Shaman

Third. This is to do with following a leader. As communities form, so strong leaders emerge – people who have power, or wealth, and charisma. People who are able to influence others to obey them. This period is Red.
In Red, who holds the power ? The King.

Now we move to ‘We’ – where the tribe becomes important.

So – Fourth. Sometimes leaders pass on their mantle to others in the family – usually sons. Dynasties rule over communities, but at some point the power of the individual is replaced by traditions that have gathered force over time. This is where community comes in, and we live our lives more in accordance with values and practices that have emerged over time, rather than blind obedience to a leader. This period is Blue.
In Blue, who holds the power ? The Rules

A third move to ‘Everybody’ starts from this point

The Fifth period is about beginning to look outside your community and discover that other people follow different traditions and ways of living. Scientific discovery opens our eyes to new ways of seeing, and some of humanity’s basic assumptions are questioned. (The earth is no longer the centre of the universe). So, for example, in the 16th century and beyond, this is a period when in Western Europe, we start to see democracy as an alternative way of deciding who our leaders are. It’s also the time of the Reformation, when there is a great religious upheaval in the Western Christian Church.
This period is Orange
In Orange – who holds the power ? Science.

The Sixth period after Orange is Green. This is not so much about scientific discovery changing things (although that is a major influence), but about seeing the value of different points of view. In other words – pluralism. It’s no longer about what is the right way to live, but about accepting and valuing a range of different lifestyles. The 1960’s would probably be the time when this exploded, with for example, Human Rights, the Civil Rights Movement, Feminism, The Anti-War movement, Nuclear Disarmament, Animal Rights etc. One of the characteristics of this period is the belief that every way of seeing the world has equal value – no one way is better than the others. Every story must be listened to. There is a celebration of diversity. A feature of this Green period is difficulty in moving forward, and making a decision, because no one wants to say that their way is better. Every ‘truth’ is equal. However, claiming that there is no higher level truth is a contradiction, as that in itself is making an absolute truth claim, At its extreme, Green sees any view that is held with conviction, and which they see as unhealthy, as a form of violence.

In Green who holds the power ? No-One / Everyone

The next period is Yellow, where there is an acceptance that all of the above have their place and their value. In Yellow, there is an attempt to integrate all of the other colours. So whilst the Purple ‘Magical’ period might have been discarded by the other colours so far, Yellow is keen to hold a sense of mystery that comes with the Purple era.
In Yellow, who holds the power ? I Do, kind of …

The originators of this theory, called Spiral Dynamics, suggest that a society is ready to move from one stage to another when 10% of the population are moving, and that each society has a ‘centre of gravity colour’ that describes the dominant culture. They suggest that there are other phases yet to be realised ….

I’m now asking how this might work in a church setting. For example, what might a church that is operating largely in Red look like ?

So this is me, just wondering …

Beige – A church where it would be every one for themselves. I can’t quite picture what this would look like ..

Purple – One of the characteristics of this type of Christian/Church would be asking, in the face of adversity, ‘what have we done to deserve this ?’ Working harder and praying harder to please God. God is seen as rewarding or punishing us according to what we have done.

Red – Over reliance on the leader. Unquestioning obedience, as in cults, and over authoritarian leadership.

Blue – Following the norms and traditions of your denomination, congregation. Not being open to other ways of doing things. Believing that your way is the right way. Superiority when you compare your church to other churches.

Orange – Looking outside the tradition to explore other ways of doing things. Learning new things from other traditions, and leaving behind what has been unhelpful from your tradition – eg male only leadership.

Green – Valuing all the different expressions of church equally.

Yellow – Integrating the different colours – so seeing the value of leadership, tradition etc as well as diversity.

Question. If you are a member of any faith community, Christian or otherwise, can you see any of the above in your experience …

A final thought – individuals, communities and nations all experience aspects of most of the colours. It’s not like we move from one colour to the next. But it is a journey of discovery seeing the importance of each of the ‘colours.’ I was listening to a song earlier today, and it seemed to say something about this journey of life through sometimes troubled waters, but always inviting us to sail on …

Sail on Sailor

I sailed an ocean, unsettled ocean
Through restful waters and deep commotion
Often frightened, unenlightened
Sail on, sail on sailor

I wrest the waters, fight Neptune’s waters
Sail through the sorrows of life’s marauders
Unrepenting, often empty
Sail on, sail on sailor

Caught like a sewer rat alone but I sail
Bought like a crust of bread, but oh do I wail

Seldom stumble, never crumble
Try to tumble, life’s a rumble
Feel the stinging, I’ve been given
Never ending, unrelenting
Heartbreak searing, always fearing
Never caring, persevering
Sail on, sail on, sailor

I work the seaways, the gale-swept seaways
Past shipwrecked daughters of wicked waters
Uninspired, drenched and tired
Wail on, wail on, sailor

Always needing, even bleeding
Never feeding all my feelings
Damn the thunder, must I blunder
There’s no wonder all I’m under
Stop the crying and the lying
And the sighing and my dying

Sail on, sail on sailor
Sail on, sail on sailor
Sail on, sail on sailor

I still have to listen to the next part of ‘Me, We, Everybody,’ and I’ll maybe add another post then.

Grace and Peace