Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Veni, Vidi, Whatsit?

The genteel villages along the Kent coast do not resonate with the charged atmosphere of invasion. However, it was along here in 54 BC that Julius Caesar landed on British shale,announcing (apparently) I came, I saw, I conquered. In 597 AD St Augustine arrived on another Kent beach with a mandate from Rome to convert the English to Christianity. Now, on Caesar's beach at Walmer, another bridgehead has been established: Sea Café

You would not immediately think of Sea Café as having imperial aspirations. A young woman called Grace serves gigantic cooked breakfasts to her clients (mainly old men) while a powerfully-built black guy with dreadlocks keeps an eye on proceedings and clears tables. However, if you look around carefully the statement of intent is clear. This is no ordinary café. This is a base for a mission to bring peace and harmony to the area. In front of the hearth is a shrine cluttered with candles and pebbles, quotes from the Dalai Lama and other gurus, a Buddha, fairies and child-like works of art. I had come looking for Missional Communities and here was one - out and proud in public space. Another art peace listed the values of the community. 

In some ways, Sea Café is a rebuke to Missional Communities that hide away in homes, emerging once a month to do an 'out' event. But when I later spoke to the co-ordinator of MCs at the church I was visiting he made two interesting observations. The first was that Sea Café was trying to create community without communitas, a term taken from anthropology describing a group's identity established over against the society in which it operates. "Sea Café would have communitas if its members were to commit to keeping a half-mile stretch of the beach clean," said Bruce. "Otherwise it's just bacon and aspirational words." 

Alan Hirsch uses the term to describe the counter-cultural thrust that a Christian community committed to the Kingdom of God must have. (You can see him expounding it here.) 

The second observation was that the owners of Sea Café (Mr Dreadlocks and wife) had come to the church to enquire about having their children baptised, but nothing came of it because they then started the business, which opens on Sundays. Ouch! How different it might have been if this man of peace had been introduced to a Christian community sharing life throughout the week. He could have found his communitas and he could have taught timid Christians how to be missional. Maybe, if a few could find within themselves a commitment to eating a gigantic Full English on a regular basis, he still could. 

Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Wisdom of George Eliot (2)

Peter Jeffery as Nicholas Bulstrode
A man who believes in something else than his own greed, has necessarily a conscience or standard to which he more or less adapts himself. Bulstrode's standard had been his serviceableness to God's cause: "I am sinful and nought - a vessel to be consecrated by use - but use me!" - had been the mould into which he had constrained his immense need of being something important and predominating.

George Eliot, Middlemarch

The tyranny of the need for significance

Eliot's scalpel-like writing exposes a second evangelical weakness - our need to feel important disguised as devotion to the service of God. We may be victim of this most when we are young, singing of being 'history-makers', and it is not a bad thing to have aspirations to be greatly used by God and our motives are nearly always mixed. However, through juxtaposing one character with another, Eliot shows that this aspect of the evangelical soul can be little different to the proud, ambitious doctor of the novel who, driven by the need to do something of significance, has gaping blind-spots in his self-knowledge. 

I once heard it said that human motivation can be broken into three categories: the drive for power, the drive for achievement and the drive for 'association' (belonging to a certain group or being linked to certain people we think of as important). For me, achievement is a significant driver and a potential stumbling-stone. The desire to 'get things done' has often blinded me to what the Lord may really want me to do. 

I've often taught Frank Lake's model of healthy living with God, the cycle of grace. God's grace meets us in unconditional acceptance through Christ; this sustains us and makes us strong; in this relationship of love we have significance as children of our Father; this provides us with a platform to confidently 'achieve' in loving submission to Him. This way around the circle is exemplified in Jesus, especially at his baptism.

When the cycle runs the other way round, we spend our time trying to arrive at a sense of our significance through achieving success; we are sustained by success and, as we continue to work hard, achieve and create our sense of significance, we feel accepted. This, however, is a very fragile sense of identity. 

An experience while on retreat showed me that I do not live the cycle the right way round as fully as I thought. When I was invited to meditate on Isaiah 43, I was surprised that the word that spoke most deeply to me was fear: "Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine." I have never thought of myself as a fearful person, but my fear of oblivion and insignificance was laid bare as I dwelt on the passage.

That night I had a very vivid dream. A bird - something like a pied wagtail, but 2 or 3 times the size - its beak full of insects, looks at me. I move my fingers together inviting it to come, as if I have a tasty grub to offer. Suddenly, it jumps onto my arm, substantial but very light. I jump and it flies away, but I am enchanted by such a close encounter. Of course, I have nothing to offer it - my fingers are empty. And besides, the bird's mouth is already full - it could not have taken anything from my fingers anyway: it was interested in me! And so the Holy Spirit comes to us (without the grubs!). But how can he rest and remain if we are preoccupied about what we have to entice him?

The true heroes of George Eliot's novel are driven by motives other than the striving for significance (even dressed as 'Use me, Lord!'). She concludes Middlemarch with these words:

For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistorics acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The Wisdom of George Eliot (1)

I have just finished reading Middlemarch by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans, 1819 - 1880). Set in a Midlands town similar to Nuneaton, where Eliot's family home was, or Coventry, where she went to school, the novel masterfully explores the different strata of society in the early 19th century when a new middle-class was emerging, many of its members embracing evangelical faith. Eliot is incredibly perceptive about many things, but I found her insights into the evangelical soul particularly thought-provoking. 

'Bless the Lord, O my soul' or 'Bless my soul, O my Lord'?
The leading Evangelical in the novel gradually unravels as his past catches up with him. Eliot focuses on one aspect of his psyche that makes him no different to another character, a spoilt, pretty woman: he perceives the universe to revolve around his own prosperity and happiness. When wrapped in theology, this leads him to make some very suspect decisions.

Bulstrode's course up to that time had, he thought, been sanctioned by remarkable providences, appearing to point the way for him to be the agent in making the best use of a large property and withdrawing it from perversion. Death and other striking dispositions, such as feminine trustfulness, had come and Bulstrode would have adopted Cromwell's words - "Do you call these bare events? The Lord pity you!" The events were comparatively small, but the essential condition was there - namely, that they were in favour of his own ends. ... He was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs, and who had gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with those beliefs.

It is absolutely true that God's love never fails, and as evangelicals we revel in the personal love of God and his involvement in the details of our lives. But I sometimes fear that it is not a big step to move from singing "You work all things together for my good" (with the emphasis on 'my good') to justifying actions centred on 'my good' rather than on the glory of God. There is strong scriptural warrant for the lyrics, but the 'good' that God has in mind is the fulfilment of his purpose and making us like Jesus, which in my experience can sometimes not feel very good at all! I love the song because it is a song of faith and trust when we go through hard times, but when we sing it (and others like it) maybe we should imagine that George Eliot were in the congregation!

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Odd goings-on at the monastery

Here's some vocabulary that may not be familiar to you.
  • 'the blessed sacrament'  - the consecrated elements of the Eucharist, particularly the bread or Host
  • 'tabernacle' - A case or box on a church altar containing the consecrated Host and wine of the Eucharist
  • 'monstrance' - (in the Roman Catholic Church) an open or transparent receptacle in which the consecrated Host is displayed for veneration. 
Strange things can happen when you spend six days in silence. By the third day of my retreat at St. Bueno's I had become used to the evening period of meditation in the chapel. Everyone sat in silent prayer. A consecrated wafer was displayed. Having overcome my Protestant objections I came to rather appreciate this symbol of the incarnation. In Christ God became as physically present in our world as this wafer. Forget the wafer; think of Jesus. Recognise his living presence. 

Later I spent time in another chapel where 'the exposition of the blessed sacrament' was continuous: Christ as the centre and fulfilment of all creation. I just happened to read from Matthew 12, about Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath, in which Jesus says, "Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat, not for those with him, but only for the priests?"

Jesus:    "You know, if you were hungry it would be ok for you to eat that wafer."
Me:       "You must be joking, Lord. They'd throw me out of this place."
Jesus:    "Come on, Steve. You're getting too religious. I'm bigger than your religion. I'm at the centre of everything."

One evening, after a day of heavy showers and dark clouds, the sun suddenly broke through and, quite spontaneously, about 6 of us came outside and watched the sun set over the valley and the North Wales coast. We could not talk, but it was a beautiful shared experience. 

Sunset at St Bueno's

The silent bell brought us out of our rooms:
The dark chimney stacks shadowed on an emerald lawn
Like bars of a toddler's xylophone.
Processing up the central aisle of the terraced ground
We exchange the Peace
And stood before the tabernacled host
Descending from the clouds
To be displayed
Before the whole land. 

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote his best poems at St Bueno's, seeing the world 'charged with the grandeur of God'. 

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Speak the language

For Dave Sharples it was a moment of inspiration that led to creation of the Four Points logo. Although, as a graphic designer, he found their simplicity very satisfying it was their usefulness in  communicate the Christian message that really excited him. They are a great conversation starter. The four simple points about God's love, our need for forgiveness, Jesus' death on the cross and our need to respond can be expressed with as much simplicity or sophistication as the situation requires. Last October they were used all around Liverpool as the churches united in a 'month of mission'. The four symbols got the city talking about Jesus. 

As Dave flicked through a photo album one of his Four Points products leapt out at me. It was a military dog tag sported by a tough looking youth in a gangster pose. The sale of Four Points merchandise enables Dave to spend several days a week working with young men in Toxteth. Originally Dave and his wife moved to Toxteth because housing was cheap, but they stayed for over 20 years because they began befriending and working with the youth of the area. Eventually they moved out. ("It's the dogs. You can't let your kids out. They're likely to go round the corner to be faced by a young boy with an out-of-control rottweiller."). But Dave's heart is still in Toxteth and he visits 20 homes a day.

The dog tag was a stroke of genius. Dave invites boys to join his gang. It's called 'The Mighty Men' and it gives them a chance to learn how to follow Christ and how to make something of their lives. Dave flicked through his photos again, naming each boy, sometimes saying, 'He's in prison now... he's a dealer... he's dead,' but also, 'He's getting married... he's in training... he's a leader in Mighty Men.. he came to church last week with his Mum.' 

Dave speaks a language that the youth of the area understand - belonging, loyalty, bravery. The Mighty Men are proud to wear the Four Points and they'll explain to you what they mean if you're interested. 

Families on Mission

I've visited two very different 'families on mission' over the past two days. 

1. Sunday afternoon. 

I was standing on the street of a small new estate on the outskirts of Coventry trying to remember the number of the house I was invited to. The smell of the barbecue gave it away. In the sunshine two adjacent households were sharing lunch: a total of eight young adults and one toddler. They had moved onto the estate with the express intention of starting church in their home. After the meal two of the guys played football on the X-Box while others washed up or read the papers. Before long the doorbell rang and two families joined us - two women bringing a total of 9 children. This was their church.

I discovered that contact with the families had been established through Kidz Club, which is run ecumenically across the city. The great thing about Kidz Club is that every child is visited every week in their home. I had seen this in Liverpool too where it has been very successful in reaching unchurched families. There it has evolved into 'Mighty Men' reaching some of the toughest young men in the city. One of the women told me that the Kidz Club visit was the highlight of her week.

After a drink and biscuits church began with an icebreaker. 'What do you remember about the home you grew up in?' Everybody answered the question, sharing childhood experiences, what they valued or a gripe about the colour of their wallpaper. We then stood to sing a few worship songs, offer 'thank you' prayers and lay hands on a few individuals to pray for particular situations. What struck me was that there was no sniggering, no embarrassment - this was not just church, it was family. 

We then split up into 'adults' (youngest age 11) and children to look at a passage from the Acts of the Apostles about how the early church used their homes. This was far from theoretical because everyone was experiencing what the Bible was talking about. It will be quite a long journey for the two women to use their homes in the way they had experienced that afternoon, but that's the goal. 

We all came back together for some further discussion. The conversation moved on to planning the next 'family day out'. The last one had been to the swimming pool - something that would not have been possible for the two families without additional adults. The next will be a picnic in a park. Two young brothers then ran indoors to play on the X-Box with the guys who had been playing earlier -their 'older brothers' and role models. 

2. Monday morning 'Out and About'

It didn't look different to any other group of older ladies having a coffee and a natter in the food court of the shopping centre. But this was their second coffee: the first had been in Costa where they had done a Bible study based on John Pritchard's book How to Pray. The second cuppa was in a place where other women who were not comfortable with a Bible study could join them and where passing friends and neighbours could stop for a chat. An exercise book was open for prayer requests which were later gathered and committed to God in prayer. A trip out was planned and the nattering continued. 

In nature we see organisms adapt to different habitats and colonise them. The church has to do the same. These two very different expressions of church are operating in the three dimensions of church - Up to God, In to one another and Out in mission - in ways that are appropriate to their situation. It all feels very ordinary, but being family - even family on a mission - is just that.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

What's he up to?

What's he up to?

Rather than attempt to share what I've been up to when my sabbatical is over, I thought I'd have a go at a blog.  If I get the hang of it, I may continue when I return to normal ministry. It's intended for members of St Nic's Nottingham.

These entries will not necessary be sequential. I've already had 4 weeks away with far too many experiences to share. I'll probably share some of these retrospectively.

Two Bible readings (Exodus 34, Luke 4) are probably a good place to start. It can sound very pretentious to draw parallels with your own life from the story of Moses going up the mountain to receive the (second set of) 10 commandments and Jesus' temptation. However, the two passages offer a framework for what this period of leave is all about:

  • To hear from God and emerge with clear direction for the people I lead.
  • To be transformed by his presence. (I hope that the afterglow won't fade too quickly!)
  • To win battles in private so as to be stronger when I'm in public ministry again. 
If you are praying for me, please pray for these things. 

So far...

Jane and I began with a trip to Yorkshire in Roy and Helen's campervan. The best day was spent walking from Staines to Whitby. It was in Staines that my mother, an unchurched teenager from a big council estate in Manchester, gave her life to Christ. I found it very moving to think of the amazing consequences of that event for us as a family and for so many other people.

Then followed a period of retreat - three days at Launde Abbey with Jeremy, Paul and Chris, three ordained friends I trained with. We have been meeting like this, twice a year, for 23 years. Our friendship, commitment to one another, openness and trust is really precious. (The photo's a few years old, as you may be able to tell!)

After Launde I took my bike by train to Rhyl and then cycled to St Bueno's, an Ignatian retreat centre, for a six-day guided retreat. The whole 6 days were spent in silence except for about 30 minutes spent with a spiritual director at the start of each day. She suggested passages of scripture to meditate on and use in prayer throughout the day. St Bueno's featured in the BBC series 'The Big Silence'. It is a beautiful place where Gerard Manley Hopkins produced his best poetry while training for the priesthood. 

More of that later.

From St Bueno's I cycled to Liverpool where I spent 3 days with Nic and Jenny Harding. Nic is Senior Pastor of Frontline Church.

Nic and Jenny were amazing hosts, and I learned a great deal from being with them, particularly about Missional Communities and living a shared life. 

Next stop: Westwood Church, Coventry.