26 April 2007

A Problem in Practical Theology

Here is a thought-problem.

I've received a mail-shot from a respected international Christian organisation with a very well-known name asking me to identify for them the names of "local Christian business and professional men".

Now, one thing I do not have any indecision about - I would never provide any organisation the names of people without asking permission of the people first. That's a no-brainer (just in case anyone is reading this blog and worried that I might do!).

But let's take a look at this issue of Christian "business men". Why "business people" and why "business men" rather than "business men and women"?

As far as I can tell, there is no reason that this should be men and not women. Although I know that some of my Christian sisters and brothers wouldn't agree, I don't actually have a problem with single-sex groups that are set up to provide fellowship for either men or women; I think that sometimes we're more comfortable with our own gender.

But no. It appears that this organisation simply wants to be able to - in the words of their letter - 'extend...interdenominational ministry' in our local area. But apparently only men can help them do this. Hmm.

The other issue for me is the qualifier "business". The area in which I live is 18% at the bottom of the scale in terms of social deprivation. Many of the town's long-term disadvantaged live here. So I guess that they aren't interested in extending interdenominational ministry in our neighbourhood, but boy does the neighbourhood need it.

The thing is that I'm vitally interested in interdenominational ministry[1] for these very reasons. However, everything about this mailing - including the faith-requirements for the names of the people I would send to them - screams male-headship to me. On the other hand, I feel that I need to be able to get along with Christians who hold these beliefs.

There are two people I know who fit this group's criteria of being male and having their own businesses. One of them would, I'm fairly certain, disagree with the group's faith-cum-doctrinal requirements. Do I tell these men that this organisation is looking for the names of people like them, or do I just bin the mailing?

I have to say I'm disappointed. I would have hoped that otherwise venerable Christian groups that did good work like this would try to walk a line that is a bit more centrist. Even if they had given me some reason as to why people had to be involved in business and the professions I would have felt more comfortable, but the letter even gives a list of eligible professions and businesses without any apparent embarrassment.

What would Jesus do? I guess he'd be qualified on one count (gender) but not on the other (business man).

[1] If you've received a similar mailing, you know that this is a particular sort of minstry, but one which I'd otherwise be happy to support.

23 April 2007

NT Wright on the Atonement

Fulcrum's website has posted a very long article by Bishop of Durham, NT Wright, in response to the current on-going debate on atonement. The Cross and the Caricatures.

Update 26 April: The authors of Pierced for our Transgressions have issued a statement in response to Tom Wright's article here.

Godly Fun

I've been thinking about 'Godly fun', thanks to two things that happened this weekend. (In case you think I've given the wrong term to 'Godly Play', I haven't but here’s a link to it if you're interested.)

The first thing that happened - believe it or not - was going to the Wolverhampton and Shrewsbury District synod. Yes, don't all fall down, interesting things can happen at synod! At We were privileged and inspired and motived in hearing two talks from
Ann Morisy. Ann is a speaker, author, theologian and a sociologist by training. She looks at the church using a very helpful sociological lens.

I won't summerise here everything that Ann said, but she did point out that groups that grow are groups where people have fun and where they are not overly anxious. She said that she wondered what it was about early Methodism that was 'fun' as that must have been part of the reason why it was so successful.

The second thing that 'happened' on Saturday was reading Turbulant Cleric's excellent sermon:
God Hates the World – Not!. In it, TC writes:
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury....refers to an evening when he was at birthday party of a mutual friend at which [Archbishop Desmond] Tutu was speaking. Reflecting on how his mind couldn’t wander in Tutu’s company, Williams goes on to write of “an unprompted insight that Desmond Tutu enjoys being Desmond Tutu.”
Now, I've never met Tutu, but this quality certainly appears to come across when one sees him in the news. He really gives the impression being thankful and enjoying life.

So, both of these events have made me think about 'Godly fun'. Can 'fun' be Godly or is fun always and necessarily selfish? If Christians are called to love their neighbours, is having fun antithetical? I think that 'fun' and loving our neighbour aren't contradictions in terms, but I think that Christians often act like they are! I have to admit that even thinking about the idea of 'fun in church' came as a bit of a surprise to me.

It seems to me that 'Godly fun' and thankfulness and praise to God are somehow connected. That 'Godly fun' isn't about 'me trying to amuse myself' but about sharing together our experiences of thankfulness and praise. If we agree that part of our mission as Christians is to proclaim and bring the love of God to those who don't know of it - isn't there an element of fun in that?

I'm reminded of a Rabbinic idea that when we get to heaven, the first thing that God will ask us is 'did you enjoy my creation?'

I have one niggle about Godly fun. It seems to me that if a church tries too hard to be a 'fun' place, that it might become a place where people who are struggling with pain, illness, fear or doubts don't feel that they can express the experiences they are going through. Many Christians probably have some experience of Christian fellowships where they felt that they 'had to be' happy, joyful, smiling, etc. and that they could never say how they really felt.

So how can a congregation be a safe place for those who are going through trials yet still also be a place of thankfulness and praise and fun?

22 April 2007

Listening to Others

I commend the following post on the subject of listening to others: Prayer at Panim

I make no further comment as Rachel is well able to speak for herself, this is not my tradition and for me to make further comment would would feel like treading thoughtlessly on holy ground.

21 April 2007

A Stunning Sermon

Run, don't walk to read God Hates the World - Not by Turbulent Cleric.

Sermon - Called by God

I have posted the sermon for the Third Sunday in Easter on my sermon blog site: Called by God.

19 April 2007

Atonement, Justice and Reciprocity

I am currently reading Stephen Sykes' book: The Story of Atonement. There has also been some discussion on Christian discussion groups and in the Christian blogsphere about theories of atonement on the back of Jeffrey John's Lent Talk on BBC Radio 4.

John talked about growing up being told the following about 'how God saves sinners'. I'll bet you'll recognise the idea. I know that I was told that this is precisely what salvation is all about. John was taught that:

God was very angry with us for our sins, and because he is a just God, our sin had to be punished. But instead of punishing us he sent his Son, Jesus, as a substitute to suffer and die in our place. The blood of Jesus paid the price of our sins, and because of him God stopped being angry with us. In other words, Jesus took the rap, and we got forgiven, provided we said we believed in him.

In his book, The Story of Atonement, Sykes talks about how much of popular Christian theology is based on the idea of reciprocity - and on the idea that justice is reciprocity. So, the idea is that if I do something good, God will/should reward me with something good and when you do something bad, God should punish you. When this does not happen, we become outraged. Hence the idea that many people express "What have I done to deserve this tragedy?" or "I cannot believe in a God who would let such bad things happen."

Sykes points out that this idea of reciprocity is NOT part of Christian tradition; Christians do not believe that God rewards good behaviour with good things and bad behaviour with bad things. On the contrary, Christians believe that there is nothing that we can do that is 'good enough' to gain our salvation or other rewards from God and therefore we have to rely on the grace of God. 'Reward for good behaviour' may be hard-wired into the human psyche (as any parent of a two-year-old will tell you), but it is not a Christian idea.

Grace, the popular saying goes, means getting something good that you don't deserve. Well, amen to that.

But where does that grace come from? I think we get into trouble when we start saying that God's 'justice' means that he is not capable of being gracious until he has received some kind of payment. In the event of God receiving a payment, grace is not grace but is rather a quid pro quo reward for good behaviour. It makes reciprocity more important than grace.

But the worst thing about these popular versions of salvation is that they turn Christianity into just another system of those who are in with the in-group and those who are out. There is a reason that the Christian church orginally called itself 'catholic' (which just means 'universal'); because Christianity is not about defining which categories of people are not offered the grace of God. Christianity is about God's universal offer of grace to all people.

We are always in debt to God. There is no system of reciprocity involved in our relationship with God. God does not 'reward' us for believing in him and punish other people for not believing in him. The whole point of Christianity is that the love of God is a free gift.

To quote Sykes, faith is not something that we do; faith is a being present when a revelation takes place. By faith, we enter a realm of the mutuality of love through grace; by faith we are the recipients of unimaginable generosity.

[Edited on 21/4/07 to correct the spelling of Jeffrey John's surname as pointed out to me by Peter Kirk in the 'Commments' section.]

18 April 2007

Thoughts on Virginia Tech

I find it hard - almost insensitive - to comment on the events at Virginia Tech. Friends and regular readers will not be surprised that someone who calls herself a pacifist is appalled at the events.

First of all, my blog-friend, Michael Westmorland-White has written an excellent post:
Tragedy at Virginia Tech.

I offer prayers to the family and friends of those who have been killed as well as to the Virginia Tech community.

I'll offer what I think are, to me, obvious comments: 1) The right to bear arms was enshrined in the US Constitution for the purpose of raising a militia against national enemies, not so that every citizen could "defend" himself or herself from other citizens. 2) I appreciate the huge consequences of making a change to the Bill of Rights and I don't think that there is any easy answer. I can testify from experience living in the UK that most here people manage to live without guns in the house. Given the level of petty and mindless anger, aggression and vandalism that goes on, frankly I'm happy that the people who throw rocks at elderly people (for example) don't have easy access to guns.

I do wonder whether our culture of violent television programmes, violent films and violent video-games desensitises us to violence and makes us think that it is in some way acceptable.

It seems to me like a total no-brainer that from a Christian point of view, violence against another human being is a total violation of the Great Commandment ("love your neighbour as yourself") and also the sixth commandment ("thou shalt not kill").

May God's Spirit comfort and draw close to all those in mourning; I honestly have no words, only prayers.

17 April 2007

Spring Photos

thought I'd share some spring photos from our walk in Bodenham Arboretum on Sunday:


15 April 2007

Doubting Thomas

I had this Sunday off preaching, which was actually quite wonderful. I had the opportunity of going to another church in town and just sitting in the pews and being part of the service.

The sermon was excellent and was on this week's lectionary reading about 'Doubting Thomas'. A fellow Methodist minister only pointed out to me the other day something I'd not twigged: that this reading of 'Doubting Thomas' is used every year on the first Sunday after Easter. I think I can imagine why.

I really liked today's sermon as the preacher took seriously the fact that all Christians have doubts about their faith at one time or another. He also made the very important point that each of us has times in our lives when God really speaks to us - times of great light and revelation. The experiences we have when we are certain that God is speaking to us are the experiences that are to be trusted. (Those who are familiar with Ignatius Loyola will know that this comes right out of The Spiritual Exercises.)

But back to doubt. Doubting is a part of faith and the two are inseparable. Saying this is simply a matter of being realistic. I do not mean to exault doubt or to say that those who doubt frequently are 'better believers' or 'more sophisticated'. What I mean to do is to name a phenemenon that - I would guess - happens to most people at some time in their lives. Sometimes it's not even a matter of actively doubting but of feeling that God has abandonded me.

This happens to most people at some point in their faith-life and it's not at all a comfortable thing. Each person will probably have their own ways of coping with these periods of desolation, these 'dark nights' and, to some extent, the coping mechanisms are individual things.

But I think that it's important to recognise that 'doubt happens' and that doubt is part of almost everyone's faith-journey at some point. As Christians, I think that we need to learn to not be afraid of those among us who doubt. As a church universal, we have a bad track record of being afraid of those who are doubting and afraid of those who are going through 'dark nights' in their faith. I wonder how the church could be more supportive?

14 April 2007

On Being a new Minister - Two

I've not posted anything substantive for awhile as I've felt rather tired and emotionally drained.

It's still this "being a new minister" thing. I reckon it's going to take me until the end of my first year in full-time ministry (September 2007) to get an overview as to what it's like. And it will probably take me until the end of the second year to start feeling like the role of "minister" is part of who I am - althought that's slowly growing.

In particular, I found Holy Week quite difficult as I had services every day except the Monday and Saturday of Holy Week. Although in our culture, Easter is less of a hoopla than Christmas, I did actually find Holy Week to be more difficult overall than the week leading up to Christmas.

One of the most difficult bits was something that I didn't expect - living in a state of anticipating the execution of Christ for the entire week. It drained me emotionally. I'm certain that it wasn't as draining as those people who are living the reality of waiting for a loved one to die and I would not want to compare the two in any way.

Still, the emotions of Holy Week took me by surprise. I was completely unable to begin preparing for Easter Sunday until the Good Friday service was over. And, even then, I think I felt in something of a daze and couldn't really take it all in. Unlike other years where Easter felt like "Alleluia!" Easter this year felt more like "He's risen??? Risen??? What do you mean risen???" I think it's take me until the end of this week to begin to actually take in the fact that Easter has happened.

I'm ever so thankful that Probationers get the Sunday after Easter off. I don't know what I'm going to do tomorrow morning, but not having to prepare any services for tomorrow feels like something I really need.

13 April 2007

Copied Post: A Brother in Need of Help

I have copied below a post entitled A Brother in Need of Help from Rick Megis' blog. Rick gives a link to a PayPal account to contribute; the link can be found on Rick's blog (unfortunately, I'm not savvy enough to post a link to the correct PayPal account).

Many of you know John Smulo (SmuloSpace and Missional Apologetic).

John is originally from California, but recently lived in Australia for nine years. In Australia, John was a pastor and Founding Director of the School of Apologetics at the Centre for Evangelism and Global Mission at Morling College in Sydney. He was also part-time faculty at Morling College. John and his family (his wife is Alex and they have four boys) moved back to the States and started a new church in the Sacramento, California, area.

I don’t know all the details, but I do know that one day last fall John found that he was no longer the pastor of this new church. He was left without income, although he has since picked up a part-time job teaching at Capital Bible College and is starting a new missional church (which has no funds to support him at this point).

Still, the transition has made it very difficult to support his wife and four children and they are now in danger of losing everything, including the probable foreclosure on their home.

One of those verses that has always haunted me is James 2:15-16, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?”

Rick goes on to suggest practical ways to help the Smulo family:

Here is what I suggest (with great humbleness):

* Remember John and his family regularly in your prayers.
* There is a PayPal button where you can donate to help meet their immediate financial needs. The funds go directly to John and don’t pass through me. Do what you can and we will trust our Lord to multiply the “loaves and fishes.”

09 April 2007

Sermon for Easter Sunday

I have posted yesterday's Easter sermon: here.

07 April 2007

Talking ourselves down

My friend Dave over at 42 has recently written a couple of posts about how he thinks that The Methodist Church is on the up, contrary to all the messages of doom and gloom that we often hear.

Yesterday on an ecumenical Good Friday walk of witness an Anglican woman said to me in passing "Of course, the Methodist Church is rapidly dying out." I looked at her and replied, "Actually, I don't think that's quite true. I think that we talk ourselves down a lot." I said that, whilst I realise they are both somewhat unusual congregations, my sending congregation had a membership of 200 and the church where I did my placement had a membership of about 270.

I'd like to advocate that The Methodist Church desperately needs a centrally-expressed vision of where we are going. For good or for ill, at the moment, the message that is coming through from the centre is that we are dying.

Now, I've just come out of over 20 years in business and I want to say that I'm in whole-hearted agreement with the fact that the Methodist Church needs to cut costs. If you're a business and you're growing, you add staff and branches. When your business slows or loses business, you have to cut out branches and central staff. It's the same with us as a church and it's only sensible that we look at our costs and cut them back if we can't afford them. And undoubtedly, that's where we have been for several years. It's only responsible to do this now.

The problem is that the message that seems to be going out to all and sundry is that "we're dying". And I don't think that's true. Using a business analogy again, you're not going to buy a PC from "PC Universe" if you think that "PC Universe" is going to be out of business in the next year.

Whether or not it's the message that Church House wants us to be repeating, at the moment, many of us seem to be repeating the mantra "We're dying". And everyone else is getting that message loud and clear.

We have 300,000 members in the UK. We need a positive vision to work toward and a positive manta to repeat and we ALL need to be "on message". The message that we keep repeating is the message that we will finally live out.

06 April 2007

Prayer for Good Friday

Thirsting on the cross,
your Son shared the reproach of the oppressed
and carried the sins of all;
in him, O God, may the desparing find you,
the afflicted gain life
and the whole creation know its true king,
Jesus Christ our Lord.
From Common Worship: Daily Prayer. © The Archibishops' Council 2005.

Maundy Thursday and Good Friday

I have posted my Maundy Thursday sermon and my Good Friday Meditation.

02 April 2007

Short Meditation

Here is a short meditation for the Wednesday of Holy Week: link