Sunday, 21 December 2014

An advent prayer to the God of turnaround

This Sunday morning was the last in advent and we spent some time in church reflecting on Psalm 126, a prayer of Israel to the God of reversal and restoration. The Psalm begins with this famous note of praise about the experience of exiles returning to Jerusalem: ‘When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.’ I mentioned that the word translated by the NRSV as ‘restored’ literally means 'turnaround.' Israel is left pinching itself as it thinks about what God has done.

In light of its memory of homecoming from Babylon, Israel then prays for another reversal experience, so that those who sow in tears might reap a harvest of joy. I spoke this morning about how psalm’s understanding of a God who turns situations on their head when he acts was obviously shared by Mary who anticipates the work of God in the baby she is bearing and sings of how the powerful have been removed from thrones while the lowly are lifted up and the hungry filled with good things.

At the end, I shared this prayer for God to intervene in our own situations. A couple of people asked me for the words so I thought they were worth sharing here:

I pray that those of us who so often feel yourselves to be rejected and worthless, would look again at Jesus and see afresh the welcome of God which is extended to us.

I pray that those of us who feel trapped in sin and patterns of addiction and poor choices would turn again to him and fully commit to him, because if we chase after any other source of contentment in this life we are on a hiding to nothing. I pray we would know the satisfaction that comes when we drink the water of life only he can bring.

I pray that those of us here who feel ourselves gripped by anxiety and worry and fear for the future, and what might happen… I pray we would know the turnaround of a peace deep within our hearts that only he can bring.

I pray that those of us who are in situations where we feel yourselves to be, frankly, at the end of our tether, because we have no more energy or ideas left… I pray we would know the reversal which comes from a hope and a wisdom only he can bring.

I pray that those of us who live in chaos would know the order only he can brings.

I pray that those of us who live with the constant experience of sickness and pain in our homes would know the comfort and strength only he can bring, and, yes, the healing too. 

I pray that those of who feel we are in the desert would know his rain falling soon, bringing life to dry places.

I pray that those of us who so often never look beyond our guilt and failure would look to Jesus in the manger and Jesus on the cross and receive in a new way the forgiveness and life he is holding out to us.

I pray that at this Christmas time we would know, for sure, that he is the God of turnaround and reversal and he is God with us. Amen.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Is it better 'from the heart' or from a script?

‘He didn’t preach from the heart… it’s not the same unless they preach from the heart!’ I can still remember the critique offered by my grandmother on the Sunday that we’d returned from church, having witnessed, in her opinion, the performance of a second-rate minister. He was exposed as such by the fact that he’d dared to use notes for his sermon. From time to time, this critique comes back to haunt me, as most Sundays I step into the pulpit with a fully script in my hand.

I was reminded of my grandmother’s views this morning, reading and watching the reports of Ed Miliband’s speech yesterday at the Labour Party Conference. What Ed said has now been overshadowed by what he didn’t say, as it’s emerged that his attempts to impress again with the party piece of speaking without notes backfired on him when he forgot whole sections of the speech which addressed issues such as the economy and immigration.

It’s an astonishing error to make on such an occasion, which surely raises the question of why he put himself under the pressure of learning such a lot of lines for a major set-piece event. What do we learn about someone when they speak without notes? Does it really prove they have more passion, or just that they have a good memory? It could be argued that on some occasions, a memorised speech allows for a conversational style, which seems to have been the effect Miliband was aiming for yesterday. But the impression we’ve been left with is a disastrous attempt to put presentational gimmicks ahead of content and substance.

I still detect in some churches a preference for preaching which is extemporaneous. Sometimes, it seems to me that this is a viewpoint underpinned by anti-intellectualism, the suspicion that too many hours of research and reflection may end up taking off an edge of passion and zeal. But surely what matters most is effective preparation, weighing and sifting ideas, so that we speak a word which is thoughtful and truly can rise to the occasion. And whether or not what is delivered is done so with or without notes is surely of secondary importance.

But am I missing a point? Are there moments when a script diminishes a sermon? All views welcome… 

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Salamanders, Hell and the perverse appeal of illogical thought

I’ve been thinking a lot about hell recently. It’s not a subject which normally preoccupies but a forthcoming sermon series which will include a reflection on the nature of life after death has prompted me to follow up in more details some issues which have been at the back of my mind for the last few years. I’ve been helped in this process by Rethinking Hell, an excellent resource published just this year which brings together a collection of various writings which make a compelling case for evangelical conditionalism.

One of the essays included in this book is written by Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, who reflects, amongst other things, on the writings of Augustine on this subject. One of the logical problems which needs to be overcome by those who insist on the notion of eternal punishment achieved by flames perpetually licking around the damned is the fact normally consumes that which it burns. I was intrigued just a few days ago to discover the workaround that Augustine proposed on this issue. He called upon the science of his day and informed his readers that certain creatures, and in particular the salamander, “can live in the fire, in burning without being consumed, in pain without dying.”

So there you have it… a picture of a loving God who not only sustains the lost for the purposes of ensuring their constant punishment, but constructs for the purpose a special new type of flame-retardant body, a smart new version of humanity with a little bit of salamander thrown into the mix. Am I the only person who finds this notion a little ‘left field,’ to be polite?

And yet the problem with Augustine’s proposal is that its weirdness is probably part of its appeal to some. It is so illogical, so outside the realms of natural and predictable patterns of thought that we are tempted to think of it as having a kind of dazzling brilliance. Some of us might be tempted to think, ‘Of course, wow, I’d never thought of that…’ and hence assume it must be right.

The flame-resistant Salamander theory reminded me of another theory on eternal life which was taught to me years ago. I remember sitting in my bible class as a teenager and being told about the dual tracks open to people for eternity. One of my concerns about heaven was how it would turn out to be such an enjoyable place for those present, given their awareness about all the souls suffering in hell. ‘It’s fine,’ I was told with considerable confidence. ‘In heaven, you’ll be so busy praising God that you’ll forget about anyone you ever knew who isn’t there.’ Problem solved, then – we can all party with a clear conscience. The answer was offered with such supreme self-belief that it didn’t seem right to challenge it, but even then I remember having my doubts. I wondered about the authority with which this theory was pronounced, where this ‘insider information’ came from and I found it hard to feel completely at peace about the notion of what seemed to me like a heartless heaven, a group of people having a great time but with a somewhat callous disregard to those who hadn’t made it to the celebration.

Of course, faith does sometimes require us to lay aside doubts and believe in the possibility of miracles. The defining event in which we place our trust is the resurrection of one who had been in the grave for three days.

But, it seems to me, there’s a difference between belief in miracles and belief in that which requires us to put all of our critical faculties on hold. We all know the maxim about a lie being half way round the world before truth has got its boots on. How many other misapprehensions are sustained because of the apparent confidence of someone who claimed a special kind of higher knowledge and the reluctance of others to ask questions for fear that their sensible logic would be talked down and labelled as doubt?

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Too much tea and sympathy?

Imagine the scenario. It’s the weekly drop in at church and she walks in, looking decidedly sorry for herself, and before long she starts to tell you the sad and sorry tale of how she became so down on her luck… the mistaken decision to relocate for what she and her husband thought were better prospects, the tragedy of his death as well as that of her two boys. And she sums up the story by telling you that everything that has happened has left her with ‘such a bitter taste in my mouth. God’s obviously got it in for me.’

Have you ever met people like Naomi? I was talking about her story on Saturday evening, whilst spending time with some old friends in Exeter and speaking at the excellent Andy’s CafĂ©. We discussed how lots of us know people who seem to suffer some kind of adversity in their life and how that then becomes the thing which defines them. As I’ve thought recently about the story of Ruth and Naomi one of the questions I’ve been asking myself concerns the moment when their fortunes really began to turn around. Does it occur when Ruth goes off to glean in the fields and the writer of her story tells us that ‘as it happened’ she found herself in fields belonging to Boaz? Does the change begin when she returns home and tells Naomi about the name of the farmer she’s been working for? Or does it happen in the moment when Naomi decides that she’s no longer going to be defined by the events of Moab and is going to take control and make sure, in no uncertain terms, that Ruth will attract the attention of her kinsman-redeemer?

Ruth’s story offers a compelling example of how God can work in astonishing and creative ways, even in the most difficult of circumstances. But it also appears to suggest that Naomi and Ruth couldn’t just wait passively for God to solve all their problems. The turnaround in their fortunes occurred because they were alert to a way might God choose to work on their behalf, demonstrating an ‘eye for the main chance’ which seems to characterise a number of Old Testament heroes of the faith.

So what is the message of Ruth? I realise we need to be careful not to overdo this interpretation of the text. To do so merely reduces Ruth to one more self-help guide. But I also wonder how many of our conversations in church err too much on the side of tea and sympathy, and don’t offer the challenge people sometimes need to be given to be more proactive in looking for the ways God might want to help them overcome their problems.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

The Lego Movie and the case for Open Theism

Our last Saturday of half-term has involved a trip to the cinema. Having seen the trailer for The Lego Movie and initially recoiled in horror at what I presumed would be a thinly-veiled product placement extravaganza, I decided watch the film on the basis of a number of positive reviews and wasn’t disappointed. Of course, a film based on a toy brand does have huge commercial overtones, but I came away impressed. Like many recent animations, the The Lego Movie is probably best appreciated by adults, who will pick up on the endless parodies and pop culture references, but everyone will enjoy the action sequences and some wonderfully funny dialogue.

I was also surprised to find myself doing some serious theological reflection in light of what I watched. The Lego Movie raises important questions about how a world might be sustained or constrained by its maker. It encourages us to think about whether we want a God who controls and pre-plans every aspect of our lives, or a God who delegates to us the role of viceroy over creation and who loves us enough to grant us the freedom to choose whether or not to be in relationship to him. We’ll be exploring these questions on the evening of Sunday 30 March in YWBC – if you want to do some homework before then, the best way to start might be with a trip to the cinema. 

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Quiet: Reflections on Discipleship for Introverts

For a variety of reasons, I’ve not blogged since late last year. In part this has been because I’ve not had much to write about, though the main reason has been the frenetic run up to Christmas followed by a busy January. But in recent weeks I’ve been provoked to thought by Susan Cain’s excellent book Quiet, and all the implications it raises for discipleship and church life.

I realise I’m late to this particular party. Cain’s ideas first received widespread media attention nearly two years, as a result of this TED talk which pithily summarises many of the ideas in her book. Quiet’s key argument is that we place too much value on extrovert personality, allowing ourselves to be dominated by talkative, overly confident leaders, to the exclusion of less shouty and more reflective characters. Early in the book, for example, Cain provides an extended description of the teaching techniques of Harvard Business School, with a heavy emphasis on group working skills and confident performance that has bred several generations of mostly alpha male leaders of US corporations.

It’s also interesting to note that the preference for a charismatic and extrovert leader isn’t restricted to the world of business: Cain also writes about the high proportion of outgoing church leaders in US evangelical churches, drawing on the research of pastor Adam McHugh who notes that in such congregations, “The emphasis is on community, on participating in more and more programmes and events, on meeting more and more people. It’s a constant tension for many introverts that there not living that out. And in a religious world, there’s more at stake when you feel that tension. It doesn’t feel like ‘I’m not doing as well as l’d like.’ It feels like, ‘God isn’t pleased with me.’”

I’ve been mulling over the implications of Cain’s book with regard to discipleship and the local church. What follows is more a list of questions than answers, a sort of thinking aloud as I work through my own response to these issues.
  1. How can we recover an emphasis on the need to be alone with God in the inner room? How many people in our churches are neglecting time alone with God, in the very place Jesus instructed us to go to pray, because of the need to sustain programmes and go to meetings? Cain notes that quiet times aren’t just needed by introverts for recharging their batteries, but are essential for the creativity of many people, quoting the advice of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak for inventors everywhere: ‘Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.’ I’m not suggesting we cancel all our midweek meetings and encourage a hermit-lifestyle for all our members, but do people in our churches feel they even have the permission to spend time by themselves?
  2. What does this mean for the expectations we have of our leaders? I’m often aware of the desire of some people in church that I be available to give them my time and attention, but I wonder how many people appreciate my need to be alone on their behalf. Isn’t this part of my calling as well, to be the person who spends time studying and reflecting on behalf of those he serves? If you haven’t seen your minister recently, it may not be the case that they’re taking it easy, they may actually be doing a far better job for you than you could ever imagine. Sermons can’t be hurriedly produced with a few spare hours grabbed here and there, they need to be gestated and then carefully birthed, all of which requires seclusion.
  3. Have we traded in meaningful dialogue for group work? Again, I don’t want to be misunderstood on this issue, especially as I’m someone who believes passionately in the value of multi-voiced church. But I felt uncomfortable when reading of Cain’s concern about the emphasis of group work in education, how introverted children struggle in our schools because they’re forced to undertaken extensive group work, at the expense of learning alone. I cringed when reading her account of the group learning at Harvard, and its tendency to give prominence and privilege to those who speak loudest and most frequently, leaving little or no opportunity to hear from those who may actually have the better ideas. What does mean for many of our churches where one of the primary modes of discipleship has become the house group? Are our conversations dominated by the wisest people or just the most talkative? Could more be achieved by liberating introverts to spend more time in smaller groups of two or three people, where they would have a safer space in which to reflect and share their insights with each other?

Monday, 18 November 2013

Learning about the powers from an 'unsophisticated' Pope

As we draw near the end of our series in YWBC on Ephesians, a recurring theme in recent weeks has been ‘challenging powers,’ one of the elements of the mission statement we’ve been developing in church over the last year. Over the weekend I was struck by a great example of this practice when reading Jonathan Freedland’s Saturday comment in the Guardian, on Pope Francis.

Since becoming Pope, Francis has hit the headlines on a recurring basis, both because of his decision to shun the opulence which has previously characterised the papal office, and also his frequent remarks on the issues of justice and the need for the church to offer a more humble and humane stance to those who have previously felt ostracised by it. Freedland’s article cites as examples comments made in May this year about the ‘dangers of unbridled capitalism’ and as well as a recent tweet lamenting the ‘bitter fruits’ of ‘the “throw-away” culture.’

Perhaps, it’s not surprising that Francis’s stance hasn’t earned him universal approval. Freedland also quotes recent criticism of the Popeby the free-market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, who bemoan the fact that he lacks the more ‘sophisticated’ approach of his predecessors. What struck me most forcefully about the IEA article was the way in which author Philip Booth attacks the ‘error of arguing that ‘systems’ can have ‘goals’ or ‘idols’. It is acting, rational people who make good or bad moral choices. It is certainly legitimate for priests to criticise greed amongst the several billion people taking economic decisions each and every day, if they feel this is an important moral issue. However, ‘systems’ do not take such moral decisions independently of human persons. The system produces what is willed by the persons who participate in economic life.’

Booth’s comments strike me as misguided for several reasons. Strangely, they seem to contradict the attitudes of most free market champions I’ve known, who usually speak with awe and reverence about market ‘forces’. The market is spoken of as the higher power, the supreme arbiter who can shake out the wheat from the chaff, the viable from the unviable, who can benevolently ensure the trickle down of wealth from top to bottom.

Secondly, I wonder how many of us really feel ourselves to be independent or fully in control in the spending choices we make. We are all constrained by our upbringing, social location, circumstances or by limits to the choices which are available to us. Is someone genuinely free when they spend excessively to sustain an image which they hope will win the approval of others? Is someone trapped by unemployment and taking out the pay day loan they need to feed their family for the remainder of a month really making an ‘independent moral decision’?

Finally, Booth’s comments seem to me to be contradicted by scripture. On Sunday, Duncan will be concluding our series and talking about Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesian believers to put on the armour of God. In Ephesians 6 he famously writes that, ‘our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.’ In Naming the Powers, Walter Wink describes Paul’s language here as a ‘heaping up of terms to describe the ineffable, invisible world-enveloping reach of a spiritual network of powers.’

In this current age, it may not be possible to fully overcome the powers, given the great reach they have into every aspect of our lives and society. There may be moments when the best we can do is to simply ‘stand,’ to use the language of Paul. We resist, we determine that where and when we can we will make the choices that best reflect the values of the age to come. My hope is that by talking together about challenging powers, perhaps in time coming to the point where we can be more honest with each other about our own struggles and the ways we feel controlled by the culture of our day, we can all discover a new strength and resolve in living in the way Paul describes in Ephesians, ‘a life worthy of the calling to which you’ve been called.’ Perhaps not a perspective as ‘sophisticated’ as those held by the Institute of Economic Affairs, but one which is, ultimately, far more liberating.