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 We’ve always done it this way, with its pomp, dressing up in ridiculous uniforms, outdated music, strange jargon, impenetrable hierarchy and unalterable precision.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?

Reflections on Discipleship – The things the church normally does

My heart went out to the old gentleman. I was at one of my many visits to Church Councils, trying to sell them our Diocesan Developing Discipleship Programme, which is basically Mission Action Planning, but we’re not allowed to call it that. I’d done a reasonable job, I’d thought, but he stood up to speak with despair in his voice. He told us he was from a tiny village church, with a congregation of about three, all in their 70s, and over the years they had tried everything to get people into the church. What hope could the Diocese possibly offer them? Never mind about five-year goals: they were unlikely to be there at all in five years’ time.

He told us in particular about a mass leafleting of every house in the village to invite people to their Easter Sunday service, to which the response was one newcomer, a member of a larger church nearby, for whom the service time was more convenient on that day. My heart went out to him because I have heard his story again and again around the Diocese, from people who, like him, were at rock bottom because they had tried everything and still they were declining and dying. People out there feel alone and unsupported, and the new attempts by the Diocese to try to bring help and support seem far too little too late.

But what particularly struck me on this occasion was a phrase he used. They had tried everything, he said. They had invited people to coffee mornings, bring and buy sales: ‘all the things the church normally does’. And no-one was interested. I knew exactly how he felt, but in his dejection he did not seem to have drawn the obvious conclusion: nobody wants the things the church normally does. We need to start doing some things we don’t normally do instead.

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This thought was taken further in another parish where another elderly gentleman was telling with great enthusiasm about their attempts to do just that. Every time they held anything special, people would come. Christingles, Pet services, Remembrance Sunday, you name it and people would be queuing at the door. But their normal Sunday services continued to dwindle. So now they make sure they do something special regularly, every time there’s a fifth Sunday. I wanted to ask ‘Why keep on doing the stuff no-one likes at all?’ I know that doing something special every week robs it of its ‘specialness’, but the big question was the same in the two different parishes: why do we just keep doing things which all the evidence suggests nobody but us wants to do, the things the church normally does?

At the other end of the age spectrum my son wrote an article where he asks the same question with regard to young people. He suggests that

If young people find church boring, irrelevant or alien, then there is of course the possibility that it’s because church is boring, irrelevant and alien.

You can read the full article here, but essentially the questions are very close to each other. I know, of course, that in many places the point of no return may already have been reached, and three people in their seventies have neither the time, the energy nor the ability to do much in terms of innovation. Perhaps there needs to be some more death before new life can emerge in a very different form.

Image: Thomas Nugent [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Reflections on Discipleship – Disagreeing Nicely

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 …

Last week I returned to one of the parishes in which I had worked in the past for the funeral of our organist. While I was vicar he was on the Church Council, and I think it would be true to say that we disagreed totally about pretty much everything. He was an old-school Anglican, based around the beauty of the choral tradition. An engineer by training, he had in the back window of his Austin 1100 a sticker which proclaimed ‘Foot, pint and pound are perfectly sound. Don’t go metric’, which honestly I thought was a bit too little too late.

On the other hand I was a keen young vicar in my first incumbency, determined to drag the church kicking and screaming from the Tudor era into the glorious riches of Spring Harvest and charismatic renewal. What I lacked in people skills I made up for with single-minded determination. No wonder we saw things differently!

Austin 1100

But the fact is, it never got nasty. Ever. We listened to one another, disagreed, sparred, but always, I believe with the utmost of respect. Fundamentally we liked each other, could see where we were coming from, and always treated one another with honesty and care. I can remember returning to the church a few years earlier, for a wedding, and being shown around the new digital organ which had finally replaced the somewhat asthmatic pipe instrument which had wheezed its way through the hymns during my time there. My friend was clearly very proud of this new machine, but I was aware of what it must have cost him to make the decision to go digital, rather than continuing to spend thousands on repairing the old ‘proper’ one. But I also knew that having made the decision he would have researched carefully and thoroughly, and made sure we got the best and most appropriate deal. My respect for him increased dramatically.

Having been the victim elsewhere of church disagreement which did turn thoroughly nasty, personal and vindictive, I thank God for my friend, his honour, honesty and respect. Part of mature discipleship, it seems to me, is about how we react when we do find ourselves in situations of conflict, when we step out of glorious times of worship together into the cut and thrust of meetings and decision-making, when we reach those loggerhead impasses. Niceness of itself is not, of course, the answer, as this can serve simply to bury conflict and invite some very large elephants into the room. But neither is making our quarrels personal vendettas.

The problem is, of course, that the behaviour of others affects our behaviour, and vice versa. It wasn’t difficult to like and respect my friend, because that was exactly how he treated me. But when I am attacked I turn nasty and am tempted to give as bad as I get. I can’t control the actions of others, but I do have a duty and calling to check my own behaviour, and to act with integrity and respect. A disciple of Jesus should do no less.

Image: By Mark Brown from Hampton, New Brunswick, Canada (1967 Austin 1100  Uploaded by oxyman) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Reflections on Discipleship – Praying with the Psalms

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 …

You know those moments when you get a sudden flash of insight, when you get for the first time something which you then realise is blindingly obvious? I had one of those moments when a visiting preacher came to the church of which I was vicar. It was this time of year, in the gap between Ascension and Pentecost, and our diocese was encouraging us to use what is called the ‘Novena’ or nine days to pray for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit to renew and revive the church. In a throwaway comment our preacher told us that of course the disciples gathered for that period in the upper room would have been praying the Psalms. That was how Jews prayed.

Duccio di Buoninsegna. Maestà (back, crowning panel) The Descent of the Holy Spirit.

Now I’d never really thought about it but I realised that the unconscious picture in the back of my mind was nine days of a kind of evangelical prayer-meeting, or a 24-7 prayer week. But since that insight I’ve found myself viewing the Psalms in a whole new light. We all know that they contain pretty much the full range of human situations and emotions, and they can give us words to express just about anything we’re feeling and wanting to say to God. I know that during a period of my life when I was under intense persecution and bullying those psalms about smashing my enemies to bits became very real and heartfelt. They certainly gave me permission to feel what I was feeling! The fact is that we read and pray the psalms through the filter of what we’re going through or thinking about at the time. So to read them during the novena, as prayers for the renewal and revival of God’s church, can be a very helpful and powerful thing.

Of course some psalms are more applicable than others to any given situation, but I think the dynamic is that the bits which speak to us come out of the page and thump us in the face, while the other bits slip quietly by until another occasion when because of a new situation they will speak to us.

So how about thinking yourself into the situation of those first disciples, gathered with both fear and expectation, not knowing quite what to expect but hopeful of something new and powerful? Link that to your situation now, admitting how you feel about the state of the church and your hopes for it. Then start reading some psalms, either from the beginning, or using the passages set in the lectionary. At the end of each psalm, or when something leaps out and hits you, ask yourself the question ‘How does this text make me want to pray for the church?’ My expectation is that prayer will come alive, and my hope is that like those first disciples we will know the powerful presence of the Spirit among us as we pray.

Image from http://www.abcgallery.com