Trooping the FX Colour

Last week, during the celebrations of Her Majesty’s 90th birthday, my son and I both accidentally watched the Trooping of the Colour on telly. We’d both just sat down for a break from the day’s activities, him in Winchester, me in Lincoln, and surfed until we found something which looked interesting. Steve, who is currently training for ordained pioneer ministry in the C of E, rang me later in the day and we got to reflecting on the event, which neither of us had seen before in all its glory. We got to asking the question, which I’m sure many of my readers must have pondered long and hard themselves,  ‘What would a Fresh Expression of the Trooping of the Colour’ look like?

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My immediate reaction was ‘You’ll be lucky!’ We’ve always done it this way, with its pomp, dressing up in ridiculous uniforms, outdated music, strange jargon, impenetrable hierarchy and unalterable precision. And all that, of course, is exactly what people love, and why the crowds turn out to watch it. It’s what makes people feel ‘proud to be British’, with our history of military domination and imperialism. I simply couldn’t imagine (and to be fair neither could Steve) what a Fresh Expression would look like.

On further reflection, however, one motif from this ceremony really struck me. Many of the people marching around  Horseguards’ Parade had, a few months earlier, been on active service in some of the most troubled parts of our world. The point was made more than once that the skills learned on the parade ground were the same skills which made soldiers so effective, and indeed might even have saved their lives,  on the battlefield. Not of course that they march around the mountains of Afghanistan wearing bright red tunics and playing the tuba, but character attributes like discipline, teamwork, precision, unquestioning obedience, pride in quality and so on are exactly the things which, when learned on the square, can prove so vital in war.

There is a very big question around helping the strange and arcane things we do in the churches of our land on Sunday mornings to be expressed in some fresh ways, and whether that is even possible, given our attraction to ‘the way we’ve always done it’. But I wonder whether there is a prior question. What are we instilling into Christian disciples on a Sunday morning which might quite literally be life-savers when they get onto the battlefield?

Reflections on Discipleship – A Chance to Shine

This morning my son phoned me from the city where he is living whilst training for Ordained Pioneer Ministry. He said that he had discovered many many people who were wanting to donate food and clothes towards the Syrian refugee crisis, but there were no collection points at all in the city. He was spending the day doing the rounds of different church leaders asking if they could use their churches as foci for the goodwill of those people desperate to help.

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I am aware that the crisis is complex and that people disagree about appropriate solutions, but meanwhile refugees are sick, homeless and starving, and a Christ-like response must surely be to do something to help. On the basis that churches are far more likely to grow if they are perceived by the communities in which they are set as ‘useful’, it seems that we have a golden opportunity to do something which benefits the poor and which raises our goodwill in the community. Whether we’re in a tiny village or a town centre, whether we’re catholic, evangelical or whatever, whether we’re large and bustling or small and struggling this is something we can do, and maybe something we can do together as mission communities. But the opportunity won’t be there for ever: we need to mobilise for action as soon as we can.

For further information on setting up a collection point, you might like to try contacting action@calaisaction.com although other organisations such as Oxfam are involved too.

Who is willing to step up to the challenge?

Image: By Voice of America News: Margaret Besheer reports from the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli; “Syrian Refugees Seek Out Smugglers”. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Reflections on Discipleship – Live Life Better

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

If you’re one of those people who think the Sunday lectionary is a good idea, I wonder whether you were struck as I was by something from the gospel for last Sunday? In Mark 6:30 the disciples, returning from a mission trip, are invited to spend some time with Jesus to debrief and recharge their spiritual batteries. However, if spite of his efforts to get away the crowds find him, and his compassion for them takes over, because he sees them as like ‘sheep without a shepherd’.

Those of us in pastoral ministry know this scenario well. In spite of our best efforts at time management, prioritising and the rest, our hearts often take over and we can’t help but respond to real need. But what struck me was the nature of this response. Just what do these shepherdless sheep need? A visit from the vicar? A bunch of flowers and a cup of tea? A promise to pray for them? Or just money? Jesus saw things differently: seeing their lostness he began teaching them.

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It is a hobby horse of mine, but I never cease to be amazed at the poor state of the teaching ministry in today’s church. We believe that the Bible contains the wisdom of God, both the words of eternal life and common sense for good living now, but we seem to have lost our nerve in preaching and learning from it. In a sound-bite culture we have forgotten the art of listening deeply, studying, memorising and learning from Scripture, and teachers have been replaced by pastors or administrators as the default models for church leadership. I find it ironic that in many evangelical churches the Bible is never read publicly, but merely alluded to in sermons.

And yet there is a hunger among people. In one diocese in which I worked the Bishop cleared his diary one Lent, and travelled around the Diocese five nights a week for six weeks giving lectures on John’s gospel. It was standing room only, and people were deeply impacted by his teaching ministry, which of course used to be one of the main roles of bishops.

One church in which I used to minister developed as its strapline ‘Meet friends; meet God; live life better’ which pretty much sums up for me what church ought to be about. Archbishop Rowan Williams apparently said that the next stage on from discipleship isn’t leadership; it’s citizenship. Disciples are engaged in the process of becoming more Christ-like people, and this must show at every level. We need the Bible’s wisdom to grow and mature, and we need the ministry of teachers to help us do that.

Crookes

There is, I think, a cyclical thing going on here. People in our churches are seldom hungry for God’s word, until someone sets before them a feast, when they begin to realise just how starving they actually are. We need to pray, I believe, for those with teaching gifts to be raised up, and for God’s people to served up banquets of good things from his word.

Image:  “Eritrean platter at London restaurant” by Secretlondon – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons

Reflections on Discipleship – No Pressure!

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

 

During a long and boring but accident-prone print run this morning I happened to pick up a book helpfully left on the windowsill in our print room, a book of devotional thoughts from that great preacher C H Spurgeon. The book happened to fall open at July 3rd (today), which either means that someone else had just been devotional with it or God wanted to speak to me particularly. The verse for the day was, unpromisingly, Genesis 41:4:

 

‘And the cows that were ugly and gaunt ate up the seven sleek, fat cows.’

 

Spurgeon went on to explain this verse in terms of the fact that times of spiritual gauntness quickly ate up the spiritually more healthy times. When he stayed close to God he made great strides forward, but the odd off-day quickly undid all the good that the good days had achieved, and set him back on his quest for true Christlikeness. His aim, he explained, was to make sure that every day was a spiritual high, and not to let any bad days or seasons undo all that he had achieved so far.

 

You can kind of see what he means, but even reading the passage made me feel exhausted! I am still pondering whether or not a) he is right, and b) whether this is a helpful kind of approach to discipleship to preach and teach around the Diocese. To me, it comes dangerously close to salvation by works, something which I would have thought that Spurgeon of all people would want to avoid teaching. It makes discipleship hard work, which on one level it is, but on another it shouldn’t be, since the Jesus whom we follow has a burden which is light. It also seems to negate those times when, according to the Bible, suffering does us good. I have grown as much, if not more, through times of spiritual aridity than I have through the good years.

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In any case, the definition of a disciple is someone who fails – you can see that again and again in the gospels. I’m not convinced that failure makes us slide back down the snake to square one: rather I think it can send us forward sadder but wiser. My God of infinite forgiveness doesn’t like to watch me fall, but when I do he is quick to restore, forgive and reinstate. So no pressure!

Reflections on Discipleship – High Mileage Life

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

My daughter has just completed a gap year discipleship programme before starting university, so we went back for her graduation to a church at which I had been on the staff in the 80s. The vicar preached a stunning sermon, concerning an advert he had come across for a 1984 VW for sale. It was advertised as having 15 miles on the clock, brand new tyres, exhaust and battery, pristine bodywork, and completely clean upholstery. It had only ever been used in first and reverse gears, and was being sold, the advert said, due to the owners losing their job. The attached photo showed a tiny island about 200 metres across, with a jetty on one side and a lighthouse on the other, with the car being used merely to ferry supplies between them.

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Cars are of course made to drive, to go on adventures, to change as we change. As young couples we might stick a tent in the boot and go off on holiday with no plans. Later it might commute us to work. Then it might ferry kids around their various activities. Later still it might need a topbox or bike carriers on the roof. It might take us to foreign countries as well as to Tesco’s. Cars which never get up to temperature are more likely to suffer wear internally, even though the bodywork might be pristine. The preacher who told this story challenged us to think about high-mileage as opposed to low-mileage lives. It’s possible to live nice clean simple lives, nicely polished with regular visits to church, with never a dent, scratch or wear. Disciples, though, he said, are those who live high-mileage lives, have adventures, go places, and occasionally get damaged in the process, as Jesus’ first disciples did. Disciples run into the ground.

 

Where has your discipleship taken you? How much has it cost? When your time comes, will you die in pristine condition, or will your life with Jesus have taken you to challenging and dangerous places? We need high-mileage disciples who, in Dylan Thomas’ immortal words, do not go gentle into that good night.

 

But this isn’t just about individual Christians: churches too can be low- or high-mileage. Some keep their liturgy highly polished, their worship-songs up to date, their accounts in perfect order, with nothing to dent their sparkling finish. But others take risks, do crazy things for the kingdom, use faith to take financial risks, make plans and reflect on them, learn, grow, change and adapt as the world around them changes. High-mileage churches have known amazing journeys of faith, but may well have a few scratches to show for it. I guess that can be true for dioceses too: living a high-mileage life is not always what the C of E has been known for, but it is, I believe, what we are called to. We should go places, rather than being stuck on our own little island.

Image: By Charlie from United Kingdom (1984 VW Polo C 1.1 Formel E) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Reflections on Discipleship – Joy, not Duty

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

I’m reading a fascinating if somewhat esoteric book at the moment[1], but I was struck by the point made by the author that the greatest calling for Christians is to live with joy. After all, he explains, the gospel begins and ends with joy. ‘I bring you good news of great joy’ and ‘They worshipped and returned to Jerusalem with great joy’ (Luke 2:10 and 24:52). Joy goes around the whole thing like a huge pair of brackets. Celebration invites us to life our heads above the flood of things to do and breathe in God’s Spirit. It gives us the excuse to climb the mountain and see the big picture. And of course to give thanks to God for all he is doing is the right thing to do, our duty and our joy.

Schmemann notes that ‘Of all the accusations against Christians, the most terrible one was uttered by Nietzsche when he said that Christians had no joy’.[2]

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Disciples, followers of Jesus, are part of this story of joy. We are given it; we are called to live in it, and we are called to shine it out into a miserable world. We are to be spreaders of joy, and we are to know as joyful people.

Note also that the Bible calls us to joy even when life is not joyful by human standards. ‘Consider it pure joy’, says James (1:2) ‘whenever you face trials of many kinds.’ Rejoicing in sufferings is commended throughout the New Testament. It has been said that he who smiles to himself has a secret. Disciples have! We know that whatever this world throws at us, its power to harm us has been taken away. As a friend put it ‘God will never allow you to come to any harm. You might die, but you will never come to any harm’. Disciples have a different take, a different perspective, which will simply not allow us to be grumpy. We are not of this world, just as Jesus wasn’t. Disciples know where they’re headed, and the prospect of that fills us with unutterable joy, even if there are no parking spaces or the printer has crashed again.

A miserable disciple is a contradiction in terms. Not a sad one, note. Life is sad. At times it’s excruciatingly sad. But disciples are not robbed of their joy by mere sadness. We have the gift of joy, and we can’t help but share it with others.

Image: “Baby love” by Gilberto Filho from Salvador, Brasil – baby love. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

[1] Schmemann, A For the Life of the World (New York: St Vladimir, 1973) in case you’re interested

[2] P 24

Reflections on Discipleship – Just do it!

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

I love the quote from American philosopher Dallas Willard that

‘Discipleship is the conviction that Jesus knows how to live my life better than I do’.

If that’s true, it follows that obedience is just about the greatest and most helpful spiritual discipline there is. Yet in a society marked by an anti-authority mood, and a sense of my divine right to do just whatever I like, we find it so difficult just to submit and do what God tells us.

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I was reading recently the story of Naaman, the proud but sick warlord of Aram, who heard that there might be a chance of healing if Elisha the prophet would pray for him. You can read the story in 2 Kings chapter 5. Naaman finally finds Elisha’s house, and of course expects to be treated with the respect and deference due to his exalted status as an army general. So to have a servant come and tell him to jump into the river Jordan seven times puts his back well and truly up. He goes away angry, presumably preferring the inconvenience and stigma of leprosy over the indignity of washing in a foreign river. But his servants, who are clearly devoted enough to their boss (and address him as ‘Father’), and feel able to help him to rethink, ask him if this is really a wise course of action. If the prophet had asked him to do some great heroic deed in order to get healed, would he not have jumped in with both feet? So why is the river Jordan such a problem? You never know: incredible as it sounds, it just might work. So he does, and it does, and he goes home cleansed, healed, and committed to the God of Israel.

I thank God for those servants who had a much better sense of perspective than their master. Reading the story made me ask myself about those times when I have simply gone off in a huff and refused to do what I know God is calling me to, and wondering what I might have missed out on because of my stubbornness. Thank God for people around me who have had more sense than I had, or who could retain perspective because they managed not to feel as affronted as I did.

In our Diocese we’re about to begin a major piece of work on stewardship, or ‘Generous Living’ as we’re going to call it. As an ex diocesan Stewardship Adviser I know how much hassle this is going to cause, and how resistant people are to the conviction I and many Christians have that I can live better on 90% of my income than on 100%. I know the financial gymnastics people will embark upon to tell me that we should give after income tax and not before it, or that daily newspapers and coffee in Starbucks are legitimately deductible from their tithing assessment. Disciples are those who have learnt, or are learning, that to ‘just do it’ will bring, as it did for Naaman, blessings which humanly do not seem possible.

Finance is of course only one example of our reluctance to obey, but it is one which Jesus spoke very strongly about. But if he really does know how to live my life better than I do, I’d better listen and obey. Who knows what I might lose out on if I don’t?