Tuesday, May 31, 2005

New Monasticism

Sometimes someone has a good idea, and it seems like everyone else jumps on the bandwagon. See, for example, the way in which rubber wristbands raising awareness for a given charity or cause have proliferated like cancer since Lance Armstrong hit upon the idea for his Live Strong Foundation for cancer survivors back in 2003; or the way in which the Japanese Su Doku puzzle has spread across British newspapers and magazines since The Times introduced it in November 2004...

But sometimes an idea seems to have its time, and several different individuals or teams discover it independently and at much the same time. So, for example, Alexander Graham Bell and John Logie Baird patented the telephone and the television respectively just before rival inventors did so. But this principle is not restricted to inventions, nor to a competitive context: we can probably see it in every field or discipline, and on every scale - from the worldview of whole cultures to the smallest of communities - if we should take the time to observe.

One such 'idea' whose time appears to have come is what has been termed by some New Monasticism (or even Nu Monasticism, by younger and more beautiful commentators). The term is something of a catch-all for a renewed interest in ancient Christian communities, and a determination to re-establish principles learned from them for our own time, among those engaged in mission in (in particular) a postmodern cultural context. As a member of The Order of Mission (inaugurated in 2003, but still very much in the process of becoming established), I am also aware of:

The Order of the Mustard Seed - originating in the 24-7 prayer movement, and Pete Greig's 'rediscovery' of Count Zinzendorf's 18th century Order...
the Emergent Order - grounded in the Emergent group within the wider emerging church scene (I love their generous nature, and I especially love the way their commitment to each other includes the intent to "to give one another the gift of our presence at annual gatherings whenever possible." as an expression of that nature)...
Andrew Jones (aka tallskinnykiwi) - who has his fingers in many interesting pies, and who describes himself (amongst other things) as Abbott of an emerging monastery on the Orkney Islands, and who provides other interesting links here...
Karen Ward - Abbess at the Fremont Abbey in Seattle...

I want to learn from and with these fellow New Monastics, and others like them, while recognising that God does not want to edit-out the distinctive colours he has given each of us - to make us a monochrome photograph, set to black-and-white or sepia - but to juxtapose our brightly-coloured pixels side-by-side, to create the most incredible images of his likeness and of his world for our digital age...

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Jesus Loves The Little Children

People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.
Mark 10:13-16

Learning at least one new thing every day helps keep us young...Today I learnt that kitchen knives are dangerous and should be treated with respect; and - while in general it is good to keep them clean - it is possible to be overly zealous in regards to the cleanliness of the very tip of the knife, and that being so will end in a sore thumb...

First thing this morning I was praying and sharing communion with a group of men. At the end of our half-hour together, I was out the back, dealing with the left-over bread and wine, when Jesus crept up on me and whispered in my ear, "Tell Susannah that she is my beloved." [Susannah is my four-year-old daughter]

When I got home I discovered that both our kids had crept into our bed with Jo (Noah had been there long enough to fall asleep again; I caught Susie in the act of getting under the duvet). So I got on the (edge of) the bed (that being all the room left for me), and told Susie that while I was out Jesus had asked me to tell her something from him. Her eyes opened as wide as saucers in wonder - and then crinkled up in excitement. And I told her, "Jesus asked me to tell you that you are his beloved." Eyes as wide as saucers again. I asked, "Do you know what 'beloved' means?" Susie replied, inquisitively, "No..." So I said, "When you love someone very much, they are your beloved. And Jesus wants you to know that you are his beloved." Eyes wide as saucers, and mouth open in a big wide circle too - followed by crinkled-up eyes and a grin from ear to ear...Susie reached up and gave me a great big bear hug!

The thing with Jesus is, he always has a word of encouragement. And he's never too busy, and we're never too unimportant to him, to give it. What a great way to start the day, for me and Jo as well as for Susie (Noah was asleep; his name is Hebrew for rest).

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Cheap Days Out For The Whole Family

A weekend of family activities where the cost is hidden:

1. We had a picnic lunch at a National Trust property yesterday. This being a British Summer, we ate it huddled in the car...
Entry to house and gardens: free. Lunch: cost subsumed in weekly grocery bill. Annual family membership of NT: about £60 (can't remember exactly, but we get our money's worth). Incongruity of rolling up to the ticket booth with Rap playing on the radio: priceless. (Blowing-the-whole-hidden-cost-thing-out-of-the-water with inordinantly over-priced ice-creams: £6.40...)

2. Driving in flash rain shower yesterday afternoon, windscreen-wipers straining against the volume, road turning into a water-course, and lightning splitting the sky.
Experience: free. Second-hand Opel Zafira: £7,000. Road-tax, insurance, MOT, ongoing costs: more than you want to think about. Tank of petrol: £40. Watching the lightning, and wondering what it would be like if the metal box we were travelling in got hit: priceless.

3. After church this morning, we took a trip to the Walk-in Clinic at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital, because Jo had something lodged in her eye. Hardly counts as a family outing really, as they were advertising an-hour-and-a-quarter waiting time to be seen, so I took the kids home for lunch. As it turned out, Jo was seen very quickly, and got home not very long after we did...Having been seen at Walk-in Clinic and down the hall at Minor Injuries (we had walked past Minor Injuries en route to Walk-in Clinic), both teams agreed that there was an object in her eye, but they couldn't remove it - she needed to go to the Northern General Hospital for that. Jo came home for some lunch first, then out again - this time, without family in tow...
Multi-story car-parking at Royal Hallamshire: £2. NHS care at point of service: free. Being trusted to drive the kids home (okay, trusted is perhaps too strong a word, given that Jo really didn't have an alternative; but, hey, I got to do it!): priceless.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005


There is a principle we see at work in the early church, whereby God breaks down resistence to himself in the lives of his people, securing internal frontiers in their hearts and minds; and that these breakthroughs allow external frontiers to be won, with others coming into his kingdom as a result. This morning we were reflecting on a passage that illustrates this pattern; the continuation of the story - the myth - after Pentecost; a passage often talked about in church circles, and yet seldom entered into:

"They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved."
Acts 2:42-47 [emphases mine]

Here are my observations of internal barriers being confronted in myself and my generation as I read this:
half-heartedness; jaded cynicism; possessiveness; lack of compassion; enslavement to the instant result; joyless obligation; insincerity.

Can you imagine what God could do through a community that was prepared to go through the process of repentance (change of direction) and belief (active faith) in relation to these areas? A community surrendered to God, and transformed by him; marked by devotion, a sense of awe, the common life, commitment, gladness, and sincerity? Such a community would be highly offensive to many, and highly attractive to many. It would be bland and irrelevant to no-one.

Dream. Die. Be raised to life.
Leave the prison of a myth-less existence. Enter into the myth.

Monday, May 16, 2005


When I am asked to explain the community that I belong to - The Order of Mission - I often say that it is part being a Jedi, part one of the Company of the Ring. It is more than that - much more - but I'm not joking when I say that.

A myth is a story that transcends the original context in which it was told. Although most people assume that a myth is made up, it can be a true story; although most people assume that a myth is fictional, it can be historical. The Bible is the greatest myth ever told...precisely because it is true.

We are created to need myth, to need to enter into myth, and every age has been fuelled by its own. Modernity was, and still is, fuelled by myth - the British Empire, the American Dream, the Thousand Year Third Reich, the New World Order. Philosophical Postmodernists - such as Foucault and Derrida - thought all mythology to be a means of exercising power, a means by which rulers exercised control over others; and sought to deconstruct the idea of myth, to liberate the masses from its tyranny. But the greatest postmodern philosophers - such as Lucas, Spielberg and Jackson - recognise that we are created to enter into myth, and they have dreamed dreams and invited a generation to enter into them...

When Gandalf stands defiant on the bridge of Khazad-dum and declares to the Balrog, "You shall not pass!"; when Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi faces Darth Vader in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, declares that "If you cut me down, I will only become more powerful", and de-activates his lightsaber; they tap-into the Kingdom principle that death leads to resurrection, that "Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it remains only a seed; but if it dies, it gives rise to a harvest, thirty-, sixty- or a hundred-fold."

I am a monastic warrior, caught-up in a battle between Good and Evil, empowered by a force that fills the universe, and committed to train disciples in the Way. I am a member of a covanant community, brought together to achieve what none of us can acheive on our own, putting aside our differences for the sake of the world. I am a Jedi. I am a member of the Company of the Ring. I am a disciple of Jesus. I am a member of The Order of Mission.

Sunday, May 15, 2005


Pentecost. The birthday of the Church. The day the resurrected and ascended Jesus sent the Holy Spirit from heaven, to be our counsellor and empowerer until his return, to lead us into all truth, giving gifts and growing fruit in our lives, seeing the world turned upside down. Today, when we gathered to worship, we announced to the church that we would be leaving in the summer, to go we don't know where, led by that same Holy Spirit.

Right now there are a lot of signs that God is at work, doing something new in those of us who are going, and those of us who are staying; establishing a break-through on many fronts where the enemy has controlled us, kept us hemmed-in when God would have his kingdom break-out.

And right now it feels like all hell has been let loose, in desperate counter-attack. Among the friends we lead, one couple is facing both their fathers - both their daughters' grandfathers - being seriously ill at the same time, one with a failing heart, the other with an aggressive brain tumour; another friend - a husband, and father - told us this morning that he had found out on Friday that he has leukeamia; another friend, that both his daughters have been troubled with demonic visions this week (as has our own daughter, Susannah). Two other friends are trying to buy a house, a process that has been overly drawn out; they went round there tonight, and found the outside of the property covered in curse-tape (a satanic practice where curses are recorded onto audio-tape, and the tape is then pulled out of the casing and tied to buildings belonging to Christians; there are active satanists in the area - and two local magic shops - and some of the buildings on our church campus were also targetted when we first moved in).

All hail the power of Jesu's name;
Let angels prostrate fall!
Let angels prostrate fall!
Lift high the royal diadem
And crown him
Crown him
Crown him
Crown him
And crown him Lord of all!

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Counting Blessings

I met Ruth Anne in my first week in Sheffield, back in 1991. We have been friends ever since. She was an American girl, a tutor in the Hall of Residence I was allocated, and a postgrad in the Department I would transfer into at the end of my first year here. Later (not that first autumn, I think) we discovered that we shared a birthday (9th November), and post a couple of years in Sorby Hall we ended up sharing a house on Pomona Street briefly before she returned to the States. Since then, she's been back over a number of times, but we've never yet made it over to see her in America.

Ruth Anne is getting married on June 18th (as if it is not enough that we share our birthday, she is getting married on my little sister's birthday - I guess there just aren't enough dates in the year...), and we were delighted to hear the news by way of an invitation to be there (there being Wilmore, Kentucky). Jo had already reminded me more than once that I needed to write, saying we'd love to be there, but sadly can't make it, when we were given a gift of £2,000. (Of course I will claim that it wasn't only laziness that kept me from writing; though Jo will probably have none of it!)

Yesterday morning, the money arrived. Yesterday lunchtime (our time; early morning, hers) I had a wonderful conversation on the phone with Ruth Anne. Yesterday afternoon, I got clearance to take the time off work. And today I have booked the tickets. We are having 10 days in Kentucky, over which time we will hopefully get to see lots of friends from our university days, most of whom we haven't seen in years, as a special holiday to mark the end of our time here in Sheffield. God is very good.

Yesterday afternoon I played 'football' in the garden with Noah; then sat on the bench drinking a cup of tea while he fetched a purple plastic flower pot, set it upside-down on the lawn, put his left foot on the top, jumped forward over it, ran round in a circle, returning to the flower pot; put his left foot on the top, jumped forward over it, ran round in a circle, returning to the flower pot; put his left foot on the top, jumped forward over it, ran round in a circle, returning to the flower pot...and could, apparently, have continued doing this ad infinitum. It is fascinating to watch a small child repeat something over and over without losing the wonder in it. I am sure there is a life lesson to be learnt there, if I am willing to become child-like.

This afternoon, all four of us went to Daisy Robinson's third birthday party, at The Centre in the Park, in Norfolk Park. There are great views over the city from up there. Gareth and Lizzy, Daisy and Lucy, leave Sheffield to live in Phoenix, Arizona on Tuesday. We shall miss them very much. Jo and I have known Gareth since our university days - we were all in the same year, in the same Department - and, more recently, Lizzy has been a good friend to Jo; and Noah follows Daisy around like a forlorn puppy, while she - truly a teenager before her time - studiously ignores his attention; there's a life lesson to be learned there, too, my son...

We watched Dr Who tonight. It isn't only companions of Time Lords who have to deal with the emotional dislocations of travels through time and space...

Thursday, May 12, 2005


Jo is out at her monthly book group. Tonight, she's leading; they're discussing David Guterson's Snow Falling On Cedars - one of the few books on our shelf whose continuing presence there is secure. I'm babysitting, and - as I do more frequently now when Jo is out - taking the chance to listen to music (a pleasure I deny myself when she's around, as she isn't really a listening-to-music kind of person - especially not when it is U2, which with me it would be more often than not). Right now, POP is playing in the background...


...Well, I was just about to write down some thoughts on how strange it is right now, being in limbo between where I am, and soon to be leaving, and where I am going, which I don't even know - when two things interrupted me. Firstly, I heard Susie cry out in the attic, and by the time I got up there she was running around her room in that caught-between-asleep-and-awake state, distressed, like a bird that flies in the window and gets trapped in a room. I gathered her up in my arms; she broke free and ran round some more, clearly distressed by some thing, some dark presence coming against her, most likely trying to unsettle her about our impending move; I gathered her up again, and told anything present that was not of God to go - and immediately her body went from taut to floppy, from being tense to being at peace. I don't go looking for demons, but I love exercising Jesus' power and authority to drive them away when they come looking for trouble.

Then, while I was still holding Susie close, the phone rang: a call I'd been waiting for, someone getting back to us to say they'd like to buy our house. Father, deliver us from evil; would you protect this transaction, give it smooth passage, and give smooth passage to those moving on and those moving in. Amen.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Not On Any Map

In their introduction to "The Passionate Church: the Art of Life-Changing Discipleship" Mike Breen and Walt Kallestad write about the earthquake - measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale - that hit Hawkes Bay, New Zealand in February 1931:

"Once the smoke and dust cleared, the residents of Napier and Hastings were met with a great surprise. The shattered landscape bore little resemblance to the terrain they had known so well. Landmarks such as Napier Bluff Hill, a popular tourist destination, had been torn from the coast and tossed into the sea. What had once been flat ground was now a series of hills. Where there had been valleys, there was now level ground. Most shocking of all was the discovery that the water in Ahuriri Lagoon had somehow been swallowed up, leaving nine thousand acres of dry ground.
When the residents of Hawkes Bay setr about rebuilding their town, they faced a dilemma. The extent to which the earthquake had changed their environment was astonishing. Their maps of the region no longer applied; those maps showed roads running along land that no longer existed. and they did not show the new land heaved up by the earthquake.
Eventually the towns of Napier and Hastings were successfully rebuilt in the art deco style of the time (and to this day remain among the best examples of period architecture in the world) because those who directed the rebuilding threw out their maps and instead relied on a compass. When the landscape changes, maps are useless, but the compass is still trustworthy." [pp. 15, 16]

"Our compass is Jesus. Just as north is always north, Jesus never changes. As today's church passes through an ocean of cultural changes, it's our Compass that will keep us on course.
Our maps aren't working anymore. We've gotten away from the Compass...All that matters is the compass - Jesus. The Compass is true and will not lie." [p. 20]

The Celtic monks of old would get into small boats and head out across the sea, not knowing where they would hit land, but compelled onward beyond their horizon by the Holy Spirit. The history of mission is littered with such poured-out lives - such as the Cambridge Seven, who each gave up their glittering futures within the British aristocracy (at a time when to be part of the aristocracy was to exercise the greatest influence in society, in the nation that ruled the world) to take the Gospel of Jesus to the people of China, securing in the process earthly scorn and treasure in heaven.

Right now, I find myself in the midst of the crowd of witnesses. Several of the young adults who have come and spent the last twelve months being trained by us at St Thomas' have decided to pass up on worldly security and go and live in missional community on the estates of Sheffield - in Shiregreen, and Pitsmoor, and Upperthorpe. Several of the staff team feel compelled to live increasingly radical lives, dying to self, the specifics of which it is not my place to post here (yet).

And for us, as a family, God has called us to leave the security we have here and go to a place that He will show us. And so, I have recently handed in my three months' notice at work (I finish at the end of July); and we are selling our house - not knowing what the future holds; but knowing, and trusting, the One who holds it. In the eyes of the world, this is utter foolishness. In the eyes of many of our friends, it is very brave. In our opinion, it is a great big adventure of faith, as we throw off more and more things that so easily entangle, and run the race set out before us. We might not have a map; but then, the reality is no-one else does either. What we do have is the Compass, and a whole new continent to pioneer...

Saturday, May 07, 2005

...Pass It On

Memory, faux-nostalgia, and recycling.

We periodically cull our collection of books and CDs, lightening the load of Clutter in our lives. The task calls for a certain degree of ruthlessness: okay, that book has been on the shelf for so many years that it does have an emotional hold - the "I can't bear to part with it; I bought it the summer that something momentous happened, that I never recall as it is, but need a connection to..." syndrome - but, honestly, when was the last time I actually took it off the shelf and read it? (It is different for Jo, who re-reads many favourites on a regular basis. Me: "But you know what happens!" For me, the story has been set free inside my head, where it lives on in a symbiotic relationship.)

We reckon there are probably over 500 books in our house. The 200 works of fiction face the guillotine first (though the reference works and the children's books should not think that they will be spared). We have decided to keep around 40 of them - Jo's criteria being books that she re-reads most; mine, books that impacted me emotionally. Of the rest, those in worst condition have gone in the blue paper recycling bin; those that are most honestly described as "well used" have gone to the charity shop; and Jo put about 80 up for sale on Amazon last night (7 have sold already today).

I made the first charity shop run this morning, off-loading children's clothes and toys along with the books, and was caught on the way out by the rack of long-sleeved shirts, then by the rack of short-sleeved ones. Charity shops have come a long way. Most of the shirts were designer label - John Rocha, for example; around £50 on the High Street, £3.50 at Barnardos. Which is fantastic, because it has already been bought at full price, paying the workers who made the shirt; and will now be bought again, raising support for under-priveledged children. Time was, when charity shops were full of tat - ornaments and knick-knacks of the kind only seen elsewhere when visiting elderly relatives. Now, with the profile of giving to charity so high in the UK, you can dress really well - aesthetically, ethically, and affordably.

(This reminds me of a time when I worked as a bouncer in a charity shop in Sydney, Australia. I don't know how many charity shops have bouncers, but this one had a particular problem: a man who ran a second-hand clothes store for his own profit just around the corner would regularly come in and try to badger the female shop assistants into selling him items at less than the - already ridiculously cheap - ticket price, so he could sell them on at a profit. Stealing from charity is pretty low. Anyway, he came in, and saw me - a new face, who wouldn't know who he was - except that the other assistant was in the back and had just pointed him out to me. So, he started to spin a yarn about how he had fallen on hard times, and needed a suit because his daughter was getting married tomorrow, and tried - quite aggressively - to get me to part with a good suit in perfect condition for the equivalent of a couple of pounds...Suffice to say he more than met his match in another male, quite as aggressive and considerably younger, and didn't come back while I continued to work there!)

When I got back, I washed the car (at Jo's request - not an idea that I would ever have come up with!). I've never washed the car by hand before - when it gets dirty (okay, when it has been dirty for a long time), it gets an outing to the carwash. But not today. It was the strangest experience, evoking suburban Saturday mornings in 1950s America, all the Fathers out with their soapwater and sponge; and only secondarily somewhat-less-suburban Sunday mornings closer to home. One of our neighbours is a driving instructor, and he washes his car all the time; I've never "got it". I must confess, however, it felt alright tapping into all that iconic car-washing Stuff - though the answer to Jo's question, "Did it make you feel like a real man?" is no (but perhaps only because I don't understand the question).

Friday, May 06, 2005

Always Look On The Brightside Of Life...

(The Sheffield Brightside Parliamentary Constituency, that is.)

No real surprises in a thoroughly uninspiring General Election here yesterday: Labour returned to power for a third term, but with a significantly reduced majority; in a safe Labour seat, our MP David Blunkett was returned to Westminster with an 8.4% reduction in support from four years ago - and goes straight back into the Cabinet his private life forced him to resign from not so long ago, this time as Secretary for Work and Pensions; and the Conservatives are set to get yet another new leader...

So, I was wondering, how do Steven Croft's observations (see my previous post) engage with what we saw last night?

Shift from the centre to the edge: it is worth noting that Government is one of those Institutions from the old centre, and Institutions tend to lag behind change...61% of those eligible to vote did so, and 36% of that 61% voted for Labour. Not exactly a strong mandate. The resurgence of (more or less) peaceful mass demonstrations - e.g. to the war in Iraq, the fox-hunting ban, MakePovertyHistory - suggests that for growing numbers simply marking an X in a box once every four or five years, and by doing so signing-up to all of that party's policies, does not add up to the role of the public in democratic politics...The proliferation of fringe and single-issue parties would appear to have been significant too, even if they didn't win (many) seats in Parliament as a result. While the 61% who voted still did so predominantly along traditional geo-political lines, I'd be interested to see a break-down by age of the 39% who didn't vote.

Shift from geography to network: Yes, there is still a strong geo-political divide - northern and urban more likely to vote Labour; southern and rural more likely to vote Conservative - but most of the demonstrations noted above have transcended geo-political divides (fox-hunting being the most obvious exception). But how attractive/relevant is a static, geographic structure to volatile network culture? In summary, a both/and, rather than either/or, situation?

Shift from obligation to choice: well, 39% chose not to vote; but then, many people voiced a sense of obligation that denied them choice - an obligation to vote Labour, despite severe misgivings, out of fear of seeing the Conservatives return to power...Indeed, Labour used the fear card - "if you vote Lib Dem, you'll let in the Conservatives" - very effectively to oblige voters not to exercise choice, precisely because they recognised that culturally choice is replacing obligation.

Shift from religion to spirituality: in the broad sense that ideology and traditional party line has been replaced with pragmatism, both by the parties themselves and by the voters. Perhaps most accutely apparent in the torturous attempts of the Conservatives to re-invent themselves - which seem set to carry on indefinitely...(perhaps because they haven't fully grasped this shift - in 5 attempts they have failed to appoint the spiritual successor to Margaret Thatcher as their leader precisely because Margaret Thatcher's spiritual successor is the leader of the Labour party, Tony Blair).

Where do these contradictory signs point us, then? To Croft's assertion that we find ourselves in a highly complex cultural context, for sure. Croft may well be right that "the simple solution...is always wrong" - I'd suggest we need multiple simple solutions (as opposed to one complex one).

Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy

(Well, to northern Europe at any rate!)

One of the, somewhat unfair, criticisms of the emerging/new expressions of church movement is that "the key (high-profile?) proponents just travel from conference to conference, living a most un-Christ-like jet-set existence and not ever engaging in the missional activity they speak about with such passion." Where this criticism misses the mark most is in that little word "just"; but it is certainly true that much travelling does take place, networking and the cross-fertilisation of ideas being so important to us. (And the more jet-setting you do, the more and more distinctly unglamorous - not to mention self-sacrificial, and costly to the traveller's family - it very quickly becomes!)

Anyway, today I got to sit in on the very un-sexy Hallam Deanery Chapter Meeting (Anglican church leaders in our immediate geographic area). Our church was hosting it, so it involved no travel whatsoever for me; but did involve travel for our guest speaker, Steven Croft, the Archbishops' Missioner and Team Leader of Fresh Expressions, an initiative of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, supported by the Methodist Council.

Steven started by asking us to get into groups of four or five and share what our observations were of what is going on in culture, society, and the church at the moment, and how we felt about that. That in itself was an interesting exercise! Steven then shared some of his key observations, of shifts in northern European culture and society that the church was succeeding/failing to engage with. These included:

Shift from the centre to the edge: the church had first been pushed from the centre of society (Establishment, institution) to the edges, and then - as the church sought to move back into the centre - the centre itself was found to have disintegrated/imploded, leaving not something to return to at all, but an intirely new (pluralist - positively, neutrally and negatively so, I'd suggest) context...

Shift from geography to network: in terms of where/how people build their relationships, including supportive community. (Research-based quote from Steven: "People are not looking for friendly churches, but for churches where they can make friends..." - which is not the same thing, and which implies that the first-visit, first-impression welcome is not as significant as some would argue - though I'm not suggesting that it is insignificant)...

Shift from obligation to choice: people no longer attend church because they are obliged to do so by societal norms, but because they want to. Alongside this, many people claim to be Christian in their beliefs without choosing to belong to a church community at all; and there is a marked fluidity of belonging among those who do, based on the meeting of certain felt needs...

Shift from religion to spirituality: there appears to be an increase in people's awareness of "God", the effectiveness of prayer, the existence of evil; and no sign of decrease of the Big Questions, such as ultimate destiny, self-centredness v. self-sacrifice, suffering - although there is a declining knowledge of Christian faith, traditional answers to these questions, and this highlights the need - an potential opportunity - for a much strengthened Apologetics...

Steven's observations lead him to believe that there is much to be very positive about, but that we certainly need to get to grips with a context in constant movement at the present time (and for no-one knows how long into the furture). Another quote: "To every complex situation there is always a simple solution...and it is always wrong!" In response to which I would suggest that "The church in northern Europe has no future...but it has multiple entwined futures." Bring it on!

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Living Creatures

Jesus often used imagery from the natural world to describe the Kingdom of God - fish; wheat; birds and flowers; the largest, most aggressive weed in the garden; sheep, and goats. In part, this is incarnational communication par excellence, connecting with a people closely tied to the land through the everyday things of their experience - and to that extent we need to find new ways of telling the same stories in an urban context. But it is more than that: Jesus spoke about the Kingdom in organic terms because the Kingdom of God is organic. And while the Church and the Kingdom are not the same thing (the Kingdom is much bigger), the Church is (supposed to be) organic too - first and foremost an organism, not an organisation (organisms are, of course, highly organised, but the organisation serves the organism, and not the other way round). Even in an overwhelmingly urban setting, nature breaks through: whether it be one-step-removed - the BBC Natural History department or The Discovery Channel - or right-here-right-now - dandelions pushing through the concrete; a sparrow-hawk nesting in a cooling tower...so, let's not throw out those nature lessons completely!

There are 7 signs of biological life: movement, respiration, sensitivity, growth, reproduction, excretion, and nutrition. And these markers relate to living disciples, and living churches, too. Here are some questions (thanks to my friend Alex for the wording), a check-list if you like, for healthy living:

Movement: An organism that does not move either starves to death, or is themselves eaten: either way, it doesn't survive long. Jesus said, "Come follow me" and "Go and make disciples" - a rhythm of movement. Right now, in that rhythm, am I primarily coming or going? And, how quickly do I respond to stimuli (see Sensitivity), changing the 'leading beat' in that rhythm?

Respiration: is the process by which every cell produces energy, and involves breathing in and out. The Holy Spirit is described as holy 'breath' in both the Old and New Testaments (ruach and pneuma); and he gives us life. Is there any part of my life where he does not have access? And, am I striving to create energy, or allowing God to create energy in me?

Sensitivity: to stimuli - hunger, danger, exposure to the elements - causes animals to move. Plants turn towards the sun. We need to be sensitive towards both God and other people - which am I more sensitive towards, and what steps am I taking to improve my weaker area? Is there any area where I have hardened my heart towards God?

Growth: Recently I complimented my neighbour on her beautiful garden; she said that God should have all the credit for making it grow - but I wanted to point out that she knew how to partner with him in that. God causes growth, but we create an environment in which growth is either encouraged or discouraged. Growth is a contentious issue in churches - I hear comments such as "Numerical growth isn't the only marker of healthy life, you know!" - and this is true; but, if there is no numerical growth in a church, it is not healthy - the choice is to address the issue, or grow gradually sicker until a slow and painful death takes place. Where am I growing? Where do I want to grow?

Reproduction: every species reproduces; mammals do so at a slower rate than most, and so (generally speaking) expend a great deal of energy in seeing their offspring survive to maturity themselves. Reproduction leads to something new - something that is both continuity and change. In whom am I reproducing myself (spiritually speaking) at the moment? (i.e., who am I discipling?) Who does God want me to focus on in this season?

Excretion: we build up waste products internally, and if we do not expell these on a regular basis we get very ill: initially, we feel bloated; then our skin changes colour and texture, becoming waxy; and, ultimately, we would die a horrible death...and the same thing happens spiritually. Spiritual excretion involves confession, repentance, and forgiveness of others; while holding guilt, rebellion, pride, unforgiveness, bitterness, etc. inside has negative impact upon us, physically, emotionally, and spritually. Do I have a regular discipline of confession and repentance? Do I have any conscious unforgiveness towards anyone in my heart?

Nutrition: healthy diet (primarily, though not exclusively, in relation to what we eat) is a huge focus in western cultures right now - potentially creating an opening for discipleship. We need to learn what is good, and what is bad, for us to take into ourselves - e.g. what we watch on TV. We also (and this is a major need in western churches) need to learn how to self-feed, and not be spoon-fed by someone else. Is my spiritual diet nutritious? What small but tangible step can I take to make this summer healthier than ever?

(These markers are one of a series of 8 principles of discipleship that were developed at St Thomas' Church in Sheffield. Known as LifeShapes, they are about to be published - initially with the USA context primarily in mind, so please excuse the packaging if you are in a different context - in resources for churches and individuals. For more information, or to pre-order, check out stream247.com)

Monday, May 02, 2005

Bank Holiday Weekend

A bit of a whirlwind...Saturday morning I took Noah and hung out with the guys from Friday night, while Jo and Susannah went to the hairdressers ahead of Matt & Berniece's wedding in the afternoon. In keeping with the happy couple, several of the details that made up the event were pulled together at the last minute, and yet they got away with it...in fact, it was a great wedding, full of fun touches.

Susie, and Ana Swift, made the most gorgeous little bridesmaids. I took loads of photos - some of them are here. The reception took place at Sheffield Ski Village, which has great views over the city centre from the bar balcony, and terraces below. A managerie of small children amused themselves inside among a corner of stacked-up sofas, and outside on an area of rain-soaked wood-chippings (the bridesmaids' dresses mutating from white to winter-camoflage...). Susannah was so well-behaved, and I was so proud of her: being Father of the Bride(smaid) is like being Father of the Bride, but without the expense!

It is a sad day when the music you grew up with (all the early '80's New Romantic stuff) gets played for people who were only just (or, worse, yet to be) born at the time you were listening to it, because it is "retro"...Oi: that's not ****** retro - that's good music, cheeky whipper-snapper! Some of us felt very old. After all, it was twenty years ago.

I brought Noah downstairs on Sunday morning, to discover Michal sleeping on the sofa...water had come through his bedroom ceiling yet again. So, in the afternoon, we cut through the attic wall (I reckon you shouldn't be allowed to convert attics without leaving access to the eaves) to investigate. Water had quite clearly been coming through our roof (and not through the neighbours' roof and along internally, as the roofers who have checked it out twice suggested).

So, Bank Holiday Monday was observed in the traditional manner - a trip to B&Q, to buy silicone sealant, and MDF to create a removeable cover for the hole, allowing future access; followed by mowing the lawn before the obligatory down-pour...

Spent Sunday morning with a group of Christians, considering factors they wanted to take into account when voting this Thursday (environmental issues and addressing global poverty were the highest rated factors, in stark contrast to national polls); and Sunday evening watching Dr Who with Jo (the - brief - return of the Doctor's most infamous enemy of all, the Dalek). All-in-all, a busy but enjoyable couple of days.