Archive for the “Theology” Category

Why? How?  What?

Why do we do the things we do in the way we do them?

I wonder what the most important part of the question is?  Is it the things that we do?  Is it the way that we do them?  Or is it the why?

For me the ‘why’ is the most important part but it’s also the part that I fear we think about least.

I have this picture on my whiteboard to remind me.

As a church, both in the local and the larger scale, we are known for what we do and how we do it.  So, at St Ninian’s when I ask about who we are the answers might be ‘friendly’ or ‘hospitable’ or ‘welcoming’.  The how and the what of that look like weekly coffee mornings and the Guild and the Boys’ Brigade and Girls’ Brigade and hosting the Hope Cafe and the Folk Club.  As far as worship goes we have a pretty standard hymn/prayer service with a sermon in the middle, and morning prayers on Monday and Thursday and Night Church through the darker winter months.

Those are good things.  They are our ‘doing’ church.

But what do they say about ‘why’ we do or are church?

Making a case for  being ‘friendly’, ‘hospitable’ and ‘welcoming’ is pretty easy.  Loving you neighbour surely involves putting the kettle on.  But friendly to whom?  Hospitable to whom?  Welcoming to whom?  Do we just put the kettle on for people we know?  Do we bake just for our friends?

We’ve actually been talking about our ‘Why’ at St Ninian’s for a year now.  We started the day I started.  That’s what all the questions are about.  That’s what all the ‘so, you think this is about this… but what if it is about that…?’ has been for.  To help us think about what we believe and about why we believe it.  A safe space to be free to think and question and doubt and change our minds and play with new ideas and keep some of them and throw other ones away.

Over the past few weeks we’ve been looking at the 10 Commandments.  I’ve suggested that they might be our high level strategic plan because they tell us how we should relate to God, how we should relate to each other and what it means to be fully ourselves.  These 10 words from God create a space for all of us to be free.  

All of us.

Not just some of us.

All of us…

Free from fear.  Free from violence.  Free from worry.

I wonder if creating that kind of space is our ‘why’?

And if it is our ‘why’ then surely that pushes us out beyond what we do now to bring that freedom to more and more people.

The next question is ‘how’?  How do we know who we are dealing with?  How do we make contact and build relationships?  How do we choose our priorities?  How will we work?  Will we do things for people or should we do things with people?

And only then, once we have worked out our ‘why’ and our ‘how’ do we think about the ‘what’.  

What will we do?  What will we need?  What will it look like and smell like and taste like and sound like and feel like?

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We come to the end of our journey through the Gospel of John this Sunday as we tackle john 20:19-31.

It’s evening on Easter Day, the disciples are scared and locked in a room.

Apart from Thomas.  He’s somewhere else.

And Jesus appears.

A whole load of stuff is happening in this short passage.  Jesus gives the disciples the Holy Spirit by breathing on them, just like Genesis 2:7.  There’s some talk about forgiving sins and retaining which is something we really need to discuss because it doesn’t mean what it says, at all.

And then a week later Thomas finally gets his own encounter with the risen Christ.  His encounter is much more like the encounters with the people who met Jesus earlier in the story; the man born blind and the Samaritan woman at the well.  Thomas gets what he needs after expressing his questions and doubts.  There’s something in that for us, I think…

So, what are your questions and doubts?  What do you find hard to believe about Jesus?

 

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Several years ago I began a chapter in a book about the state of the Church of Scotland with these words, “This isn’t working!”.  I was talking then in particular about how as adults we don’t take learning very seriously in the church, but I think the statement applies more widely to the general malaise we find ourselves in.

And that bothers me.

A lot.

Because it’s not the case everywhere… but we seem to be plunging headlong into policies that will make things worse, not better.

Multi-church pastorates or hubs or groups or whatever you want to call them are only about spreading a resource (ministers) more thinly.  There is NO evidence that they stimulate church growth.

2, 3, 4, 5 or even 6 sets of everything.

No room for relationship.

No space or time for innovation.

Just spinning the every more wobbly plates of what is.

The Church of Scotland wants every parish to have a fresh expression of church by 2020.  The URC is promoting fresh expressions with great enthusiasm.  Brilliant.  Except the timescale shows that there is no real understanding of what a fresh expression is or how developing one works.  A truly new expression of church is a community that gathers and grows to a point that they might want to create their own culturally appropriate version of church.

There are two parts of that which are vital; creating community and innovation.  Those take time, lots and lots of it, and space.  (And coffee)

So, I’m now a minister.  I’m not about to complain that I’m too busy.  If I am then that’s my fault.  But I work with just one church.  Just one set of meetings, one building, one set of organisations and one place to be on a Sunday.  And I could spend as much time as I have just keeping that all working.

Throw in another church and all space for creating community goes out the window.  Throw in any more and innovation goes too.

Of course we should involve people in helping lead worship.  Most Sundays I announce the hymns and preach.  Other people do almost everything else.  But the preaching part is the bit I’m trained for.  Not that others can’t do it.  They can.  Of course they can.  But what’s the point of me if not to do that.  I’m a minister of word and sacrament after all.

Perhaps it comes down to this…

Spreading a limited resource ever more thinly has never been the solution to anything.

Should we deploy some ministers to one church and have others to maintain the rest?  Like a midwife and palliative care model?

Should we hold our hands up and admit that training people as theologians with skills in Greek and Hebrew but no community work training or serious input on work with children and young people might not be the best model of training, important though those things are?

Should ministers be facilitators?  Has the one person show de-skilled and debilitated our churches to a point where we are so stuck we are paralysed?

The answer to all this lies somewhere in our experience.  I wrote a series of posts a few years ago where I wondered if the church was similar to someone living with the symptoms of depression and anxiety.  Interestingly people who had experienced those thought I was onto something while those who had not thought I was completely wrong.  I mention this because recovery almost always begins with a decision to get well.  To change.  To take control.  Without that decision things often stay the same.  Often that is helped by talking to people who what already made the same journey.

So, are we ready for recovery?

What do you think?

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The questions we ask expose our priorities.

Are you the king of the Jews?

That’s Pilate’s question to Jesus in John 18:28-40.  That’s the only question that matters to a political governor.  Are you a problem for me?  But Pilate is asking the wrong questions… so Jesus asks some of his own.

The exchange ends with Pilate asking the right question… ‘what is truth?’

I wonder…

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John 13:1-17 is about feet…

Washing feet… dirty, smelly feet!

We usually read this passage on Maundy Thursday so to deal with it this early in Lent gives us the chance to look at it in a very different context.  (We have skipped a chapter so it’s worth reading chapter 12… there are lots of connections!)

In this passage the washing of feet happens during dinner!!!  During the last supper.

Foot washing didn’t happen during dinner.

It happened when you arrived to wash away the dirt of the journey.

You did it yourself.

Or a slave did it.

So, there this is something else going on here apart from hygiene.

This is a Gospel moment… but we know that.  It’s a demonstration of what love looks like.  OK.

But it’s also near the end of the road.

Judas is there.  The man who leaves and betrays him.

Peter is there.  The man who denies even knowing Jesus…

and both get their feet washed, even though Jesus knows what they both will do.

This is an incredible act of love.  Way beyond what we might imagine.  Jesus loves them despite their anger and doubt and denial.

Perhaps there is hope for us after all…

 

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John 11:1-44

Lazarus.

Jesus’ friend.

Dying.

And what does Jesus do?  Something else.  There’s no hurry.  No rush to see him or any hint that he might save him.  So many miracles, so many strangers healed, made whole, restored… why not Lazarus?

Again the story is laden with symbolism but there’s some real raw emotion in here too.  Mary and Martha are two of his closest followers and Jesus seems pretty indifferent about their brother’s fate.  I wonder how they felt about Jesus at that point?

 

Of course it all turns out well in the end… or does it?  Lazarus will spend the rest of his life as the man who died.  And not just for a moment.  He was dead for days.  Long enough for decay and stench to set in.

How do you come back from that and live?

How do you come out of the darkness of the tomb back into the light?

But that’s exactly the point… I AM the resurrection says Jesus.

And Lazarus lives again.

(Perhaps The Stone Roses… for the offering?)

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Over that past 6 weeks I’ve been hosting a series of Bible Studies called Everything You Know Is Wrong* (*probably).  It grew from a growing realisation that most people, despite being members and attenders at church for years and years, haven’t had the chance to explore the Bible much.  Lots of us are stuck at what we got at Sunday School because the stories we are told when we are children stick deep in our memories and nothing has happened since then to add to them.  So, we still think Jonah was swallowed by a whale, even though the Bible calls it a big fish and that Mary rode a donkey to Bethlehem, even though there is no mention of a donkey in any of the stories.

Those are symptoms of something deeper.

We don’t know how to engage critically with the Bible.

And that, I think, is problematic.

So, for the past 6 weeks we have been exploring what kinds of literature the Bible contains, and why it matters that we know, for example, that Genesis 1 is a poem and Genesis 2 is a myth.  They are different kinds of literature so we should deal with them differently.  And if you just got annoyed that I called part of the Bible a myth, you should probably go and do some thinking about what a myth actually is (hint: it’s a particular type of story that tries to explain a greater truth – like God created – and it’s kind of like a parable).

One of the other ideas we have grappled with is what ‘truth’ is, because there is more than one kind.  There’s the ‘scientific, mathematically provable fact’ kind but there is also the ‘I love my wife’ kind and there is the ‘tells us something about the nature of humanity and /or God’ kind.  Each of these is ‘true’.  Our problem is that we value the first kind more than the others, which is a problem when the Bible is written mostly in the second two kinds.  You don’t read a poem utilising mathematical proofs.  It may be a style that uses a certain kind of lines or words, but that’s about construction not content.  That a poem has 7 words in the first line and 14 in the second tells us something, but not what the poem is ‘about’.

We’ve had loads of fun and some pretty deep conversations about creation, sacrifice, promises, relationship, wilderness and incarnation.  We’ve discovered that the Bible is nothing like we thought it was and that we will probably never read it in the same way again…

and that’s great!

We may also have ruined Christmas.

 

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