a compromising position?

You know how it is, you are having a perfectly normal day when all of a sudden, unannounced and uninvited, your mind is invaded by a song or a piece of music. It is not necessarily something you hear, but it’s been in your subconscious and chooses to surface into your conscious awareness. And you can’t get it out of your head once it has made its home there for the day.

That happened to me today, and if you don’t want it to happen to you I suggest that you stop reading this bloggage and look at another one, or do something else altogether.

You have been warned.

This song just jumped into my brain this morning. It’s by Paul Simon and was released by Simon and Garfunkel before I was born:

A winter’s day, in a deep and dark December
I am alone, gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow
I am a rock, I am an island

I’ve built walls, a fortress deep and mighty that none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain
I am a rock, I am an island

Don’t talk of love well I’ve heard the words before
It’s sleeping in my memory
And I won’t disturb the slumber of feelings that have died
If I never loved I never would have cried
I am a rock, I am an island

I have my books and my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor, hiding in my room, safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock, I am an island

And a rock can feel no pain
And an island never cries

Thatcher’s Rock, Torbay

Although it is a lovely melody sung with lovely harmonies I find it an incredibly sad song. The singer has been badly hurt by someone and has decided that they are going to go it alone. They don’t want or need anyone else. They are a rock, and island.

It’s awful when someone has been hurt so badly that they cannot trust, they dare not risk becoming vulnerable again. The pain of betrayal has become too much to bear. However, at the risk of offering some amateur psychology, the problem with this approach is that the pain and hurt remain on the island with you. And if not dealt with they will grow deeper roots into you and perhaps also start to dominate the way in which you relate to other people even at a superficial level. Please forgive me if I have touched on a raw nerve, but if I have please do get some professional help. You don’t have to remain as a rock or an island.

We are created to be in relationships. We cannot exist on our own. That is why one of the cruelest punishments or tortures is solitary confinement. We need interaction with others, and perhaps that is why some people react in the way that the song describes when we are badly treated by others. We’re about to take one of my slightly unexpected twists and turns in my train of thought at this point, so if you are not ready for that feel free to leave us at this point.

I believe that the way in which we are created makes rock / island self-sufficiency a myth. If you remember the British TV series, The Good Life, Tom and Barbara decide to become self-sufficient by growing their own food, farming their own animals, making their own clothes (and awful peapod burgundy wine) and even generating their own electricity. But one of the consistent comedic themes through the show is that they were not able to be completely self-sufficient. They constantly needed the support of their neighbours Gerry and Margot. They needed to barter and trade with shops for things they could not supply themselves. They needed to interact (bizarrely) with what passed for normal suburban life. They were not a rock or an island, they needed other people (and one another).

Self-sufficiency is not only a myth for people and households, it is also a myth for churches. Baptist churches are independent – in the sense that each church has liberty under God to decide how they do things. But sometimes as churches we hold that independence as a virtue and value that trumps interdependence. We proclaim that we are a rock, and island. We don’t need anyone else.

But the danger of taking that approach is that churches can become isolated. They can become insular. They have nowhere to turn when the storm around them rages and threatens to overwhelm them. Are we actually at our weakest when we think we are being strong by asserting our independence? Yes, like for individuals, it means risking that others will disagree with us. Yes, like for individuals, it means that we will be vulnerable. Yes, like for individuals we might need to compromise* (I’ll come back to that word in a moment) for the sake of relating.

*Compromise is often seen as having negative values – if we compromise our beliefs we water them down. But if you break the word down it is about promise and ‘com’ as a prefix means ‘together’. It is about promising together where focus on what we gain more by being together rather worry about what we might lose. It is about sharing, mutuality, dependence, respect and integrity not being wishy-washy. It is a very strong activity that strengthens the participants.

Are you a rock, an island, or are you compromising?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Smelly Church

Churches across the UK and across the world have been blessed by exploring the missional concept of ‘Messy Church’. If you don’t know what I am talking about have a look at the website here. We have run versions of Messy Church in our previous church and in our current one. But, inspired by the brilliant name ‘Messy Church’, today I want to introduce you to a new way of doing church:

Smelly Church

Smelly Churches are Christian communities that share a lot in common. Of course they share their Christian faith first of all. They have the same understanding of the Bible and the same understanding of Jesus as the Son of God.

(Smelly Churches all have smelly cats and sing the song from Friends!)

Smelly Churches are made up of Christians who are committed to one another. They spend a lot of their time in shared activities and working towards common goals.

Smelly Churches always work with consensus. They will agree on everything. There is no dissent and church meetings are harmonious.

Smelly Churches sometimes run well. But sometimes they get a bit congested.

Smelly Churches don’t mix too well with other churches. They prize their independence. They can seem to be turning their noses up at other churches.

Smelly Churches find it difficult to see what is happening in their communities. They might catch a whiff of something going on but won’t listen. They also find it hard to mobilise for action and find new concepts difficult to grasp.

The blueprint for Smelly Church is found in the Bible. This is from 1 Corinthians 12, taken from The Message paraphrased translation:

4-11 God’s various gifts are handed out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various ministries are carried out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various expressions of power are in action everywhere; but God himself is behind it all. Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful:

wise counsel

clear understanding

simple trust

healing the sick

miraculous acts

proclamation

distinguishing between spirits

tongues

interpretation of tongues.

All these gifts have a common origin, but are handed out one by one by the one Spirit of God. He decides who gets what, and when.

12-13 You can easily enough see how this kind of thing works by looking no further than your own body. Your body has many parts—limbs, organs, cells—but no matter how many parts you can name, you’re still one body. It’s exactly the same with Christ. By means of his one Spirit, we all said good-bye to our partial and piecemeal lives. We each used to independently call our own shots, but then we entered into a large and integrated life in which he has the final say in everything. (This is what we proclaimed in word and action when we were baptized.) Each of us is now a part of his resurrection body, refreshed and sustained at one fountain—his Spirit—where we all come to drink. The old labels we once used to identify ourselves—labels like Jew or Greek, slave or free—are no longer useful. We need something larger, more comprehensive.

14-18 I want you to think about how all this makes you more significant, not less. A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together. If Foot said, “I’m not elegant like Hand, embellished with rings; I guess I don’t belong to this body,” would that make it so? If Ear said, “I’m not beautiful like Eye, limpid and expressive; I don’t deserve a place on the head,” would you want to remove it from the body? If the body was all eye, how could it hear? If all ear, how could it smell? As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where he wanted it.

19-24 But I also want you to think about how this keeps your significance from getting blown up into self-importance. For no matter how significant you are, it is only because of what you are a part of. An enormous eye or a gigantic hand wouldn’t be a body, but a monster. What we have is one body with many parts, each its proper size and in its proper place. No part is important on its own. Can you imagine Eye telling Hand, “Get lost; I don’t need you”? Or, Head telling Foot, “You’re fired; your job has been phased out”? As a matter of fact, in practice it works the other way—the “lower” the part, the more basic, and therefore necessary. You can live without an eye, for instance, but not without a stomach. When it’s a part of your own body you are concerned with, it makes no difference whether the part is visible or clothed, higher or lower. You give it dignity and honor just as it is, without comparisons. If anything, you have more concern for the lower parts than the higher. If you had to choose, wouldn’t you prefer good digestion to full-bodied hair?

25-26 The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don’t, the parts we see and the parts we don’t. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.

27-31 You are Christ’s body—that’s who you are! You must never forget this. Only as you accept your part of that body does your “part” mean anything. You’re familiar with some of the parts that God has formed in his church, which is his “body”:

apostles
prophets
teachers
miracle workers
healers
helpers
organizers
those who pray in tongues.

But it’s obvious by now, isn’t it, that Christ’s church is a complete Body and not a gigantic, unidimensional Part? It’s not all Apostle, not all Prophet, not all Miracle Worker, not all Healer, not all Prayer in Tongues, not all Interpreter of Tongues. And yet some of you keep competing for so-called “important” parts.

noseIn case you haven’t quite worked it out yet, this is what Smelly Churches look like:

Be blessed, be a blessing

sitting on a sofa in the middle of the street

The churches in Colchester and the surrounding area are in the middle of a fortnight of focused mission activity.

For us it began with a community barbecue on our forecourt on Saturday – 500+ burgers given away, live music, face painting for children, a couple of talks, me doing some magic tricks (why did it only rain when I came out to do my illusions? And why did so many of them go wrong, I felt like Tommy Cooper!), lots of conversation, a good day. Thank you again to everyone who took part.

Couch 1

We have also got a couple of sofas which we are putting outside the church on the streetfront each lunchtime, with a sign: “We’re listening.” That sign might seem creepy outside GCHQ but outside our church it has led some people to come and share what is burdening them.

 

There are other activities throughout the week – some involving our own groups and some jointly arranged with other churches. There is a team of people working with the churches in the area to help us in the different activities and they have been a joy to work alongside.

This increased activity is alongside the ‘normal’ activity of being a church. That’s one reason why bloggages might be a bit more intermittent this week. It’s not that I have stopped reflecting, I am just struggling to find the time to share those reflections with you.

My reflection so far is that when we offer things that are rich in God’s grace and gently offer to be there for them people respond warmly and positively. They ask us ‘why’ we are doing things and we can engage in a conversation. By contrast there are other approaches that make people feel guilty and inadequate and they walk away – we probably all have enough guilt of our own, after all. I have seen some people walk past ‘street preachers’ and physically cower away from them as they are told that they are ‘sinners in need of salvation’.

Which would you choose? Which is more like Jesus?

Be blessed, be a blessing

churches are female if you are stereotyping

Grilled Sausage PattiesTomorrow we have a community barbecue on our church forecourt. We will give away hot dogs and burgers, there will be music, face-painting and even a magician (I wonder who that might be?). One of our members is working flat out to make it all happen (pray for him and the team if you are a pray-er).

The task is complicated by the fact that our church roof is being re-tiled, there is scaffolding at the front of the church, there are sometimes skips and there is a caged off area for the builders so we have to be very careful about health and safety as the place is effectively a partial building site (no builders working that day though).

We also hope to be able to offer people friendly conversations and perhaps a little book by Jeff Lucas that opens up questions of life and faith in an engaging way.

Oh yes, and the weather forecast suggests that we might get a bit wet at times so we will be dodging the showers. It’s good Baptist weather – full immersion!

We will be seriously multitasking tomorrow. Indeed churches often are: which is why I think churches are female if you are stereotyping because the gender stereotype is that men can’t multitask.

I don’t often find stereotypes helpful. Especially if you are going to lump together about 3.5 billion people on this planet as having the capacity to multi-task (or not depending on which gender you select). I know some blokes who are awesome at multi-tasking, and some women who are not so good at that.

We find stereotypes funny because we sense that there might be an element of truth in them (man flu anyone?) but they have a sinister side too. Indeed ‘sinister’ reminds me that left-handed people were stigmatised in the past because of stereotype that left-handedness was a sign of being under evil influence (‘sinister’ meant ‘left-sided’). Today we consider such concepts to be medieval superstition. Stereotyping means that you don’t have to bother considering people as individuals because you have already decided what they are like. It is a very close relative of ‘prejudice’, but perhaps wearing a funny wig so we feel happier about it.

God has made 7 billion individuals who are currently living on this planet, not to mention the billions who have lived here before us. And not one of those people has been the same as anyone else. Even identical twins (or triplets, etc) may look similar but have different personalities, experiences, preferences, and so on. We are all unique, just like everyone else.

So if God has gone to all this trouble to make all of these amazing people and not resorted to making any exact copies what right do we have to reduce them down to stereotypes? And that includes stereotyping churches!

Be blessed, be a blessing

 

plunging

istock_000011793147large4.jpgLast week I mentioned that I was going to a conference for larger Ministers (see here)… Here are some reflections on that conference that are written as a sort of review:

I have often wondered what the collective noun should be for Baptist Ministers. If there isn’t one I would like to suggest ‘plunge’. Last week I was privileged to be at a plunge of Baptist Ministers of larger churches organised by the Faith and Society Team. While there are many joys, blessings, issues and difficulties that are common to all Ministers, there are also some that are different because of the size of our churches. Not better or worse, just different.

The plunge with fellow Ministers of Larger Churches (must resist the temptation to call us ‘Larger Ministers’) was for 48 hours at High Leigh. It was characterised by honesty and vulnerability from both the leaders and participants. It was a safe place in which God’s Spirit was able to bless, encourage and inspire.

The whole time was a blessing as we explored how larger churches can be navigated through a confusing world covering some deep and difficult topics, but I want to pick out a few highlights:

In three wonderful Bible Studies Steve Holmes led us deep into God’s Word, exploring John 1 in a creative and engaging way that revealed even more of the profound significance of that chapter. I was blessed and encouraged, and I think all of us came away with new illustrations for our sermons too!

There was plenty of praying. It was open, honest, genuine praying for one another, for our churches and for those who are not yet part of God’s family. If I am honest sometimes at Christian conferences the prayer times can feel as if they are interruptions to the conference but here they were the fuel for the conference.

It was brilliant to share some of the conference time with our General Secretary, Lynn Green. As well as one inspiring session in which she shared a vision for our Baptist Union and helped us all to feel even more engaged with it, I know that she blessed and encouraged lots of us in the conversations that happened over meals and in the times when nothing was scheduled.

And that brings me to the final highlight. The informal time was as significant as the sessions. Conversations sometimes led to ‘can I pray for you?’ moments. There were humble ‘what do you think we could do about …?’ conversations. Friendships were established and enhanced.

I came home from the conference to an incredibly busy week. In fact from a diary-management point of view I could have done without it. But I know that from my personal and ministry point of view it was time with Jesus and fellow-followers that was extremely well-spent. It was a prodigious plunge!

Be blessed, be a blessing

does size matter?

Measuring TapeDearest bloggists

I am sorry that last week’s bloggages tailed off, and that this week’s might be somewhat intermittent.

At the moment I am so busy that bees are asking me to slow down because I am making them look lazy. I don’t mind being that busy, but I find that while I am able to be reflective (like a mirror) I have fewer opportunities to write these reflections down. Perhaps that is an indication that I am too busy.

This week’s busyness is partly because I will be attending the BUGB Larger Ministers’ Conference. Actually it’s not a conference for corpulent clergy, it’s a conference for Ministers of larger churches, but I prefer the more mischievous ‘Larger Ministers’ title. (It also reminds me I could lose a few pounds). I hope that I might have space to send a few bloggages your way from that conference, but let me send you one now in advance of attending the conference.

It may seem elitist or disrespectful of smaller churches to have a conference just for larger ministers (sorry, can’t drop that descriptor). But I don’t believe it is for several reasons:

  • ‘larger church’ is not synonymous with ‘growing church’. There are many smaller churches that are growing faster than larger churches. After all, if three people join a church of 25 people it is 12% growth. If three people join a church of 250 people it’s just over 1% growth.
  • larger churches are not better than smaller churches. They’re just different. Yes there may be more resources (there are definitely more people) and they may look more impressive (when we use the human method of being impressed of counting buttocks on pews and dividing by two rather than God’s which is to look at the hearts of those who are there). But the last church I attended had about 20 members and the commitment to following Jesus, the fellowship, friendship, love and encouragement within that church were no less than what I experience in my somewhat larger church now.
  • I believe that it’s God’s intention that all churches grow (deeper in their relationship with him and as people come to faith) and if we are not growing we need to work out what we are doing that is stifling God’s Spirit. But there are different reasons why growth doesn’t happen in larger churches than in smaller ones. It’s helpful to explore those with people who are experiencing the same issues.
  • there’s less guilt. There, I said it. It’s possible when I am with people from churches that are smaller than ours that I feel guilt because our church doesn’t have some of the problems that they have. And even when we do share some of those problems they are proportionately less disabling because we are larger. For example, when a family leaves our church (we are sad) but that leaves less of a hole than when a family leaves a smaller church. I know my fellow-believers don’t intend (or want) me to feel guilty, but I am often quiet about our church in clergy gatherings where there are smaller churches represented because of that guilt. (Guilt is probably too strong a word but I can’t think of the right one).
  • I can learn. Our church is not perfect. If it was I would have to leave because I would spoil it. So it helps me to be able to learn from ministers of churches that face some of the same size-related issues that we do. Don’t get me wrong: I learn loads through friends from other churches of all sizes. I am really blessed to be part of a group of local Ministers where we can be open and honest in our friendship and support one another prayerfully through that. But much as I love those friends (and I do **gush, gush**) there will be some things that I can only learn from those who are part of churches of a similar size as ours. Again, don’t read ‘better’ where I mean ‘different’.

So if you are a pray-er I would ask you to pray for the larger Ministers this week (Mon-Wed). Pray that we will be blessed, encouraged, inspired and most of all encounter Jesus through the conference. And I will try to share with you things Jesus says to me through the conference. You may like to check out the twitter feed here as it may be that I will be able to condense my thoughts to 140 characters occasionally – see, small is beautiful!

Be blessed, be a blessing.

troubled by halloween

Halloween troubles me. Not because of the ghosts, ghouls, witches and pumpkins. Nor because I fear that it is a gateway to hell. Not even because it encourages extortion (‘trick or treat?’). What troubles me is that I am not sure of the best way to respond as a Christian.

  • Some churches go all out to condemn it and proclaim it as the work of the devil.
  • Some churches put their fingers in their ears and close their eyes and wait for it to go away.
  • Some churches put on alternative Halloween events and invite children from the surrounding area to join them for a ‘light’ party or similar, but tell them that they can’t wear scary costumes (which makes them stand out a bit).
  • Some churches embrace it as an opportunity for fun.

And I don’t know what to do. All these positions are flawed in my humble opinion. Let me say at the outset I am not downplaying the existence of evil in the world. It’s real and it can cause serious damage. You only have to open a newspaper or watch the news on the TV to be convinced that there is evil out there.

But does it really inhabit the costumes and make-up and pumpkins and sweet-collecting? The response to Halloween from some Christians resembles the response to Harry Potter: it will open the door to the occult. But (and I may be naive here) I did not sense evil there. Indeed the values that were at the heart of those books would be ones that Christians ought to embrace – loyalty, love and standing up against evil and oppression.

Maybe I am being naive here too, but if there is the possibility of evil influence in Halloween isn’t it possible that God can use it, redeem it, transform it? If it awakens some people to the existence of evil in the world doesn’t it also awaken them to the likelihood that there is also a God who loves us? Surely to believe in the possibility of God you also have believe in the possibility of evil?

Does our response sometimes do more to reinforce the prevailing stereotype of churches than to illuminate people about the dangers of evil? At the moment I think a lot of people who don’t go to church think that church is for killjoys who are against what most people in our society have accepted. Being against Halloween could be another example of that.

I do warm to the ‘alternative’ approach. It’s more positive. But should we be consistent and also have alternatives to other major events like the celebration of a New Year (because it focuses on time not the creator of time), Valentine’s Day (because it is not about God’s love), and events like the annual cheese rolling in Gloucestershire (because it might have roots in pagan rituals)? How far do we go? I suspect I do the ‘alternative’ thing because instead of giving sweets to trick or treaters I perform a magic trick for them as a treat…

[cries of “burn him, he’s a witch, he does magic!”]

But if I embrace it fully am I unwittingly endorsing something that could be harmful? Am I supporting an event that frightens some vulnerable people (either the concept itself that is not understood or through the fear of answering doors at night)? Am I being naive?

What’s the best way of being a free sample of Jesus at this time of year?

How about instead of getting too upset about Halloween, Christians emphasise November 1 as ‘All Saints Day’ instead? How about we hold our ‘light parties’ then and we emphasise how followers of Jesus have tried to be good free samples of him through history and today? How about instead of getting our theological knickers in a twist about Halloween we put our energies into showing God’s positive alternative. Let’s redeem the event from its origins – the Eve of All Hallow’s Day. 

Be blessed, be a blessing.