Thursday, January 29, 2009

Church Year

I'm playing around with designs to represent the seasons of the Church Calendar. The Calendar is a way of telling our story, reminding us who we are and are meant to be, enabling us to live out our own part in what has been described as faithful improvisation.

In the Calendar, seasons and days are represented by different colours:
Advent and Lent: Purple
Christmas, Epiphany and Eastertide: White
'Ordinary Time': Green
Pentecost, days associated with the Holy spirit and/or with martyrs: Red

Today I've been working on two 'White' designs:
the Pantocrator, representing the risen Lord Jesus, Ruler of All, for Eastertide;
and the Theotokos, or God-bearer, as Mary was in a particular sense and we are called to be, for Christmas and Epiphany.

What do you think?

Theotokos



Pantocrator



Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Covenant | Kingdom | Internals | Externals

Two threads intertwine through the biblical story like the two strands of DNA: a theology of covenant, and a theology of kingdom.

To speak of covenant is to speak a familial language. God comes to Abram, whose name means ‘great father,’ and makes a covenant – whereby each party is to be considered as the other, or, as the marriage contract expresses it, “All that I am I give to you; all that I have I share with you.” This covenant is made “with you and your children.” Abram has no children, as yet; but the consequence of the covenant is that they are to experience God as great father – while God’s identity as ‘father to nations’ is conferred upon Abram, expressed through a name-change to Abraham…

In the covenant, we experience God as our father, mother, husband; Jesus as our brother; and Holy Spirit as guarantor of our experiencing ourselves as children, friends, bride.

To speak of kingdom is to speak a language of exercising dominion. God has dominion of all creation, and delegated dominion over all the earth to human-kind. Human-kind was tricked into abdicating that exercising of dominion, in favour of God’s enemy. So God embraced humanity within his own being, and won for us a decisive liberation; and re-commissioned us with delegated power and authority to exercise dominion, joining him in destroying the works of the upstart principality of the enemy...

In the kingdom, we experience God as King; Jesus as anointed heir, and co-regent; and Holy Spirit as guarantor of our experiencing ourselves as anointed co-heirs, ambassadors, spiritual warriors.

Within the strand of covenant, the internal frontiers to be won are a pressing-on into greater knowledge of the nature of our identity; the external frontiers that flow out of that, won by a greater exercising of obedience.

Within the strand of kingdom, the internal frontiers to be won are a pressing-on into greater knowledge of the nature of our Jesus-derived authority; the external frontiers that flow out of that, won by a greater exercising of our Jesus-derived power.

Are You An Innie Or An Outie?

As I was wrestling with a written piece of personal reflection today, I was reminded of a consistent principle of God’s liberating coming-to-us that I was first taught several years ago.

God’s transforming presence is concerned with two spheres of our experience:
the internal (e.g. habitual thought-patterns)
and
the external (e.g. our circumstances)

Time and time again in God’s dealings with his people – Joseph, Moses, David, the people of Israel, the early church – we see that where breakthrough is needed in an external frontier, God first works to bring about breakthrough in an internal one. So, God does an internal work in the life of Moses, alone in the wilderness, in order that he can lead his people out of slavery in Egypt…and an internal work in the people in the wilderness, in order that he can lead them into the Promised Land. So, the early church grows as its members learn to share what God has given them among themselves equitably.

The principle is this: internal breakthrough proceeds, and results in, external breakthrough. Every time.

That is why we can pray: “…transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make known your heavenly glory…”

This principle even applies to Jesus, the one in and through whom a new covenant is written; the one in and through whom the kingdom comes in its fullest expression. Before his liberating mission can begin, Jesus must know that he is God’s beloved son; must experience a pioneering breakthrough in the frontier of identity (which takes place at his baptism), and a settling of that territory (which takes place in the wilderness, immediately following that event).

The converse is also true. When we fix our focus on external circumstances – whether they be ‘good,’ such as material provision, or ‘bad,’ such as illness or oppression – we lose internal ground that has previously been won. We trust in our own strength, forgetting that God provides; we despair in our own inability to overcome adversity.

This converse principle is: surrendering external ground God has won for us proceeds, and results in, a surrendering of internal ground won. Every time.

Whenever the people of Israel returned to God, they enjoyed the blessing of peace in the Land. Whenever they turned away from God, they experienced the curse of incursion, exile, occupation at the hands of other peoples. (And the testimony of the exilic prophets and of Jesus’ mission demonstrates that you can’t recover the internal frontier by attempting to recapture the external one.)

So where I am seeking God for external breakthroughs, I need to ask, what is the internal breakthrough that needs to be secured first?

And where I see external breakthroughs lost – those ways in which God’s love and power, made substance through faith, transform situations; that used to be characteristic of my experience of life but are rare now – I need to ask, at what cost? How much hard-won internal ground am I prepared to give away lightly?

Friday, January 23, 2009

Poverty | Riches

Almighty God,
in Christ you make all things new:
transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace,
and in the renewal of our lives
make known your heavenly glory;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Amen.

(Collect of the day during Epiphany, Common Worship)

Common Worship Daily Prayer is a wonderfully rich resource for spiritual formation, if we are willing to embrace the grace held out to us. This season of Epiphany (which happens to coincide with a season of global economic recession) I find myself gripped by these words, the daily collect, and in particular the line

transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace…

And as they grip me, demand my attention, pull me back when I would allow myself to be distracted by so many other things, I dare to believe that the Holy Spirit is at work, breathing life into them, into me through them…making these external words the internal prayer of my own heart, so as to delight in answering
the longing of an ungenerous spirit
to become

gracious.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Measure Of A Leader

“A short time ago, Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States and his new administration officially came to life. One of the first changes is the White House's new website, which will serve as a place for the President and his administration to connect with the rest of the nation and the world.”

This quote from the introduction to WhiteHouse.gov, a media-savvy (and I don’t mean that cynically) interface built on the three priorities of communication, transparency, and participation. It looks great, and the content is impressive too. And, as the policies of White House administrations have a bearing on all our lives, it’s one to put in the RSS feeder.

One of the interesting features of the site is a potted history of the forty-three men (Grover Cleveland was President numbers 22 and 24 – the only man to hold non-consecutive terms in office) who have served as President.

It strikes me afresh that you can learn a lot about the measure of a leader by what he, or she, has to say about another leader; especially if they have very different visions for the future and what it might take to build it.

And I am really impressed by the account of President George W Bush.


Some caveats:
I doubt that Barack Obama himself compiled these histories – but I’m confident that he had the editorial final say;
I’m sure he is too smart to be petty on his big day – and smart enough to know that, in taking on The Most Impossible Job In The World, you would be wise to go easy on the last guy to fail trying;
I also know that part of the role of these histories is to paint a picture of the office of President as one who serves selflessly and impartially, to the best of their ability and in their best understanding of what is the right course of action in any given situation, the people and their constitution. In other words, there is an element of myth-building here – but it is a bipartisan myth that will play a healing role from this National Day of Renewal and Reconciliation, onward.

But, George W Bush ends his term deeply unpopular at home; and having made decisions that have, undeniably, significantly damaged America’s reputation throughout the rest of the world. It could not be easier to question his character, or his motives, or his ability. And yet the public record of this man by his successors is a generous testimony. It chooses to point to his strengths, not his weaknesses; his successes, not his failures; and paints the picture of a man of integrity, whose policies flowed from his beliefs.

And I am given cause to reflect on how I speak of others.


Lord Jesus Christ,
who confronts us with our need of forgiveness,
and the call to love both enemy and neighbour:
in your mercy,
forgive us those times our thoughts, words or actions would have character-assassinated Presidents Bush and Obama;
and forgive them their many and inevitable fallings-short of the Father’s will;
that together we may come to experience
his kingdom come in greater measure.
Amen.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

This Is My Son

This is my son. Not the one I misplaced the other day. My other son, Noah.

Today is Noah’s sixth birthday. He took four friends from school and his sister bowling.

Right at the end, after his friends had gone and as we were gathering up coats and cake and his little brother, we caught him dancing. Not because anyone was watching. Just because he loves to dance.


I love it when Noah dances.
video

Friday, January 16, 2009

In Which My Son Goes Missing

Jo went away on a three-day retreat this week, leaving me in charge of the kids. On my own.

You need to know that I have the necessary character-traits to be an academic don (merely lacking the necessary ability and application).

On the first day, I had to collect Susannah and one of her friends from their after-school gymnastics club, which obviously entailed taking Noah and Elijah along with me.

When we got home again, I parked the pushchair under the carport, and came back out through the gate to let everyone in through the front door. As I was unlocking the door, my phone rang. The kids pushed past me and disappeared upstairs, as I juggled answering Jo with getting into the house. As she chatted away, telling me about her room and who was in the room next door (see – I do listen…sometimes) Noah crashed back down the stairs demanding drinks and an after school snack. Jo asked to talk with him; then I sorted out cups of squash and cupcakes in the kitchen, and shouted for the kids to come downstairs – I didn’t want them taking drinks upstairs. The girls were already lying on Susannah’s loft-bed, engrossed with her DS, so getting them to come downstairs wasn’t straightforward. Eventually they appeared.

The washing machine light was flashing on and off, so I emptied it out and went to hang the contents on the airer to dry. Elijah started shouting “Dah-dee! Dah-DEE!

Hang on – I’m just hanging out the washing!” I called back. He’d probably got stuck climbing the bookshelf: he can’t topple it, and it’s not that high.

Dah-dee! Hang on!

Job done, I set off upstairs to help him out: not in the boys’ room; not with the other three in susannah’s room; not in my room, the bathroom, the toilet. I go back downstairs. Not in the living room, the dining room (I checked, even though I’d just been in there hanging up clothes), the kitchen, the hall.

I go back upstairs. “Where’s Elijah?” “We don’t know.” “He’s not here.” “I think he’s downstairs.”

I do the circuit again, this time looking behind curtains, the sofa. He’s stopped calling: perhaps he’s playing a hiding game. No Elijah.

Back upstairs. Where’s Elijah? “We don’t know.” Unimpressed by the lack of cooperation I’m getting, I go round again a third time. (Because, obviously, a child who isn’t there will always appear if you look enough times…)

By now, I’m starting to get a little stressed-out. After all, at a similar age, while on holiday in Kentucky, Noah had let himself out through the front door of our hosts’ house, and headed off down the sidewalk early one morning. Our host happened to look out of his window, and thought to himself, “That little boy looks just like Noah…wait a minute - it is Noah!”

Guys. I-need-to-find-Elijah!” and, deeply frustrated by their indifference,
“Thanks. For. Your. Help.” I call back over my shoulder…
“I think you didn’t bring him inside,” responds Noah. Now. Not the first time I asked. Now!

I run downstairs,
unlock the kitchen door,
and there,
strapped in his pushchair,
sat, all on his own in the cold and by-now dark,
tear-tracks down his cheeks,
is my boy.

When she got home, Susannah’s friend told her mum and dad all about it:
“…He even said thank you to us for helping to look for Elijah. But he didn’t mean it.”
Which is as beautifully funny a description of child-meets-sarcasm as you could care to find.

It goes without saying that I blame Jo, for distracting me at just the wrong moment. And that Susannah’s friend isn’t welcome anymore.

On the second day, I failed to notice that Elijah had removed his shoes when I collected him from his pre-school group at college…

Shoes (I say, shrugging my shoulders).I consider ‘shoes’ to be somewhat of a triumphant storming up the learning curve!


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Law Of The Few

Gladwell describes connectors, mavens and salesmen under the First of his Three Rules of Epidemics: The Law of the Few. That is, change is not brought about through the equally-weighted actions of a large number of people, but through the actions of a few highly unusual individuals within a much larger group.

And this is significant, if I am right in drawing a correlation between connectors, mavens and salesmen, and apostles, prophets and evangelists. Because as I read scripture and apply it to lived experience, I conclude that:

Jesus still distributes the people-as-gifts of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to the local expressions of his body the church today;

He does not distribute these people-as-gifts equally, and there are fewer apostles, prophets and evangelists than there are pastors and teachers;

This rarity within the population is not a limiting factor to church growth (numerical, maturity): it is, when each is doing their part, the Jesus-given means for growth…


And this has implications such as:

Situations that look for all the world beyond hope are not condemned to remain beyond hope, but can change dramatically, suddenly;

There are probably apostles, prophets and evangelists in your local church community, waiting to be released…

…and it is even more likely that there are connectors, mavens and salesmen in your wider community, waiting to be redeemed – to offer themselves as a vassal to God (Psalm 68:18), and, in turn, be given by Jesus as a gift to his church (Ephesians 4:8) for the world…

Apostles | Prophets | Evangelists

Somewhere in the back of my head, I’m turning over the correlation between connectors, mavens and salesmen, and apostles, prophets and evangelists

I’m not suggesting it is a simple 1:1 correlation (connectors = apostles; mavens = prophets; salesmen = evangelists); it’s more multi-directional than that. But there are correlations, nonetheless, I am convinced.

Apostles certainly tend to be masters of weak-tie relationships. Think of all those lists of names at the ends of St Paul’s letters: people he wants to send a greeting to; people who want to send a greeting to someone else via his letter…

Apostles form networks of relationships, in which they are influential nodes, in which a group of apostles working in a team together are influential hubs…

But apostles are also concerned with guarding the message, the idea, they carry, and that goes beyond the role of connector.

Prophetic ministry is concerned with looking for the new thing, the thing God is up to in and through and behind-the-scenes of society; and communicating what we discover with whoever will listen. That sounds like a maven. But, just as mavens lack the people-network of connectors, and require a connector if their discovery is to go viral, so prophets tend to lack the people-network of apostles…they need to work together.

I think there is a sense in which evangelists connect individuals with a community: but they probably aren’t connectors, according to Gladwell’s schema.

I think there is a sense in which evangelists connect individuals with good news: but they’re even less likely to be mavens, according to Gladwell’s schema.

But evangelists – just as apostles and prophets (and pastors and teachers) – do something ‘naturally’ (as well as needing to develop skills), and I wonder whether the thing they do naturally is be persuasive?

Connectors | Mavens | Salesmen

Gladwell identifies several factors that make all the difference in whether an idea goes viral – spreads like an epidemic – or not: small changes in the people involved; the (way the) message (is) communicated; and the context. Early on in the book, he writes about three rare kinds of people – connectors, mavens, and salesmen.

Most people have a certain circle of friends, usually people with whom we share a common activity (e.g. we are at college together). Beyond that, we have a certain number of acquaintances; but we tend to see acquaintances as superficial relationships. Connectors, on the other hand, genuinely love these ‘weak-tie’ relationships. They collect people, not primarily for what they might get out of it but because they love meeting people. The advantage of connecting with a connector is that they connect you to other people you wouldn’t otherwise come across, people outside of your own social network, people with experience or ideas different to the ones you already have or know.

This is the premise behind social networking. Genuine connectors may make up a small percentage of the population, but Facebook makes us all a little bit more widely connected, by maximising our weak-ties. There are certain groups of people with whom I have a high degree of experience, and friend, overlap – The Order of Mission, or St John’s Nottingham – but I connect several different worlds…and a genuine connector connects more worlds than I could imagine! (And if you also open flickr and twitter and delicious in your Flock ‘people’ sidebar…)

While connectors specialise in people, mavens specialise in collecting information. But not information for the sake of knowing more than anyone else: information for the love of passing it on. Mavens make it their business to find out what is going on, what is new, what is worthy of praising…and to let you know too.

So when a maven passes information to a connector, the word does not get out by addition but by explosion.

I keep a blog, and a few people, mostly people who know me quite well, drop by from time to time. But I’m not a maven – certainly not in relation to virtual communication – so my virtual presences are minimal: the blog, flickr, facebook. My friend Ben Askew is a maven, in this world (though he would probably use the word ‘geek’). And I’m not a connector (in fact, about a year ago I chose to pull out of deliberate actions that can be taken to connect a blog to more people; to take time out of the blogging game), so what I discover doesn’t take off. That’s no reason to stop looking out and passing on; I just need to be realistic about the impact.

Connectors and mavens can work hand-in-hand. They can also coincide in one person.

But even if a maven has got hold of useful information and passed it on to hundreds of people via a connector, there is no automatic reason why those people would act on that advice.

The third type of person Gladwell identifies is the salesman. While a maven will tell you stuff for the love of sharing information that might be beneficial to you, they tend not to be interested in persuading you to act on that information. Ben’s moved on from blogging to digital scrap-booking; I love the look of it, of how he’s using that, but I’m ‘virtually-cautious’ (and I suspect that most of the people who visit here are even more so); not only is it unlikely that I will take up scrap-booking, Ben is more interested that I check out his space than that I attempt to replicate it.

When people communicate, their body movements and vocal rhythms start to harmonise, in tiny, subtle ways. Salesmen have a natural ability to draw the other person to their rhythms, and the effect is powerfully persuasive. It isn’t about deliberate manipulation – though it can certainly be used that way. It is simply a gift that some people have – and it can be used constructively.

The Tipping Point

I am re-reading Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘The Tipping Point: how little things can make a big difference’ at the moment. It is a fascinating book that explores why some ideas or trends take off and spread like wildfire, while others have hardly any impact at all…a book which itself took off and spread like wildfire…

And I’m asking, what does it take to see certain ideas, certain values, transform a community, a nation even? I’m asking, as someone who dares to hope in the kingdom of God breaking into a society that looks pretty bleak right now – a society where most of the indexes it uses to measure deprivation would appear to be on the increase at present. I’m asking as someone who believes that it is the Holy Spirit, hovering over chaos, who brings about change; who doesn’t believe that change will come if and when the church gets its strategy or techniques right…but at the same time, as someone who believes that God gives insight as we look at the world and ask him to make sense of what we see.

I’m re-reading ‘The Tipping Point,’ and I might post some of my reflections here over the next few days.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Epiphany | Community | Communitas

My friend Alan Hirsch writes regularly about the relationship between community and communitas:

Community is to do with the building of something sustainable. People gather, in order to answer, at the most basic level, questions such as ‘How can we best feed ourselves?’ and ‘How can we best deal with our waste products?’ [And churches need to ask the same questions, as I discuss here.]

But left to its own devices, in time the very structures a community puts in place to sustain itself will strangle the life of that community…

This is why community needs communitas. Communitas describes the experience of a group of people who go outside of the known world of their community, with its norms and structures, to face together the challenges thrown up by the world beyond the known world, and who return again (no guarantees) changed by their experience. Communitas could describe the experience of a group of people taken hostage by terrorists; or a group of adventurers on a quest to conquer Mount Everest or the South Pole…or a group of Magi on a two-year journey following a star, and a two-year journey home again. They may go by choice, or not; and they may go in order to prove themselves, or of necessity, to save the world they know (think the Fellowship of the Ring; or Alex and Marty in ‘Madagascar 2: The Crate Escape’).

But unless there is a community to return to – a community that will somehow be changed by the returning presence of those who have experienced communitas – then, in time, the very structures a communitas puts in place to sustain itself become hollow (think Pikelet’s adult mentors in Tim Winton’s ‘Breath’). This is why communitas needs community.

I’m interested to see that my friend Hamo is working again with a more ‘recognisable’ local church, after some years of pioneering on the edge. Some will say that he has sold out; others, wanting to be more charitable, that he gave it his best shot and it didn’t work out. I reckon both are wrong: that this new season demonstrates the relationship between communitas and community – that communitas does not exist for its own sake. I’d go so far as to say that Hamo would have sold out, or failed, if he didn’t do the working with communities (and indeed, he has always found ways to do so, as a pioneer).

Likewise, I’m interested to see that my virtual friend Steve Taylor is engaging with the whole issue of sustainability (or to put it another way, community needs communitas and communitas needs community) as we move into a new year.

I love all three of these wise men from the Southern hemisphere, and reckon that, though each would express it differently, they’re on a journey worth following through 2009…

Epiphany | Magi From The East

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Epiphany

The Sixth of January is Epiphany, the start of a new season in the Church year. In the Western Church (Roman Catholic, Anglican, etc.), this is the day we remember the visit of the gift-bearing Magi, the epiphany that Christ is for the gentiles too. In the Eastern Church (the Orthodox Churches), this is the day we remember Jesus’ baptism, the epiphany – Jesus’ own, as much as John’s or the crowd’s – that it is time for Jesus to turn from carpentry to building something more permanent.

Not many people in my culture relocate from unawareness of, or indifference or even hostility towards, God to belief as a result of a sudden recognition or epiphany, but – to borrow an analogy from Richard Dawkins – through small incremental steps up Mount Improbable. But within this gradual process, epiphanies, like biological mutations, can result in leaps along the scale.

Perhaps epiphanies come out of the blue. But my hunch is that they come when we are either running away from God – like Moses in the wilderness, or Saul on the road to Damascus – or actively looking for him – like the Magi following the star, or Jesus in the Jordan.

So if you’re hoping for an epiphany this Epiphany, I guess you have two possible courses of action to pursue…

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Something Completely Pointless And Beautiful

Over the Christmas vacation, I’ve read Tim Winton’s ‘Breath’ – a beautifully crafted piece of story-telling.
It ends – and I hope this isn’t too much of a spoiler, because I recommend the read – with the narrator talking about the experience of surfing with his daughters:

“My favourite time is when we’re all at the Point, because when they see me out on the water I don’t have to be cautious and I’m never ashamed. Out there I’m free. I don’t require management. They probably don’t understand this, but it’s important for me to show them that their father is a man who dances – who saves lives and carries the wounded, yes, but who also does something completely pointless and beautiful, and in this at least he should need no explanation.”

Something completely pointless and beautiful.
Not, at all, something completely pointless and ugly.
Not, just, something of significance.
That’s an edge worth surfing, even if you are always going to get dumped by the wave.

It seems to me that God’s creativity includes expressions of ‘completely pointless and beautiful’ freedom; stuff that gloriously defies enslavement to ever-increasing efficiency.

What’s yours?

New Year, Old Posts

One of the advantages of blogging is that you can build up a back-catalogue of thoughts.

One of the disadvantages of blogging is that, once they fall off the front page, those thoughts can be forgotten.


I find myself revisiting some ideas I wrote about in September 2007, just after I moved to Nottingham. And so I am recycling them here:

To Affinity And Beyond, 1
To affinity And Beyond, 2
To Affinity And Beyond, 3
Respect | Tolerance | Grace