Minister’s blog

Hug a Jehovah’s Witness

12th April 2017

Sooo, Richard and I decided to go to the Memorial service at the local Kingdom Hall last night. We’ve been invited for the last 3 years and I’ve never managed to get there, but it happened to be doable this evening.  The Jehovah’s witnesses are nice folks. Always polite. Smartly dressed when they’re on duty. They are also human beings with a sense of humour. I’m reasonably convinced that the guy thought it was a joke when Richard (one of our church members) told him that we were going to a strip club afterwards.

Before I had met any JWs, I thought that their understanding of Jesus was their biggest problem. It is true that they wilfully misconstrue the New Testament’s teaching on this issue – to the extent that they are happy to inconsistently mistranslate their own version of the bible and fantasise about the possible future discovery of hitherto unknown divergent ancient biblical manuscripts to back up their point of view. But I’ve come to the conclusion that this is not their biggest problem.

Almost all of the service this evening could have be repeated at WBC on Sunday without any major hoo ha (although me wearing a tie would raise some eyebrows), there were two things which stuck out like extra sore heads.

1. Half way through the explanation of the memorial, the speaker made a brief reference to the 144000 of Revelation 14:1. It was suggested that those who could partake of this memorial meal were these 144000. No explanation. No attempt to connect this to any other scripture. Just the bald assertion that these were the people Jesus was speaking to when he suggested that they eat bread and drink wine in memory of him. And then on with the explanation of the meaning of the memorial. I’ve read about this ‘knight jump exegesis’ but hearing it live was breathtaking.

2. And so to the memorial (eucharist, communion, mass, breaking of bread to anyone familiar with mainstream Christianity). The bread and wine are passed round and we are all invited to think about what Jesus had done for us. Those 144K anointed ones would be alerted by the inner prompting of the Holy Spirit to the possibility of partaking. No one in Dursley did. Again, I was aware of this practice, but to see it first hand was pretty shocking.

Revelation 14:1 along with John 10:16 is often misquoted by the JWs to suggest that there will be two groups of God’s faithful people. The 144000 ‘anointed’ and the ‘other sheep’. The anointed have a heavenly destiny to reign with Jesus and the other sheep an earthly destiny.   The straightforward (and mainstream, historic Christian) interpretation of these passages based on their literary context is to see them as references to Jesus-followers of Jewish (the 144000) and non-Jewish (other sheep) origin. One of the central ideas of the New Testament is that the barrier between these two groups is broken down, with Jesus’ self-sacrificial death on the cross supplanting ethnic origin as the gateway to God’s favour. Even in the book of Revelation heaven and earth seem to come together with the descent of the holy city, the Lord and the Lamb in chapter 21, so the argument for two separate destinies is hard to maintain. The JW’s audacious use of contextless verses to undermine the flow of the texts to which they belong almost seemed deconstructionist when heard first hand. But they’re not just subverting the literary and ethical flow of the whole New Testament for the sake of deconstruction. They are building an exclusivist pyramidal organisational hierarchy on the shaky foundation of this exegesis. And celebrating this hierarchy with an exclusive ‘communion’ which reinforces the unquestionable hermeneutical authority of the anointed (AKA the Watchtower Tract Society).

In plain English Tom? JWs say almost the same things Christians do and throw in the occasional outrageously loaded misinterpretation of a random and disconnected bible passage on which they will try to build a case for their bizarre and controlling Church structure.
How do we deal with this? If you are a Christian, ask them to explain what’s different about their church using the bible.  Don’t allow them to use any one text out of its context and they won’t get far.  If you are not a Christian, give them a hug: they are part of a bizarre and controlling cult and they need to know that there is life and goodness outside of it.

 

Biblical types for the POTUS elect

12th January 2017

So, I’ve been trying to think of a biblical response to the nomination and then election of Donald Trump as POTUS.  It has been interesting to me that parallels with various biblical characters & types have been drawn.  Cyrus – the pagan emperor who restores the worship and homeland of Gods people.  Samson -the wrecking ball whom God uses for his purposes.  The second beast of revelation – an antichristian empire / tyrant …   a quick internet search will reveal a wealth of options.

If Trump were a Samson-type, it would be comparatively simple for us to respond – we don’t like his character, but we do like what God achieves through him.  If he were an antichrist-type, we should, could, must resist.  If he were a Cyrus – type, it would simply be a case of emploring his mercy and enjoying his benevolence.  Sadly whilst all of these types fit to some degree and none of them fit particularly closely.

Watching Trump’s shenanigans over the past few days & reflecting on his rise to power, it struck me that there is a crystal clear type-picture of the president elect in the bible.  A person who lashes out with pride, blurts out rage and folly, prefers his own brand of made-up-on-the-spot wisdom to the counsel of experienced advisors etc etc.  It’s not an antichrist character and it’s not a saviour character, not even a historical character.  It’s the fool-type of the wisdom literature.  Look for the word fool in the Old Testament book of Proverbs and you’ll see what I mean. The outlook for people who honour fools is not good.
LIKE TYING A STONE IN A SLING IS THE GIVING OF HONOUR TO A FOOL  Proverbs 26:8

The big problem is that there is no simple response to the handling of the fool-type, especially the empowered fool-type.  Fools have to be handled with wisdom – patient, prudent, peacable, discreet wisdom.  I’m hoping that the GOP will find some wise people to surround the president elect, to speak wisdom to his folly, but that’s a massively tough task.  The fool-type revisits his folly regularly, he also appoints his own advisors.
The advice of the book of Proverbs for fools themselves is comparatively straightforward though:

GET WISDOM.  THOUGH IT COST ALL YOU HAVE  Proverbs 4:7
EVEN FOOLS ARE THOUGHT WISE IF THEY REMAIN SILENT Proverbs 17:28.
Hopefully I’ve misread DT.  Hopefully there’s something I’ve misunderstood.  Maybe  there’s a genuinely coherent plan  behind the knee jerk tweets and blustering populism.  But if not, maybe the president elect needs to revisit the biblical wisdom literature for some sound advice.

The origins of secular liberalism

5th November 2015

I have always maintained that secular democracy was the best expression of Christian values in the political sphere. Jesus called people to repent and believe, to be born again, to make a choice of the will to deny themselves and follow him. Some of his hearers did so, others didn’t. Jesus early followers challenged people to confess Jesus as Lord (rather than Caesar as Lord) – to make an individual (and often costly) choice to follow Jesus. Some of their hearers did, others didn’t. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, education and choice without coercion was the way the Christian gospel spread for the first 2 centuries. It follows, so I’ve been saying, that a Christian polity must champion the freedom of an individual to make wilful choices in areas of conscience. I’ve quoted the early Baptist Thomas Helwys here before. He died in Newgate prison for telling King James II that it wasn’t his place to punish Jews, Turks or Heretics.

But something I had not clocked is that the liberal-ish secular-ish democracy we enjoy is the product of Christianity. Inventing the Individual, one of the books I read during my recent sabbatical makes this point very persuasively. It’s author, Larry Siedentop a former lecturer in political thought at Oxford University traces the routes of modern secular liberalism to Paul’s understanding of the re-invention of the individual in Christ. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. Siedentop’s take on this was that Paul’s teaching emancipated the individual will from the ties of the family cult, religious identity and the imperial economy. Inventing the individual traces this freedom through the early church and canon law in the middle ages to the emergence of western secular democracy. I don’t know enough about history to spot the flaws in the argument, but it makes perfect sense to me. “Secularism is Christianity’s gift to the world”

The fascinating thing for me as a Christian reader of Inventing the Individual was the number of times Siedentop feels compelled to say liberals may not like this but… The freedom and tolerance we enjoy today really are products of our Christian roots. Perhaps it’s time we got a little less embarrassed about Christianity and understood a bit more about how much of a positive influence Christian thought has had on our society.

Ordination

29th September 2014

Being a minister is great.  In essence it’s about trying to help other people find their way to God.  This is exactly what my life was about before I was a minister – when I was a hospital porter / geology student / school science technician / college registrar but now I get to do it full time.  The hours are antisocial, sometimes it’s difficult switching off & you frequently get closer to lives and relationships in the church and community than is comfortable. But the struggles are massively outweighed by the privilege of seeing people finding God and sharing in their lives as they consequently find their feet in life and in death.

 

However, there is one difficulty which I don’t think I’ve ever really expressed in my ten years of ministry to date.  When you are a minister there is a generally unspoken niggling suspicion that you are following Jesus because it’s your job.  Like this strange talk of resurrection, God living in us and personal / social / global transformation in Jesus is the product of a theological education and a professional office.  “You would say that because you have to say that.”  Part of my response to this is that I don’t just say and do this stuff when I’m at church.  I talk about church and about God with the neighbours and the football dads and with the mountain bikers and anyone else who will listen.  It’s also worth saying that my decision to become a follower of Jesus predates my first job as a minister by 15 years.

 

Occasionally  I’ve suspected the same thing of myself.  I guess it’s inevitable that a vocation which requires you to know God can raise the question in your own mind of how much of this is me and how much is my role.  But it doesn’t take me much time out to remember that I really do believe this stuff.  Nothing I’ve learned or done in the last 10 years has changed my conviction that God not only created me, but loves me and has a purpose for my life (you & yours too).  I still believe that the good news of Jesus is God’s power & wisdom to save the world.   And it doesn’t take a great deal of listening out for him to hear his voice  – in creation, in the bible, in the church, in the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit in me,  calling me not only to minister but to know him as my heavenly Father.

 

So just in case you were wondering.  If I invite you to the Alpha course, or offer to pray for you, or tell you what I think God is saying, it’s because I really do believe in Jesus.  I really do think he’s the ultimate revelation of God and that he’s calling you and me and everyone to be reconciled to our estranged Heavenly Father.

Rev

23rd June 2014

I was asked recently what I thought of the BBC TV series Rev.  It’s one of a very few TV shows I have gone to the trouble of watching on i-player when I’ve missed an episode.  I think it’s superb.

The central characters – Tom Hollander as the sincere but hapless Rev. Adam Smallbone & Olivia Coleman as his wife Alex  are compelling.   Voice-over prayers and the eventual appearance of Liam Neeson as a Jesus – figure set Adam apart from Geraldine Granger as a person of genuine, serious, personal faith.  The show is also extremely well researched in terms of the stresses and strains of ministerial work  – especially in the gritty city –  and family life.

Rev is an insightful show.  As a minister, as in any caring profession, one often sees that the presenting issues of politics or personality or piety cover over some other deeper issue & this is brilliantly picked up by Rev.  There’s Colin the alcoholic, whose devotion to ‘Vicarage’ just about covers his volatile rage at a society which has sidelined him.    There’s Nigel the suppressed homosexual who self-righteously undermines Adam at every opportunity.  And there’s Adoah, whose commitment to the church barely covers her desire for Adam as her idealised man.

It’s also a brave show, dealing head on with some controversial issues.  George was a city accountant whose use of porn got the better of him as he descended into more and more violent and child-related pornographic imagery.  He arrives in Adam’s parish post-prison and rehab as a penitent, honest and likeable character only to be castigated (and beaten up) by the regular parishioners.  This particular episode had the feeling of a prophetic mirror held up to UK sexualised society – along the lines of The Divine Comedy’s Generation Sex.

Every time I watch Rev, I feel sorry for Adam.

I feel sorry that Adam’s parishioners are all sponges, soaking up Adam’s emotional and spiritual energy.  It makes me feel profoundly grateful for the 60 or so active volunteers in the life of our church who quietly and faithfully run the debt advice centre, youth work, mums and tots group & Sunday school as well as the financial and charity aspects of the church (along with other related Christian activities and charities) and still manage to have something encouraging to say to me most times we meet.

I feel sorry that his wife, a high flying solicitor, doesn’t seem to share his personal faith & commitment to the church.   It was Adam’s faith-based idealism which attracted Alex in the first place and in one crucial episode it’s Alex who draws the congregation together for a final communion around a brazier outside the closed church.   But generally speaking Alex is cynical about the church and dampens his energy and enthusiasm for his ministry.  It’s a scenario which makes much sense of Paul’s specification of believing wives for apostles.

I feel sorry that (apart from one positive encounter with the Bishop following his moral & emotional collapse in series 3) Adam is constantly undermined by the church hierarchy.  Again, I’m thankful that I’m surrounded by like minded fellow Church leaders in a non-hierarchical organisation of independent churches AKA the Cotswold cluster.

I guess it’s the dramatic tensions in these areas that make Rev such compelling viewing.  Despite the adult themes, it’s a lovely and often comical drama.  I think series 3 ended in the right place. St Saviours was indeed an unsustainable parish.  Urban Expression need to do something fresh there.  But that probably wouldn’t make such a good drama.

Tom or Dog

18th November 2013

So, I’m talking to a group of mid teens about the value of life and I ask them a silly question. “You are in a dangerous situation and you know you can only save the life of one of your two companions. One of them is your dog (insert favourite pet / other favourite animal) and the other one is me. Which one do you save? Tom or dog? Maybe I set myself up for a fall here & maybe I shouldn’t take the responses of teens to a situation with more than a hint of comedy too seriously, but I did find the high proportion of dog-savers a little shocking. We explored a little further – Tom or Blue whale & the animal saver proportion rose slightly.
So we watched a little bit of Richard Dawkins http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWkJ6cZ0FY8 and talked about how in the mind of an increasingly secular society it makes sense that human life has only the value we choose to place on it. After all, if we’re just the product of a blind evolutionary process, we’re just a bunch of chemicals – like a rock – so we don’t have any intrinsic value. So we make up some kind of value system… Maybe it’s intelligence that gives us value or maybe it’s biological complexity, or economic productivity or our relatedness to one another. And according to our value system, we treat people the same or differently etc etc. Generally speaking we value people – especially those who are near and dear to us, but what happens when someone comes up with another idea? What if someone thinks White people (or Hutus, or Aryans or Hindus or adults) are more valuable than others (Blacks, Tutsis, Muslims, Babies). What if someone does choose dog? If we’re just evolutionary flotsam, there’s no reason to object.
For the record, my personal preference will always be you over dog. There are two reasons for this: I don’t have a dog and you (assuming you are a human being) were made in God’s image. This, as far as I can understand it, means that you were created by God to love and be loved by to him, to care-take the world on his behalf and to love other people. This purpose, this relational intent, distinguishes you from Rover and Moby Dick by dint of your sheer existence. So I will let Rover slip through the ice in order to rescue you and whilst I won’t go over-fishing Moby and pals (because I’m answerable to God for my stewardship of the planet too) I will choose to save you. What’s more, I will still choose you if you are young, or aged or ill or foreign because you are still the beloved property of God.
Maybe it was just a theoretical discussion for these kids. Maybe post-school life will reinforce the value of human life in their minds. Maybe I’m over-reacting. Anyway, I just wanted you to know that it’s safe to come sea kayaking or dog walking with me.

Spiky Railings

21st August 2013

For just one moment, during a conversation about petty theft and vandalism with a police officer, I thought about locking the spiky gate.  In that instant of annoyance at the inconvenience caused to the faithful church volunteers who clean up the repeated mess, I wondered whether the determination of our forebears to keep the wrong kind of people out of the church and the right kind of people in might serve some useful purpose.

But then I thought better of it.  Because the ‘wrong sort of people’ were exactly the sort of people Jesus hung around with.   He repeatedly got in trouble with religious types for spending time with people who were socially or politically or morally complicated because both they and he recognised their need.  “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”    The above minor incidents have opened some doors for us to build new partnerships in the community.  They’ve also led to a tightening of security which was perhaps overdue.  That’s the way it works in God’s kingdom – threats and hurdles become opportunities for grace to flourish.

I have an occasional rant about the spiky railings round the church – why would anyone wishing to represent the God of love surround their community centre with cast iron spears?  What if I were to borrow a tractor or a big grinder and remove them in the night?  Should we paint them pink…. or rainbow?  Anyway, the gate stays unlocked.  Not because we’re concerned about legal action resulting from the impaling of a vaulting teen trespasser, but because we’re here to welcome the ‘wrong sort of people’ and send the ‘right sort of people’ out to get their hands dirty as they share the good news of God’s love and forgiveness in a messy world.

 

 

UK Evangelicalism: “A reactionary and morally introverted field”

18th February 2013

A friend of mine recently pointed out a Christopher Bunn comment in the Guardian regarding Steve Chalke’s response to the government’s plans to redefine marriage. Bunn praises Steve Chalke for ‘the carving out of a legitimate and defensible liberal territory in an otherwise reactionary and morally introverted evangelical field.’ (My italics) I’ve got a lot of time for Steve Chalke & what he has achieved through his local and national ministries and through Oasis. I’m pleased to see that most of the public evangelical responses to his comments have been balanced and gracious (I was very disappointed by the tone and outcomes of the ‘Lost Message of Jesus’ debate).   But Christopher Bunn’s closing comment caught my attention and stuck in my throat.

All of the evangelical churches I have been part of have been highly proactive in community care and aid and development. Homeless folks have been invited to Sunday dinner. Single parents’ support groups, debt advice centres, homeless shelters & food banks have been set up in the UK and Cancer treatment programmes and HIV clinics in the third world. Teenagers have built schools in poor communities in Latin America.   Thousands and thousands of pounds have been handed over to evangelical relief and development, community and educational charities as to countless other Christian and secular development causes. MPs have had their ears bent or burned by mountains of personal and campaign generated e-mails and letters…. I could go on all day… So… not exactly reactionary. The genius of Steve Chalke has been to take this proactive aspect of mainstream of evangelicalism into the media limelight and to attract major funding to set up and manage some incredibly imaginative projects.

I’m not sure what Christopher Bunn meant by morally introverted. Maybe it’s safest to assume that he sees mainstream evangelicalism (as represented by Malcolm Duncan and Tony Campolo?) as being homophobic. I’ve played a serious part in the leadership of three evangelical churches. All of them have provided the community services above to any segment of the community that needed it. Youth work, mums and tots groups, Sunday services and even discipleship small groups as well as the more obvious aid and community services above have been provided to folk in the community who share none of the church’s ethical or theological convictions. Sometimes this is difficult for service provider and service user alike.  Politicians are challenged by the radical demands of God for ultimate allegiance and worship. Teenagers are challenged by the strictures of Christian teaching on sexual abstinence outside of marriage. Every westerner is challenged by the radical stand-off between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the share holder. The challenge of the church is to serve the community, sharing God’s love without compromising the challenges he brings to our lifestyle. Jesus, of course was the master of this – personally winsome, but profoundly theologically and ethically challenging. Churches have to do their Spirit-filled best to follow him & evangelical churches I know have done this at great personal, emotional, financial and spiritual cost. The contact points between the LGB(TQIH…) communities and the evangelical church are no different to all these other relational interfaces.  I know that church has sometimes made faith-wrecking and life damaging mistakes here. But I also know that the churches I have been a part of have worked hard to share the love of God as well as the challenge of Jesus with gay friends, family and service users with patience and kindness and sometimes at personal emotional and financial cost . Once again, Steve Chalke’s genius has been to harness media attention as he has wrestles with the same personal, pastoral and ethical issues that every evangelical church faces.

Morally introverted? I suppose it depends on which way out you look at things. But the churches and organisations I’ve had the privilege of belonging to have opened and continue to open their doors to all comers & to wrestle openly with the ethical can theological challenges that ensue.

When I think about it, I do recognise the reactionary and morally introverted field Steve Bunn describes. I’ve seen them on Loius Therou’s wierd weekends.  It seems that the popular conception of Evangelicals either relates to Steve Chalke’s cracking organizations and controversial hermeneutics or Fred Phelps’ homophobic funeral pickets.  Meanwhile, most of the quiet, honest, kingdom building, faith filled, life affirming work of evangelicals goes under the radar.  Maybe we need to take a leaf out of Steve Chalke’s book and be more creative in engaging with the media.