Posts Tagged “Theology”

333040_344499155563013_960489688_oOver the past few days I’ve been thinking about men.  A lot. That’s not something I do very often.  It’s also something that people in churches don’t do enough of.

This consideration of the male of the species was as part of my training for ministry and was hugely challenging.

To get us thinking we looked through a copy of The Metro and highlighted all the stories that were ‘about men’.  They were, perhaps unsurprisingly, almost completely negative.  Stories of violence and crime, cry babies and deadbeat dads, sexual and emotional disfunction and of course six pages of sport.

Men are bombarded with contradicting messages about what it means to be ‘a real man’.  The loveable rogue or criminal scum.  The protector or lout.  Compassionate and caring or soft and wimpy.

We considered some archetypes from Moore and Gillette:

We wondered which types ministers are expected to be and how much of what we have seen and experienced is the shadow sides of these ideals.  We wondered about how the move away, quite rightly, from associating the language of war and violence with faith in hymns about soldiers and armies and swords and victories has affected and perhaps feminised faith and the church?  How do we see Jesus?  As a strong man, used to felling trees and working wood, well able to survive 40 days alone in a wilderness?  Or as gentle, meek and mild?  And are those two stereotypes incompatible?

We wondered if men are trying to attain these images of masculinity without really understanding what they are trying to be, or why?

We grappled with our indoor, risk averse, cosseted society where boys only exposure to danger is on an xbox.

We explored the differences between male and female networking and support structures and asked questions around what pastoral care looks like for men who hide their emotions or find themselves coming out of a long term relationship with few friends who they feel they can talk to.

Most of all we wondered why church wasn’t dangerous anymore and what impact that has on men’s faith?

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When I don’t write often I find it hard to write often.

Does that make sense?

Writing is a habit.  It takes practice and persistence.  At least that’s what I find.

I’ve been a bit out of practice recently.  I tell myself I’ve been busy, and that’s true, but it’s not an excuse.  Not really.  I can make time for other things, so why not blogging?  Why not journaling my thoughts about my training for ministry?

Perhaps it’s because I’m processing.  I tend to blog when I know what I think about something.  Sometimes I think out loud.  Sometimes I kick an idea around.  But mostly I have a pretty good idea of my thoughts.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been learning and thinking about the writing prophets.  My first module has been Old Testament and we’ve been thinking about Jeremiah and Isaiah and Amos.  It’s fascinating to go back to something that was written such a long time ago and find such resonance with today.  It’s also sobering to wonder how anything I write might be read by others and might stand the test of time.

Of course I have been writing in some forms.  I’ve written sermons and emails and notes and study materials but I haven’t blogged my thoughts for ages.  To be honest I only really started this post because we’ve been doing a module on writing for different contexts and I need to write in a few formats.  This seemed more appropriate than writing a magazine article for an imaginary publication.  But why should that be?

Writing is powerful.  Words convey so much.

In a TED talk JJ Abrams talks about how he feels intimidated by his MacBook.  Some days he sits down to write and feels as though he has nothing worthy of this beautiful piece of technology.

I’ve felt that.  I’ve felt it about a new notebook with its fresh, clean pages, just waiting for me to ruin them with my inane scribbling and incoherent thoughts.  I buy Moleskine notebooks.  I use a good pen.  I do that to remind me that committing something to paper is in some ways a sacred thing.  It has value.  Even if no other person ever reads it.

Sometimes that can lead to a paralysis.  A writer’s block.  It’ll never be good enough or nobody will be interested so why even bother?

But I also find I write more when I read more and when I engage in conversation more.

Writing helps me to organise my thoughts.  It forces me to try to make things orderly and coherent.  That’s not always easy and, as I said earlier, perhaps that’s why I wait until I know what I think but sometimes as I write the connections begin to appear.  The dots start to join and a picture starts to appear.

Sometimes when I write it just comes flooding out like a tidal wave of consciousness that always seems to make sense when it’s done.  Other times writing is a long, slow and painful process that results in something that feels unfinished and doesn’t quite capturing the thoughts it grazes against.

So, I’ll try to write more here because some of the stuff I’ve been learning about is important.  Crime and punishment, justice and righteousness.  Big topics with huge implications for society.  Jeremiah and Isaiah and Amos thought so too… See… dots to be joined.

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recovery-sign-resizeI’ve been thinking a bit more about the Recovery Model as a helpful tool for churches. In this post I will consider three of the elements, that recovery:

  • is a journey rather than a destination
  • does not necessarily mean getting back to where you were before
  • happens in ‘fits and starts’ and, like life, has many ups and downs

Journey

Journey is a metaphor that is widely used in faith. I know that there are some people who don’t find it a helpful one, but for an organisation ‘journey’ seems appropriate.

Why? Well because organisations evolve and change. People travel through those changes together, often exploring side roads and dead ends. People also travel in different ways and at different paces with different concerns and priorities at different times.

For organisations, everyone being at one place at the same time is problematic. That’s why making decisions that please everyone is almost impossible.

This raises lots of questions for me.

Should there be a variety of congregations that make up a local church?

How can we minister to ‘what is’ and ‘what might be’ with ever decreasing allocations of minister’s time to pastorates?

How do we go about training ministers and give permission to others to be pioneers and entrepreneurs, creating new ways of being church?

Back to Where You Were

Many denominations seem to have a collective wish to return to the golden age, mostly an imagined period when everyone went to church twice on Sundays, everyone believed in God and everyone respected the views of the church. Sunday schools had a million kids and there was no crime…

Some of that is of course true. Sunday schools were bigger. But were they full of children who wanted to be there? And if all was so good why didn’t those children keep coming to church?

Recovery isn’t about returning to a previous point.

Recovery is about moving forward having lived through and changed by an experience.

Recovery is a learning experience.

We can learn from our very difficult experiences. The problems almost always come when we don’t learn from them. We repeat the same behaviours over and over again expecting different results.

In recovery from mental health this learning includes being aware of the things that might contribute to you becoming unwell and those things that promote well-being. Those things are not always the same for every person so there is no formula, but focusing on the positive while dealing with things which are problematic is always key ingredient.

I wonder how we can do this as communities?

It would almost certainly involve us being open and honest in our communication. Perhaps that’s a good place to start?

Fits and Starts

When we are well we have a line, kind of like a plimsoll, the red line round a ship, which marks the point at above which the water level becomes a problem. We are aware of things lapping over the side like a big wave. When that happens we make allowances, put in place things to deal with the problem. On a ship they have bilge pumps to remove the water that gets in. When they stop working the ship is in trouble.

I wonder what our equivalent is in church? Do we use membership numbers as our plimsoll line? Is that a healthy measurement? And what about our bilge pumps? What are the things, probably people, that work hard to keep us afloat?

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What’s missing today is a high-quality discourse on rethinking the design and evolution of the entire system from scratch.

The quality of the results produced by any system depends on the quality of awareness from which the people in the system operate.

(Otto Scharmer)

Since writing the first batch of posts on Missing Generations I’ve been lucky enough to be part of two events and several conversations which have expanded my thinking on some of the topics I raised.  I think those events and conversations have at least begun to produce a quality of awareness…

 

The Church is perfectly designed to achieve what we are currently achieving. (Alan Hirsch)

Those were the opening words of Alan Hirsch at a recent conference, The Shaping of Things To Come… in Scotland.  He and Michael Frost were talking through some of the thoughts from the book of the same name (The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church) and Hirsch was basically saying that our focus on pastor/ teacher leads to a focus on an intellectual style of engagement.  We have pretty much ignored other forms of ministry like apostle, prophet and evangelist.  That means we skew our thinking in one direction and that has led to the church we have today.

That analysis would certainly explain our present forms of worship and even our liking of austere buildings.  We could trace that back to the reformation and tie it to the Enlightenment but it also chimes with a second conversation I was part of with Brian McLaren.  The link below is Brian’s podcast at a recent conference and he was saying the same thing at the event I was at.

Brian McLaren at children,youth and a new kind of Christianity  http://www.woodlakebooks.com/files/CYNKC-Brian%20McLaren-Christian%20Faith%20and%20the%20Next%20Generation.mp3

His assertion is that we are telling the wrong story, or at least telling the story in the wrong way.  That stems from even further back than the reformation and Brian blames those pesky Greco-Romans and their philosophy.  He says that the story we tell is transposed onto Plato’s ‘Cave’.

greek philosophy diagram

So our version is:

christianity diagram

McLaren’s assertion is that our story is something very different.  Our story begins with the Exile.  That cycle of exile, rediscovering a relationship with God, returning and forgetting again.  Genesis is the prequel and the sequel is Isaiah and his vision of the kingdom which leads us to Jesus and the incarnation.

One of Hirsch and Frost’s thoughts is that we focus too much on one particular end of the story of Jesus.  We focus on the cross, resurrection and the return.  We forget the incarnation.  We forget an amazing and hugely significant part of the story, the life of Jesus, here on Earth.

Michael Frost talked about ‘excarnation’, the opposite of ‘incarnation’.  Excarnation means stripping away flesh.  I wonder if that’s what we have done in the way that we tell the story of Jesus, or in how we behave as Christians?  It would seem that rather than being an incarnational community, a community in the flesh, we have become in many ways an excarnational community, a community of thought.

If that is true then it has some serious implications for us.  We are, again, telling the wrong story.

And that leads to us doing the wrong things.  We focus on learning rather than sharing, study rather than community and maintaining an institution rather than participating in a movement.

Hirsch asked the question: Did you get into this to run a club or build a kingdom?  Why do we spend all our energy doing the former and not the latter?

I’ve come across this video in a couple of places now.  I think part of the trap of the club is that we are stuck in a cycle of property ownership and wages.  What if money was no object?  What would you do?

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Is the Church, all wretch and no vomit?

A final thought for now:

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Einstein

 

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… and the big story of God.  For example, when we celebrate communion I’m fairly sure that most people don’t know the wider context of that.  Can this week’s gospel (John talking more about blood and flesh) be understood without knowing about Passover and the Levitical laws and kosher practice?  But we are not Jews and because the canon closed 2,000 years ago do we see ourselves as separate from that story.  I wonder if most people really believe that God has said anything since John’s revelation?  How does that isolation from the story affect us?

Broken Rhythms

If the Bible is the story of God’s relationship with people then does our focus on the ancient part of the story help or hinder our sense of connection?

Once, when I was feeling brave, I scrapped the sermon and we talked about what we are doing when we celebrate communion instead.  Of course there are many answers to that question but what was evident was that there were no thoughts of the connection to anything further back than the last supper.

That’s not a surprise.  After all, in our liturgy we tell the story of the Last Supper from Paul’s point of view.  If that’s what you hear every time you gather for communion then why would you make connections beyond that?

Does that matter?

Well, the Bible is the story of God’s relationship with a group of people.  Jesus speaks about that relationship all the time so if we don’t know that story then we miss lots of the story.  The example at the beginning of this post about Jesus talking about how we should eat his flesh and drink his blood sounds strange.  That’s cannibalism.  That was one of the accusations made against the early Christians but it wasn’t what the Pharisees had a problem with.

Drinking blood wasn’t allowed and not just for health reasons.  They believed that blood contained the life-force of an animal.  That’s why kosher butchers drain the blood from animals.  But we don’t do that.

Lamb’s blood is also central to the Passover story.

Making these kind of links in the big story of God is really important but I often wonder how easy it is to see ourselves as part of that story?  We are viewing the events of the Bible from 2,000 years distance.  We are not Jews.  We don’t live in the Middle East.  We don’t follow Livitical laws or Jewish custom.

The Old Testament can seem so distant and difficult and messy and disconnected from us.  The New Testament isn’t much closer to us.  In some ways it might be easier to see ourselves in the story because Jesus because some of the Gospel writers and the authors of the Epistles focus on ‘outsiders’, people other than the Jews, but much of that focus on the external is through comparison with Jewish society so we still need to know what’s going on.

But that story doesn’t ends at Revelation, does it?

Well, I’m sure that for lots of people it did.

I sometimes wonder if by ‘preaching the Gospel’ every week we actually add to the sense that God is in the past?  The basis of our worship is always ‘this is what God did 2,000 years ago’ and then we apply that to today.

That’s fine, but what has God been saying since then?  And how do we reflect that ongoing relationship in our worship and in our communities?

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What if over the past 50 years an organisation had lost the majority of its members?

What should it do?  What should it change?

The decline in membership of the church in the UK has been well documented and plenty of words have been used on diagnosing the problem but I wonder how much time the major denominations have spent actually thinking about how they need to adapt and change to meet the challenge of being the church in a new way for a different kind of world?

There are two areas in which the church spends the vast majority of its ever dwindling resources: buildings and ministers.

It seems less than controversial to suggest that ancient church buildings are at best a mixed blessing and at worst a millstone around the necks of congregations.  They are expensive to maintain and inflexible.

It would also seem less than controversial to suggest that as the world has changed that the job of minister has also evolved.  It would seem strange perhaps that there is a continued emphasis on theological training, almost to the exclusion of anything else, when the role of minister requires so much more.

The Church of England has gone some way towards addressing the new world with its new category of ‘pioneer minister’ which frees people from the bureaucracy of the parish and allows them to build communities in new places and in new forms.

That was a bold step, and it seems to be working.

Something else has been quietly happening… some churches are growing.  I know, surprising isn’t it.

We’ve known for a while that charismatic and pentecostal churches have been growing but it also seems that churches which have positioned themselves as ‘open and afirming’ are adding members.  It would be great to see what it is that these churches are doing that is attractive but I’d hazard a guess that engaging with the wider community and providing spaces for people to build community and actually get to know each other beyond formal times of worship would be common to most of them.

My concern is that this kind of development is hugely dependant on the minister’s personality and interests.  Sometimes it is strategic, but not often.

That’s not good enough.

When will denominations recognise that more of the same will lead to more of the same?

As funds become scarce we retreat into sustaining what is and what has been.  We merge, link and unite so that we can continue to provide ‘ministry’.  No-one seems to be asking if that kind of ministry is what is needed.

Some denominations have community workers.  These people have training in both theology and community work.  These are recognised ministries and the people who perform them have the primary task of engaging with communities, organising projects and enabling people to meet the needs of their communities.

There are a growing number of youth workers and children and family workers who study both theology and community work.  These are not recognised ministries but they engage with people outside traditional church structures and work to enable people to meet the needs of their communities.

These community ministries are often viewed as extra, peripheral, something to be done if there is time and money to spare.  You could add chaplaincy into the same category.

Which brings me back to my initial question… what if?

What if we flipped our view of essential ministry?

What if rather than spending almost all of our money on crumbling buildings and ministry of word and sacrament we spent 90% of our funding on community workers with some theological training who had a strategic mission to engage with communities, build capacity and resource worship in those communities?

What if, rather than investing everything in maintaining a building for people to come and sit for an hour once a week we sold the buildings and we invested that money in places for homeless people to sleep, for hungry people to eat, for lonely people to meet others, and people’s homes became places where people gathered to worship, to plan and scheme random acts of kindness and deliberate acts of grace?

What would that kind of church look like?

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“What kind of a man is a man who does not try to make the world a better place?”

Balian in Kingdom of Heaven

This week the lectionary takes us to the feeding of the 5,000 (plus women and children).  I’ve been wondering about the story all week, particularly verse 16.

Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand

13 When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. 14When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

15 As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

 16 Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

17 “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.

18 “Bring them here to me,” he said. 19 And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.

It struck me that we always read this as a miracle of Jesus, but at the very least the disciples were partners in it.  “You give them something to eat” but the disciples look to their very obvious limitations.

Only 5 loaves and 2 fish.

That’s not going to be enough.

But with God’s blessing it is.

So Jesus takes what they have, gives thanks and blesses it, and then gets them to share what they have.

It turns out that the little they have is more than enough.

How often do we look at the world and say ‘It’s too big and I’m too small to change it”?  The disciples fed the 5,000 with Jesus’ help.  I wonder what we could do to make the world a better place with that kind of help?

What kind of a man doesn’t even try?

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