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 · Jesus · Political

Where Jesus Attends A Wedding

So, we have this group called BUNS – where we look at a Bible passage, play Uno and eat NibbleS ….

last time, we were looking at John chapter 2, where Jesus goes to a wedding and turns water into wine.
Whatever you think about the miracle as recorded, it’s important to think about the context, and ask if there might be something going on under the surface.

I think I read somewhere that ‘context is everything.’

Whether it’s everything or not, it’s definitely important, as is our own context.
I’m listening to a podcast at the moment called the Bartcast, specifically some talk by Ched Myers on the Gospel of Mark. He’s opening up some interesting lines of thought about what might be going on in the Gospel that is related to the social and policital setting at the time of Jesus. It’s got me thinking more about the possible sub texts in gospel passages, and I had some thoughts about the ‘water into wine’ incident.

In the account, they have run out of wine at the wedding – the bar has run dry. There’s a major panic, and Jesus’ mother tries to get him to do something. (What did she think he was going to do ….?).
He’s not keen intially, but his mother seems to have an inkling that he might do something, so she tells the servants to be prepared for action.

Jesus seems to change his mind and sees these water jars, six of them, each one holding over 100 litres of water. (The water is used for ceremonial washing). Jesus tells the servants to fill them right up to the brim and then draw some off to take to the master of ceremonies. Of course, it’s become wine, and the wedding party is saved.

Now I’ve heard quite a few sermons on this passage and preached on it a few times myself. But I’ve never had this thought before. Obviously everyone is very happy to drink the wine … but actually are they happy to drink it, or would some of them be a bit unsure if they knew where it had come from – holy water jars ?

Because these water jars aren’t just any old water jars. They’re used for a religious ceremony. And now they’re being used to help a party get into the swing again after and embarassing lull in the proceedings.

What if there’s something going on here that is a bit naughty. A bit of a dig at the people who control the religious side of life. And an encouragement to the general crowd to drink the holy water (that is now beaujolais, or equivalent). I think what Jesus has done is pretty subversive. He’s taken what is set aside for a religious purpose and made it common property. He’s punctured the sacred balloon. He’s driven a coach and horses through … sorry, I’m getting a bit carried away with metaphors here, but I hope you get the idea.

Religious people sometimes set up what we might call a sacred / secular divide, where a part of life is for religion (like Church on a Sunday) and the rest of the time, life is for living. But isn’t everything sacred, isn’t everything holy ?

In the subtext of Marks’ Gospel, there are things going on that are more about the political setting, probably to do with the plight of the poorest people, and who has the power, and how that dynamic needs to change. Maybe this incident in John’s Gospel is more about who has the power in the religious world, and Jesus taking an axe to that particular tree. I don’t know, I’m just asking.

Grace and peace anyway …

Activism · Bible · Church · faith · Following Jesus · Political

The River Runs Down Hill

Water is a prominent theme in both the First Testament, and the Second. I was listening earlier this week to a talk by Ched Myers, speaking about both the ecological and the theological significance of water.
Listen here. Roll Like A River

There’s a lot to digest there, but I’ll just refer to sonmething he said at the end. He’s made the point earlier that in his context in Southern California, the river Ventura that once flowed all year round is now seasonal. This is largely because the water is taken off by residential needs and industry futher up stream.
That has all sorts of ecological consequences to the environment, as well as affecting those who live down stream.

The situation is not unlike the Jordan Valley, where many people, (Palestinians in particular) have to contend with water shortages, as well as the land itself being impoverished.

Already, we are seeing water as a commodity being fought over, and who wins ? The rich. We are familiar with wars over other resources like oil, but we are now realising that the main building block of life – water – is getting scarcer in many areas, and a cause of conflict.

In Southern California and the Jordan Valley, it is the environment and the people downstream that are affected.

Ched Myers draws a parallel between the ecological and economic issues here, and the way that water is spoken of in scripture.

There are many passages that speak of the life giving properties of water – coupled with water as an image of our spiritual lives. In Psalm 1 water is a symbol of God’s way of living.

Happy are those whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. (Psalm 1 verses 1-3)

In John’s Gospel we hear Jesus say these words:
Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” John Chapter 4 verse 14

It’s clear that water is not only essential for our very material lives, but is also a kind of code for what we might call abundant life, where there are no winners and losers, but where everyone has their needs fully met.

The Prophet Amos says this:
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,  I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amos Chapter 5 verses 21-24

Water flows down hill … but by the time it reaches the communities where Ched Myers lives, or the Palestinian People in the Jordan Valley, there is not enough left for everyone.

In my last-but-one post, I said that the Christian life is about ‘Gift and Task.’ This post is definitely about ‘Task’. The task of every one of us to seek justice for those who are furthest away from the source of blessing. Those who are on the margins where the resources do not reach, as well as the land that is impoverished by lack of water.

Grace and Peace.