Minister’s blog

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.