Monday, July 14, 2014

Rejoicing : Weeping

Today the General Synod of the Church of England voted Yes to having bishops who are women, as well as bishops who are men. This is an historic moment. It is an event that is located in a process, a process that has brought us to this day and a process that will continue onwards from this day – a process that has had both positive and negative consequences, and will continue to have both positive and negative consequences.

Personally, I am delighted by today’s vote. I believe that men and women have a biblical mandate to share in oversight of the local and trans-local church, and that there is biblical guidance as to how men and women ought to exercise such oversight. For me, today is not so much a departure as a returning to something God-given that we had surrendered: for me, today is a prophetic act of repentance.

And yet it is also a departure. And I recognise that while there are many women within the Church who this night feel that they are no longer second-class citizens within the Church they love, that there are also many other women and men who this night feel that they have become second-class citizens within the Church they love.

These people are my brothers and sisters in Christ.

I might disagree with their position, at times in the strongest of terms. They might on occasion deeply anger and sadden me in equal measure. But together we are part of the Body of Christ, and when one part of the body hurts, the whole body feels pain.

Tonight, I am struck by Romans chapter 12, the whole chapter, and in particular verse 15: ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.’

Tonight, there are those in my Church who are rejoicing, and those who are weeping. We are called to rejoice with those who rejoice: that is, those who disagree with today’s vote are exhorted to rejoice with those for whom it is a cause of celebration. And we are called to weep with those who weep: that is, those who agree with today’s vote are exhorted to weep with those for whom it is a cause of deep sadness.

We don’t always manage to live out the life to which we are called. We don’t always get that right. But when we do, it is a powerful witness to the reconciliation God is at work to bring about in and through Jesus Christ. When we do, our choosing to rejoice and to weep opens us to a transformative encounter with the life-giving Holy Spirit. When we do, we are at our most counter-cultural in a society that constantly demands that there is a Winner and a Loser, and that we must be(come) the Winner.

So, whatever our view regarding today’s vote, are we willing to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep?

Friday, July 04, 2014

Can You Tell What It Is Yet?

Are we capable of recognising that human beings have the capacity to create and to destroy, to add beauty and ugliness to the world, to enhance and to impoverish the lives of others?

Are we capable of saying that in abusing his position in order to abuse young women, Rolf Harris has destroyed, has made the world more ugly, has impoverished the lives of others – and that for this he must be held to account and face consequences of his actions – but that as a gifted artist this same Rolf Harris has created, has added beauty to the world, has enhanced the lives of others – and that this, too, must be recognised?

Or must we remove, even destroy, certainly devalue (by 90%), his paintings? His life?

If we cannot name both sides of the paradox that is Rolf Harris, then we cannot speak the paradox that is ourselves. That which is destructive, ugly, impoverishing remains in the dark, where it can flourish, so long as it doesn’t step into the light, exposing itself. And that which is creative, beautiful, enhancing is redefined as fake, a front to mask something, simply waiting to be exposed.

If we cannot own both sides of the paradox, affirming the one and confronting the other, then the fallen are damned, their family is damned – condemned to erase a life from their lives, erasing much of themselves in so doing, or to refuse and to be erased by others. All those wronged – both the particular abused and the general betrayed – are damned, their own defaced beauty erased because beauty cannot be trusted, and (the irony!) must be sacrificed in order to starve destruction. Ultimately, we are all damned, because we are all that same paradox.

Beauty in all forms – painting, sculpture, music, fashion, architecture, in every form – is only created by an artist who also destroys. This is as true of the natural world as it is of human artefacts. The darkness does not extinguish the light. We do not need to create a towering bonfire of ‘Works to be expunged from the record.’

We rile against a paradox, hoping to resolve it, when in fact we need it. This particular paradox ought to keep us from idolising heroes. But it ought to keep us from tearing them, and ourselves, apart too.

Fourth Of July

I’m told that nearby Washington – the seat of George Washington’s ancestors, whose crest provides the origin of the Stars and Stripes flag – is the only place in England that celebrates Independence Day.

As any indigenous people group knows, Independence is merely the other side of the same coin as Colonialism.

But to recognise this is to have to acknowledge that Colonialism is not entirely without merit, and Independence is not self-evidently better. Each presents us with a paradox: utterly corrupted, self-serving; and yet – by the grace of God – still capable of being utilised for good, for beauty. Sin – in the sense of falling short of or away from our best intended trajectory, let alone those good goals of which we are unaware – is inevitable and unavoidable; and indeed, is the very thing that is transformed by grace – God’s giving of himself to us, and along with that self-giving, every good gift.

We hold land not as owners, and by right, but as stewards, and by gift; and then, not merely as stewards holding land in trust for our own descendants, but in trust for the whole world. And so National Days – whether Independence Days, or taking some other form – ought not to be a day to celebrate our freedom from others so much as to reflect on what we have done for others with our freedom.

Any sober judgement would recognise that we (whatever our nationality) have done good – intended, and by happy accident – and evil – again, by wilful intention, and unintentionally. And that the good we have done has most often been possible only with the help of other nations, while the evil we have perpetrated has also been in complicity with other nations. At the end of the day, we are more interdependent than we like to admit. And rightly so.

Empires rise and fall, and political borders ebb and flow like the tides. We stand in our time, a time allocated us not by our own decision, with a past not of our choosing, and a future beyond our control. All we have is the present, the inevitability of our sin, and the promise of God’s grace. That is enough, to use our freedom to serve others, with humility and confidence. Which might truly be worth celebrating.

Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

The Church is no less conflicted, no less corrupt, than any other group of people - and that ought to keep us in a place of honesty and humility. The Church is no more conflicted, no more corrupt, than any other group of people - and that ought to give us cause to remain. The Church is faithless, and faithful. Ugly, and beautiful. And loved. Loved with a transforming love. We rail against paradox, and yet we need to embrace it, for only then can we be embraced.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Doubting With Thomas

Today is the Feast Day of St Thomas.

Thomas, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, is commonly known as ‘Doubting Thomas,’ after the account on John’s Gospel (John 20:24-29) where Thomas refuses to believe the resurrection on second-hand experience, and Jesus tells him ‘Do not doubt but believe.’

The Story of Doubting Thomas is a Tale that contains a Moral: doubt is inappropriate for those who follow Jesus; is incompatible with faith.

Except that Jesus didn’t deal in morality tales. If that is how we understand ‘Do not doubt but believe’ then – as so often – we have misunderstood Jesus’ words.

Doubt is not incompatible with faith, but has an essential role to play in faith. Doubt moves us beyond the known and creates the space within which we have a transforming encounter with Jesus.

Following Jesus’ death, the other disciples are hiding together in one place. Thomas is not with them: he doubts the wisdom of their decision, a decision that makes it possible for all of the key leaders of the Jesus-followers to be arrested in one raid. While they lock themselves away, Thomas trusts himself into God’s hands and steps out…

Unless we can doubt that we know all, or know for certain, or know better than others; unless we can doubt that the world ends at the horizon (which may be as near as four walls); unless we can doubt that we have done all that God has in mind for us … we cannot unlearn and learn anew; cannot go beyond the familiar and comforting; cannot present ourselves as available to Jesus, to be sent by him.

When Jesus says ‘Do not doubt but believe’ he is not saying Doubt is Wrong, but, this particular doubt has served its purpose, has found its goal, has become the place of encounter: you can let it go now, because I have responded to that doubt and opened up for you a new way of believing.

You can let it go now, and that will free you up to take on a new doubt.

If the demands of Thomas’ doubt were inappropriate, Jesus would not have met them – indeed, he not only meets them, he meets them exactly and fully. And the resurrection accounts make it clear that Thomas was not the only disciple who doubted, nor this the only encounter that doubt opened up.

Thomas will go all the way to the south of India, planting churches as he goes. I would suggest that he goes not because he has overcome his doubts, or in spite of his doubts, but led by his doubts. While the others – who will all receive the commission to go out from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth – remain in Jerusalem, Thomas doubts that this is all that Jesus has in mind for him, doubts that this is the only or best place within which he might serve.

I would suggest that Thomas’ progression from Jerusalem to the south of India is a series of doubts which open up a new space and are then fulfilled, to be succeeded by a new doubt fulfilled in its turn.

Without doubt there is no possibility of repentance – a change of mind – and without repentance it is not possible to believe in a new way. There is only the self-imposed locked room.

The Epistle reading for today speaks of God building us – collectively - into a holy temple, a dwelling-place for God. Is it possible that doubt, transformed, is key in expanding those walls?

Today is the Feast Day of St Thomas. The patron saint of those who embrace the gift of doubt, the role of the Doubter.

What will you doubt today?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Family Business

This post is written with friends who are developing incarnational and missional principles within traditional church contexts in mind. If that is you, I hope the post is helpful. If that isn’t you, it might not make a lot of sense. As ever on this personal blog, I am expressing personal views and not necessarily speaking on behalf of any corporate identity.

In Acts chapter 16 we see the establishment of two Christian households in Philippi: the household of Lydia, and the household of the jailer. In each case, the household is an extended community of blood relations and employees, an economic unit (oikos) with a particular family business - a ‘fashion house’ (or perhaps a ‘sweat shop,’ waiting to be redeemed), and a ‘security firm’ (again, a context ripe for transformation). It is these households that experience salvation, and become ‘local churches’ - epicentres of a cultural earthquake that will transform the cultural landscape. This is a pattern that will be repeated across the Greco-Roman world.

My observation is that our family business at Sunderland Minster is heritage. We are custodians of a building that records 1200 years, not only of Christian worship in Sunderland but 1200 years of the settlement that is Sunderland.

For some of my friends, the idea that our primary business is heritage is problematic: the church is not a museum. But for me, this is to misunderstand the role of heritage, or the place and value of museums. Museums exist to help us make sense of who we are by understanding how we have come to where we are; to draw on our history in order to resource our present and shape our future.

Heritage can be incarnational, because it is grounded in the wider community; indeed, it grounds the community. And heritage can be missional, because it shapes the context for engagement with the wider community.

Our family business is heritage. The Minster is located within Sunderland as a place of meeting, learning, belonging, and celebrating.

Our family business is heritage. This means that our closest connections are with those who connect with heritage. School groups who are looking for help to deliver their curriculum, whether in relation to religious education or history or art. Artists who are looking for a venue in which to put on an exhibition. Musicians - from opera to rock - looking for a concert venue. Business people looking for a unique setting for a charity fundraiser or an event promoting the economy of the city. And, in particular over the next four years, an opportunity to engage with the centenary anniversaries of the First World War, alongside the city council, library, museum, local historians, and others.

Heritage is our fashion house, our security firm. And just as being in fashion afforded Lydia’s household opportunity to share their life, shaped by their faith, with her suppliers and clients, so being in heritage affords us opportunities to interact with education and art and commerce. An exhibition of photographs or sculpture breaks down the false sacred/secular dichotomy and opens up all kinds of conversation about life.

This means that a key question for here is, how can we equip our people to play a part in the heritage business? That part might be as an interpreter of the building; but there will be other roles too.

For some of the people who relate to us, the relationship will go no further than a business transaction. Surely there were those who simply bought cloth from Lydia - or tents from Paul. But some of those relationships become personal, become being there for one another in good times and bad. Some of those relationships become transformational - and in both directions.

Because we are a baptised household, we set aside certain times in the week to gather together for prayer and worship. But this is not our family business. Because we seek to follow Jesus we find ways to respond to the needs of the most marginalised. But this is not our family business, either. Because we seek to follow Jesus, we must take up the commission to make disciples. But making disciples is not our family business: making disciples takes place within the spheres of our family business. These are things that will find expression, one way or another, in any Christian household. But within this city there are several churches, each engaging with different communities within the life of the city, according to the calling to which they have been called. Heritage is (clearly) not the family business of a great many churches; but it is quite legitimately the family business of others.

Part of our call as the Dowsett family has been the call to movement from place to place. In each place we have become part of a local extended household, and in each place the family business has been different. In Sheffield the family business was an urban monastery. In Liverpool, it was helping people escape from debt, or rebuild lives broken down by addiction. In Southport, it was to offer a parish community centre and community garden.

Each time we have moved, this has required us to learn new skills, and to find ways to bring our gifts and skills and experience to the service of something that might lie outside of our existing experience. I am not an expert on heritage - far from it! But I am learning. And I am asking the question, how might we make disciples within the context of heritage? Including, how might we nurture a particular ethos, and teach particular skills?

Are you (personally, collectively) clear as to what your extended family business is?

What constraints do you need to accept, in order to embrace that family business?

What training might you need, in order to invest in your family business?

Monday, June 16, 2014

Missionary Kid

I was a MK (Missionary Kid). My parents were missionaries, serving with the Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF). OMF started out as the China Inland Mission, founded by James Hudson Taylor almost 150 years ago, in 1865. Hudson Taylor was not the first western missionary in China by any means, but his missionary society were pioneers in many ways.

They famously adopted Chinese dress, fully committing themselves to China, insisting that they must embrace Chinese culture wherever it was not incompatible with the gospel, and challenge it in those places where it was as those who spoke from within the community and not colonialists (though bringing to bear international relations, as campaigners do today). Today this principle is described as incarnational living.

Several members of Hudson Taylor’s family and extended family by marriage would hold key roles within the organisation. Viewed negatively, this might be considered controlling, or empire-building; but viewed more generously, it illustrates the principle of family on mission, a shared sense of purpose, and core values that were (for good or ill) lived out together.

In the early 1950s CIM missionaries made a “reluctant exodus” from China, going to the Chinese diaspora and other people groups across South East Asia; the name changing to OMF in 1964. My parents would go out to the Philippines, where they worked under and alongside Filipino church planters, and discipled university students.

The local church is a particular specialism. Local churches ought to know their locality, its particular needs, challenges and opportunities better than anyone else – with people in that place to love and serve those people. But the local church is not, and never has been, the only expression of the Church, the only specialism. CIM/OMF would be a good example of a different kind of specialism:
in this case, 150 years of experience of supporting those who have a particular sense of call to the people of Asia, and the diverse challenges of living in the world’s great mega-cities or remote jungle tribes.

I was born in the Philippines, but later my parents returned to the UK for health reasons, continuing to work with OMF but in a different capacity. I watched my mum train people for global mission. I watched my dad inspire others to become missionaries - and not necessarily with OMF.

But perhaps most of all I had a deep sense of growing up within a big family. Not simply the great big family that is the Church, most of whom I will never meet; but a shared identity within the OMF family. Whenever we met up with other OMF families, even if they had served on a different mission field, even if the parents knew each other but the kids had never met, there was a connection, a common MK bond. And then there were the stories: of Hudson Taylor and J.O. Fraser and others who had accrued legendary status, but also the exciting and faith-building adventures of people we had actually met.

Today OMF is a multi-national and cross-denominational family. As such, there are inevitable tensions. As a network of national organisations and as a global family its members are held together by common values, aims, and a particular statement of faith. I share some but not all of those. But I will be eternally grateful that this was my starting point.

I am still a son, but now I am also a husband and a father. We are a family on mission, and our call is to work with local churches here in England. But as a family we are part of a big family on mission, called The Order of Mission (TOM).

TOM grew out of the church we were part of in Sheffield (not so very far from Barnsley, where Hudson Taylor was from). Whereas CIM was part of a wave of evangelical missionary societies which were founded around the same time, TOM is an example of a contemporary movement of ‘new-monastic Orders,’ which draw on the patterns of the old religious Orders, both Celtic and Roman.

From its founding in 2003 TOM has been cross-denominational and multi-national. It is the big family that has supported us when everything else has been transitional, when my being ordained within the Church of England has meant that our family have moved from Sheffield to Nottingham to Liverpool to Southport and now to Sunderland (where we hope that we will be for many years).

We have shared values – expressed as a life of simplicity, purity and accountability – and a shared Rule of Life (missionary Societies tend to have doctrinal statements of faith, setting out what members believe; missionary Orders tend to have a Rule of Life, setting out how we live: it is not that Societies are only concerned with orthodoxy and Orders with orthopraxy, but it does reflect a different emphasis).

But most of all these things describe a family, called to help the Church fulfil the call to make disciples of all nations and in all generations, in a rapidly-changing Western context.

Like any family, it has grown and changed; new members have joined, and others have moved on, sometimes having fallen out with one another – this, too, is part of the imperfection of family, church, mission, mess that God still works through. For all its joys and sorrows, this is the big family my children are part of, growing up in; these are their non-biological cousins, their stories and heroes of faith.

Being part of TOM supports us as we work alongside the local church. There, we want to help people to make disciples who make disciples. OMF supported my dad to inspire people for mission, not simply recruit them for OMF; and TOM supports us in the same way.

We meet up with other members of TOM in the north east, to share and to pray for one another. Locally, we draw on that long-standing support. But just as there is not one way of being a missionary in Asia across 150 years and more than 10 nations, so we need to work out in our local context what it will look like to live a life of simplicity, purity and accountability;
to work under and alongside others in the local church (the staff team and wider congregation at Sunderland Minster is diverse in our theology and tradition, and finds support from different quarters);
and to see something flourish that is authentic to the north east and not imposed from a very different culture.

TOM is just over 10 years old. That is no time at all, in the history of mission, of Societies and Orders, of the Church. Ten years after founding the CIM, Hudson Taylor was a man in broken health, having lost children and his first wife to disease. And yet, and yet. I do not know how God will use TOM in the years ahead, but I do know that he will. And I am deeply thankful to have been part of these two adventures.