Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Daring To Question LeadersHip

A friend of mine, a fellow curate in my diocese, is asking some great questions of the current obsession among evangelicals in particular, and evangelical-led mission theory/practice/agenda within the wider Church of England, with leadership and clergy as church leaders.  My friend Michael recognises that leadership is important; but also that it is not the central issue for priesthood (this conversation is set in the context of a church tradition that sets aside priests to serve the wider priesthood of all believers); and that, ironically, the fixation with leadership – overwhelmingly drawn from business models, from which, arguably, we do have things to learn – has prevented theological reflection on what leadership looks like.

Michael points out that there are many different types of leaders and leadership in the Bible, which we tend to amalgamate in a way that the biblical record does not.  For example, leadership in the Old Testament includes prophets, priests, and kings.  Prophets and priests occasionally but rarely overlap in one person; more often, they work alongside one another in different capacities (e.g. Moses and Aaron), or are even opposed to one another.  With the exception of the mysterious Melchizedek, priests and kings are quite deliberately differentiated roles given to separate people.  In the New Testament, there are several differentiated roles which could be described as exercising leadership while at the same time submitting to others – that is, both following another’s lead (in certain areas?) and taking a lead of others (in certain areas?) – including deacons, elders, and overseers (from which our tradition has developed a three-fold set-apart ministry of deacons, priests, and bishops); apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers (Ephesians 4 refers to us all, not just leaders; but that all includes leaders); and the head of the extended family (oikos).

In our tradition, we set certain people aside for particular priestly roles, which include pronouncing a formal blessing over God’s people, and presiding at Holy Communion (though I would suggest that neither blessing those who live around us nor sharing in the breaking of bread with fellow believers are ‘restricted’ activities).  Though other Christian traditions question the validity of this model, its rightness or wrongness is not the issue here.  Rather, the issue is: does it, and should it, automatically follow that the priest is the leader of the local congregation?  Should the vicar be ‘king’ as well as ‘priest’?  Should they be head of the oikos; or – not least as the oikos is a family-business model – might that role more appropriately be filled by another member, or members, of the congregation?

Here is another question: is leadership, however releasing and equipping of others ‘below’ you, however great the opportunities to rise up the ladder, hierarchical?  In both institutional church and contemporary business models, the answer is yes.  Or, is leadership flattened and multi-directional?

It seems to me that the various biblical ‘types’ of leader implies a flattened and multi-directional understanding: where the prophet can challenge the king, and the pioneering work of the evangelist is consolidated by the work of the pastor.

It seems to me that a local church does need leadership, in order that it grows together rather than apart.  My observation tells me that as a tradition we don’t really understand shared ministry very well; and that without clearly-defined roles exercised boldly and in mutual submission to one another, over time individual members start to behave like, well, individuals, rather than as parts of one body...Moreover, we need trans-local leadership, ‘oversight’ not (only) in the formal sense of Anglican bishops but in the informal sense of experienced consultants (clergy and laity) who can come alongside, not telling a congregation what to do but helping them process how they might better join-in in the mission of God in their neighbourhood.

I don’t claim to have all the answers.  But I am glad to be part of a movement that is committed to developing a culture of discipleship – of both following and leading as we seek to engage with Jesus’ challenge to repent and invitation to believe – within the local church; and helping people identify and grow in playing their particular part in the come-together and sent-out life of the church.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Becoming Christ-like

Discipleship is about becoming like Jesus.  This involves learning to do the things that Jesus did: that is why he sent out his disciples with power and authority to proclaim the kingdom of heaven, and to illustrate it by healing the sick, driving out demons, and even raising the dead.  But it also involves learning to live in the way Jesus did: concerned with being, not simply doing.  Indeed, this is extremely important, partly because doing flows out of being, and if our being is conflicted or compromised, what we do will be conflicted or compromised; and partly because there will be times when we are simply not able to do – times when we are laid low by long-term illness, for example, or where we find ourselves in a faithless context (even Jesus himself could do almost nothing in Nazareth, so why should it be any different for us?) – and only by attending to being will we know that our identity is not diminished by such constraints.

So, how did Jesus live life?  Here is a man who asked God to forgive those who had had him flayed and nailed to a scaffold to die.  Here is a man whom we see repeatedly disappointed and frustrated at his followers and those who opposed him alike failing to see what was so clear to him...and yet he was not misshaped by disappointment or frustration.  The only possible explanation is that he chose to look on followers and opponents alike with uncompromising love, and ruthless forgiveness.

It is inevitable that as we hold out that for which Christ has taken hold of us, as we look to freely give what we have been freely given, as we seek to see God’s transforming kingdom break-in to our present experience, that we will also experience the disappointment and frustration of those who are open to us and those who set themselves against us alike failing to see what is so clear to us.  And if we see them ‘horizontally’ we will turn it into a battle of wills which will only serve to further tie-up both them and ourselves.  But if we see them ‘vertically,’ with uncompromising love and ruthless forgiveness, we will engage in a battle which will serve to further free both them and ourselves (who, however clearly we might see, still only see as in the reflection of highly-polished bronze).

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Timothy And Titus

Today is the lesser festival of Timothy and Titus, Companions of Paul.

Today I am giving thanks for older Christians who have invited me into their lives, invested in me as a partner in their missional journeys, and released me into my own.

Thank you.  You know who you are.

Through my experiences, and most likely building on my own ‘relator’ and ‘belief’ preferences, I have been ‘hard-wired’ for communitas – that particular quality of relationship between people that is forged by engaging in a common task in the context of the difficulty that exists outside stability, such as is forged between soldiers, or rescue workers, or Paul and Timothy and Titus: marked by a deep love, trust, respect; by a deep sharing of life.  And like soldiers who struggle to re-enter civilian life, so I miss communitas when I am surrounded by people who have not experienced it, who know only of community – that particular quality of relationship that is forged by engaging in our own parallel tasks in the context of the luxury that exists within stability.

The vast majority of clergy in the Church of England work hard, but our shared understanding of ministry is ‘hard-wired’ for working in isolation: to prepare sermons on our own, to visit the housebound on our own.  More recently, and for largely pragmatic reasons, we have put clergy into ‘teams’ – but without addressing the underlying paradigm.  As a result, ‘teams’ tend to be individuals still working in isolation but now interfering in one another’s work, to the frustration of everyone.  The feedback I hear time and again from people working in such ‘team’ ministry is of how frustrating it is, reinforcing the default to isolation as the most effective way of working.

For me, not only is isolation not my preference, it also goes against my fundamental belief that we should work in real teams, bringing our different gifts to bear.  Yes, I believe those teams should include the whole church, the laity as well as the clergy; but that they should include the laity does not mean that they should exclude the clergy working together, not simply in the same place.  And yet, at the present time, I am constrained.  Communitas takes time to forge, and that only after you have persuaded others to leave the safety of the known world behind, to follow you on a quest on the doubtful success of which the ongoing existence of that familiar community (ironically) lies.

And so I am learning – slowly, painfully, still far from ‘I have learned’ – that God works through us even when we are constrained.  For while I am not in a literal cell, as Paul was – and as other Christians have been much more recently, and even are today – I find myself in a cell without walls.  But God is not constrained by walls – physical or otherwise – and neither is his working through us.  It doesn’t look like what we might hope for or choose; but if we only lived as we hoped for or chose we would miss out on so very much of who God is and what he longs for us.  He is enough, and that is more than enough.  Which doesn’t make it easy – I am no saint.  But it does mean that despair has no place, nor self-pity, nor what we see from an earthly perspective.  As so often, what looks, from that perspective, complex and/or easy (“if my circumstances were x rather than y, everything would be much better; but they aren’t”) is in fact simple but hard (holding on to the truth that God is enough).

Our God-given preferences matter – I do believe God wants to release us to fulfil their potential – but how they are best put to use is not necessarily how we might believe them best released.  Difficulty is, after all, the necessary context for communitas...and though I am constrained, I am not left alone in the world.  Though at times the lure of community is tempting, in times such as those we live in, it would be a poor exchange.

Which brings me back to celebrating the lesser festival of Timothy and Titus, Companions of Paul; praying that I, too, may be a ‘Paul,’ who pours my life out into other men and women, investing in their call to partner with God in his mission.

Heavenly Father, who sent your apostle Paul to preach the gospel, and gave him Timothy and Titus to be his companions in faith: grant that our fellowship in the Holy Spirit may bear witness to the name of Jesus, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

(Collect for the lesser festival of Timothy and Titus, Companions of Paul: Common Worship)

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Problem As I See It

When I look at the church – both the local churches in which I am located, and the wider institutional Church to which they belong – I see the problems.  My sentences in conversation, my posts on my blog, often – very often – begin, “The problem is...”

This is not because I am a negative person.

This is because I am wired as a change-agent; and with the following StrengthsFinder strengths:

Strategic – spotting relevant patterns and issues, and creating alternative ways to proceed.

Intellection – intellectual activity, introspection and intellectual discussion.

Relator – enjoying close relationships and finding deep satisfaction in working hard with friends to achieve a goal.

Belief – unchanging core values, out of which emerges a defined purpose for my life.

Ideation – fascination with ideas, and the ability to find connections between seemingly disparate phenomena.

I see things that need to be addressed, and look to nurture close relationships with others to forge a team to play the game together.  And where I am free to be me, and to serve the church primarily by playing to my strengths, and relating to the complementary strengths of others, it is a joyful thing, albeit a fight: like a sports team who belong to one another, win, draw or lose.

The problem is, at the moment I am not free to play to my strengths...

The problem is, the longer such conditions continue, the harder it is to not slip into negative mindsets, where the problems cease to be exciting challenges...

Better explore some alternative ways forward!

Authority : Destruction : Disturbance

Some further reflections on Mark 1:21-28

[1] Jesus teaches with the authority that comes from sharing experienced- and lived-out wisdom; from revealing something of yourself (being vulnerable), as opposed to showing how much knowledge you have acquired (being invulnerable).  This is the authority of a woman whose husband has been killed by terrorists, or a father whose schoolboy son has been stabbed to death by teenagers, speaking about forgiveness.  What they say does not come cheap, but, through costly trial and testing, has been proven: and just as they want to pass on what they have learnt, so others want to hear.

[UPDATE: If we compare Mark's account with that of Luke - Luke 4:31-37, in the context of Luke 4:14-30 - we see that when the demon addresses him as Jesus of Nazareth - from where he has come from a recent rejection by the synagogue congregation - it is a taunt, challenging the validity of his authority.  Jesus does not back down from the challenge.  We, too, will face mocking whispers seeking to undermine, hoping to cause us to retreat. Like Jesus, we will need to stand our ground.]

[2] Jesus exercises his freedom to bring freedom to others, through the destruction of that which holds them captive (whether the demonic, as in this passage, or whatever form the manifestation of captivity takes; see 1 John 3:8b “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.”).  Again, this is an example of exercising authority, and of the passing-on of authority: for Jesus drives out demons, and then sends out his disciples with authority to do likewise, on the grounds that they have seen and been involved in Jesus doing this very thing.  Jesus’ mission – taken from Isaiah 61:1-3 – is to set people free.

[3] Jesus’ activity of setting people free creates a degree of inevitable disturbance.  The order of the synagogue is disrupted by this encounter.  When we gather together, appropriate order is important; but the need for order does not override Jesus’ agenda to set people free.  When Jesus binds up the broken hearted, or proclaims freedom for people held captive, or releases prisoners from darkness; when he declares and carries out God’s vengeance against the spiritual enemies of his people; when he exchanges beauty for ashes, gladness for mourning, and praise for despair; it can be a messy affair!  Does that offend us?  Do we demand order over setting people free?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Embracing Freedom, Extending Freedom

Next weekend, a couple of days after Holocaust Memorial Day [I prefer the Jewish term Shoa, or calamity, to the Greek term Holocaust, or burnt offering to a god; for even if we accept that these events were offered to false, pagan gods, calamity is the deeper reality, not only for the Jewish people but for humanity as a whole], I am due to preach on Jesus in the synagogue (Mark 1:21-28; 3:1-6).

The thing that impresses itself on me in this account is the collision of two approaches to faith: concern to avoid sinning; and concern to embrace freedom, and to use that freedom responsibly, to bring freedom to others.  (Both these approaches to faith are alive and well, in the Jewish and the Christian communities today.)

Let us consider a scenario that relates to the Holocaust, or Shoa.  There were Christians who sheltered Jews from the Nazis.  The Jewish community honours them as Righteous Gentiles, and you can walk – as I have done – along the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem, the national Shoa memorial in Jerusalem.  One fateful day, Gestapo officers arrive at the door, and ask: “Are you sheltering Jews?”

The person who is concerned to avoid sinning is compelled, however regretfully, to answer “Yes.”  They cannot bring themselves to break the Command “You shall not bear false witness” by intentional deceit – even if it cost them their own life; even if other men will choose not to obey the Command “You shall not kill” (that is, surely, between them and their Creator).

The person who is concerned to embrace freedom is compelled to answer “No.”  They will fulfil the Command “You shall not bear false witness” by refusing to hand over lives into the grasping hand of death.  Intentional deceit is absolutely necessary for their witness to be true and not false.  If found out, death will take them, too, by force: but they will embrace the freedom to lay down their life.  Knowing what will be done, to abdicate responsibility for the deaths of others would be to be complicit in that murder.  (Indeed, some were compelled to conclude that they must take responsibility for killing Hitler, not out of expediency and pragmatism but deep Christian conviction: deliberately owning a rejection of a shallow interpretation of the letter of the Law in order to act according to the spirit of the Law – God himself does this – and trusting themselves to God’s judgement and mercy.)

Of course, this seems to us to be an extreme example, a clear exception to the rule: in our own lives, things are not so black-and-white, and claiming exceptions to the rule is surely just an attempt to justify our own failure or refusal to live as God sets out for us?  No: such a response reveals deep-seated concern to avoid sinning rather than concern to embrace freedom.  Things are never black-and-white for the person in the midst of them.  Our response flows out of our motivation, which is often conflicted, requiring of us that we test it again and again against the person of Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.

This is why a simplistic call to return to the Ten Commandments, as is made from time to time by British politicians, is utterly inadequate.

Concern to avoid sinning inevitably results in calamity: because unless we step out knowing that we will fall short of what ought to be done and trespass onto what ought not to be done, but that we can know forgiveness and experience reconciliation, we will never step out – never speak up, never take a stand against evil – at all.

Concern to embrace freedom inevitably lands us right in the middle of calamity, with Jesus, whose death and resurrection life ultimately consumes its flames.  It is the costliest, and most alive, place to be.

In a society caught up in economic crisis and political turmoil, where shrill voices draw attention to immigrant scapegoats, and honeyed voices argue the financial need to sacrifice the least productive and most vulnerable members of our communities – in a society touched by calamity – these issues are absolutely pertinent.  We need to ask:

Where are we being called to embrace freedom today?  To whom will we take responsibility to extend freedom today?  Whom must we shelter?  Whom must we speak out for?

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Christian Life

The Christian life is not concerned to avoid sinning; but to embrace freedom, and use it responsibly, to bring freedom to others.  It is not a negative outlook on life (Do Not Touch) but a positive outlook in a world that longs to be transformed (Touch, and in touching, heal).  This is not playing with words: the life that seeks to avoid sinning and the life that seeks to embrace freedom are fundamentally opposed to one another, lead in opposite directions, and to opposing consequences.

This is clearly seen in the encounters Jesus has in the synagogue.  We must not view his critics as insincere in their faith: they are devout in their pursuit of a life that seeks to avoid sinning.  From such an outlook, one must unavoidably come to the conclusion that to interpret scripture boldly, personally, without the safeguard of appealing to the wisdom of experts, would place you at (too great a) risk of sinning; and likewise that to heal the broken body or drive out demonic parasites places you at risk of sinning by breaking the command to rest from work on the Sabbath, or indeed causes you to have actually sinned.

Jesus, however, is not concerned to avoid sinning, but to embrace freedom, and use it responsibly, to help others embrace that same responsible freedom.  From such an outlook, one must unavoidably come to the conclusion that to interpret scripture timidly, impersonally, relying on appealing to the wisdom of experts, would be to shrink back from the freedom God intends for his children;* and likewise that to pass by the opportunity to embrace that freedom by using it to bring freedom to someone else – held from freedom by a constricting physical condition or demonic oppression** – would be to shrink back from freedom: to shrink back from life, and so incur wrath.  His interpretation of scripture, and response, is of a wholly other paradigm.

Jesus is not bound by the fear that he might even inadvertently offend God.  He already knows that love covers a multitude of sins and that the sin that separates us from God and neighbour can be forgiven and relationships reconciled.  Indeed, he would live and die by that belief: daring (as his cousin had recognised and his followers came to realise) to carry the sin of the world, and that for years before his crucifixion.  Indeed, Jesus is not concerned to avoid sinning, because such an attempt tragically misses the point.  The irony is that the life lived seeking to avoid sinning must so withdraw from the world that it is found guilty of the sin of having never lived, having never embraced the freedom God intended.  And one who has never lived cannot die to self; and so can have no share in Christ.  Truly, the Christian life cannot be walked on this legalistic path.  Rather, it is run – heart pounding, lungs bursting – on the path of freedom, in the footsteps of Jesus, who is just ahead of us, joyfully leading the way...

*By this I do not mean that any interpretation goes – it must be an expression of responsible freedom, in keeping with having been given freedom and being held responsible for how we use that freedom – but that there is no value in reciting the teaching of your favourite Bible teacher unless you have discovered the freedom of which they speak and taken responsibility to exercise that freedom for yourself, in your own life.  Moreover, boldness in embracing freedom ought not to be equated with bravado or machismo: which are mere masks with which to hide our fear, our deep lack of true love of our true self and therefore inability to love our neighbour as ourselves.

**By this I do not mean that all healing, or all freedom, will take place in this life; but that we must make use of our freedom to set others free – whatever that might look like in any given circumstance, under the prompting of the Holy Spirit – if our freedom is to be freedom at all.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Real Men

Mark Sayers regularly offers a really interesting perspective from Australia, and this reflection on the whole male-crisis-in-the-church thing is no exception...

UPDATE: And read Mark's follow-on reflections here.

On The Idolatry Of Success

“In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things the figure of Him who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger and is at best the object of pity...The figure of the Crucified invalidates all thoughts which take success for its standard.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Pitfalls Of Survival

I want to write more posts about my own present church context.  That is potentially risky; but it will help me to process things, and to engage with others in similar contexts, which may be useful for them too.

St Peter’s is a parish church that hasn’t had a vicar for some eleven years and counting.  Since then, and until a year ago, there was a house-for-duty priest (a post usually geared for keeping things turning over).  Over time, the church has retreated from being a community that was quite experimental and even pioneering, to being a community focused on survival – which, ironically and counter-intuitively, offers the best chance of extinction.  We are there for only two years, and I do not have the mandate or authority of a priest-in-charge.  Having spent six months in observation and (attempting some) reflection and (initial) discussion, our role over the next eighteen months will not be to lead the church into the future (as, I think, many are hoping) but to help the church make the shift from being passively shaped by and for survival to being intentionally positioned to be able to follow wherever God may lead.

Jo and I have been drawn to these verses in Hebrews:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.  And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”  (Hebrews 12:1, 2a, TNIV)

The writer distinguishes between two things that prevent us from being able to run after Jesus.  There is sin, from which we need to be disentangled; but the implication is that there are many things that hinder us that are not, in-and-of-themselves, sinful, but which nonetheless need to be thrown off.  Churches are much better at starting things than stopping things, than intentionally throwing off things that were and even are good but which are hindering us.

Some of the key survival-paradigm baggage hindering us – and many other churches – includes:

Investing (people) in our resources over investing (our resources) in people
By this I mean where the structures of ‘greater’ involvement or oversight responsibility – often piece-meal, often unconnected – focus on servicing what currently exists (e.g. services, buildings, cells), rather than on helping people identify the part they are called to play and investing in them to do so well, in creative collaboration with others.  One consequence of this is that individuals find their own disconnected ways to run with projects that, while not necessarily bad projects, are neither owned by (in the participatory, not proprietary, sense) the church as a whole nor integrated as parts of a bigger picture...and this, in turn, generates more and more that needs to be maintained and greater complexity to somehow manage.  Another consequence is turn-over in roles, rather than handing-on of roles; a regular starting-from-scratch (or endless referring back to the ‘expert’) rather than raising-up successors who, building on what we have done, can go beyond us.

Short-term over long-term
In most churches you will find a few very committed people who do a lot, faithfully, to keep things turning over.  Some of these things need doing.  But the survival paradigm always reverts to what appears to be the most efficient (short-term) use of energy, rather than the most strategic (long-term): in this case, to do a job yourself instead of train someone up to take it on – which, in turn, over time, blinds us to who else might do the job.  Our most committed people get tied-up doing things that do not necessarily require their attention, or are missed opportunities to invest in others.

Willingness over gifting
In survival-mode, where unfilled roles have been identified as needed, these have a tendency to be filled – whether by approved appointment or assumed self-appointment – on the basis of willingness, without reference to gifting.  Willingness is not a bad thing in itself: but it can be cheerful, or pressed-into-service; can be self-serving, or other-serving; can release us into our created-for role, or allow us to be diverted into the wrong role.  By ‘gifting,’ I mean both God-given passion (you are a gift from God), and learnt skills that are submitted to God’s training and deployment.  The default to willingness happens where those with the appropriate passion and skills are already over-committed; or over-looked; or fear being further sucked-into a grinding survival-focus.  Almost inevitably in this paradigm, where no-one from within the church is found to take on key roles these have been given to people who are not part of the church, usually to a friend of a friend as the need is passed on by word of mouth: lovely people, willing people; not necessarily possessing the relevant passion or skills, or the necessary support; and not sharing the values of the church – except to the extent that those values are not distinctively fixed-on and running-after Jesus, as will increasingly be the case in a survival mode.  I want to see those outside of the church drawn in to the life of the church as we serve the wider community; but not given key roles where they do not choose to identify themselves with the church, beyond the role in question.

Past over future
This is where we continue to serve the wider community in ways which met needs and contributed something distinctive in the past, but which either no longer meet needs or are significantly duplicated elsewhere today.  Having finite resources (people, building, finance, etc.), present out-dated priorities mean that we have limited capacity to participate, as servant members, in the wider community as it is now, and as it is becoming.  While there is, inevitably, emotional attachment to long-established and appreciated activities, there is very likely also fresh vision for today and tomorrow, which needs to be released.  Some of the things that need to be thrown-off will cost us: simply throwing-off things no one values anymore will not suffice.

Focus on lack over provision
This is where, in a number of areas of our corporate life, we struggle to identify people who can take ownership.  This is not because the people aren’t there – which often results in those who ‘carry more than their fair share’ resenting those who ‘don’t pull their weight,’ as we focus on the lack rather than the people God has provided.  This raises the question: is that because this area - ‘a’ – is one of the things that hinder, that we need to throw off; or is it because people need to be released from other things in the life of the church – ‘x,’ ‘y,’ or ‘z’ – that need to be thrown off?  It also highlights the importance of re-structuring for identifying, investing in, releasing and supporting leaders.

This may seem like a lot of areas that need addressing in our churches!  But my conviction is that they are aspects of one thing that needs to be addressed (and symptoms of one thing that has been neglected): discipleshipBy committing to help one another fix our eyes on Jesus, discerning and running with perseverance the race marked out for us – both at the macro- and the micro-level; as the body of Christ in our neighbourhood and as differentiated member-parts of that one body – I believe that communities trapped in survival mode can be released to rediscover their true calling.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Wolves In Sheep's Clothing

When an ambitious and charismatic leader consistently champions the brave unchallengeable Superman over against ‘weak’ men; insists on barring a whole group of persons from positions of authority on grounds of their birth; and creates and lampoons scapegoats to account for the woes facing the constituency to which he is appealing; it is disturbing to hear friends say, “I don’t agree with his views on XX, but I approve of how he stands up for us against the ungodly, and as for his extremism perhaps he will mellow with time.”

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Confessions Of A British Preacher

This morning I put on my cassock (a dress, if you will – though the cut is far from flattering) and surplice, in preparation to preach.  I’ll be honest: it wouldn’t be my first choice.  It offends my sense of relevance.  But then again, it reminds me that I am not the Authority on relevance; and, indeed, that relevance has its blind-spots and limitations anyway.  It reminds me that I stand there in continuity with faithful preachers of God’s word through many generations.  It helps those listening, in particular the older members of the congregation, to hear what I bring: I would not want my clothes to so offend that the messenger was a stumbling-block to the message.  And those layers have their plus side, in the cold snap that finally arrived this weekend.

So I put on my dress and preached to a congregation of grandmas.  And granddads; middle-aged folk; younger adults...Mostly older than myself, I grant you.  A group of people who feel like they have been sheep without a shepherd for a long time; who are harassed and helpless.  A group of people who sense new life.  A group of people whose number is being added to.

I preached that our neighbours’ lives will not be transformed if they might only come into our beautiful building (though I believe God can speak through it); or even if they might get to know us, our caring community (though, again, I do believe God reveals himself through that care); but that what we and our neighbours need is to see Jesus and to respond to him.  (After all, revelation that demands a response is what an epiphany is; and if we don’t take the opportunity of the Season of Epiphany to learn how to see and respond, we miss a gift.)  I preached that God wants to reveal himself to us, and looks for a response; but that it doesn’t happen by accident: we need to learn how to see him, and how to respond.  And so we looked together at an account of Jesus’ first disciples (John 1:35-51) and I spoke about how our lives, which go about our day-to-day business chronologically, are interrupted by a completely other quality of time – wonderful times, and sad times; difficult times, and significant times – and that it is in these interruptions that epiphanies occur.  Drawing on the passage from John, I unpacked how together we see Jesus, causing a change of perspective; and how together we follow Jesus in intentional response.  I spoke about the need to help one another see Jesus in the interruptions of our lives; to reflect on what we have seen; to do that in discussion.  I spoke about the need to prepare, or plan (albeit provisionally) how we will follow, not least drawing others with us; to be accountable together, for the distance; if our following is to be an enduring act.

And then I asked anyone present, who was experiencing one of those interruptions, and who was wanting to see Jesus in that interruption, to stand, so that we could pray for them.  Which is not the way in which things have been done.  And of course, at first no one stood up.  Preaching for a specific response, and responding, both take courage.  But as I started to pray for us as a church, people stood, and we prayed for them too.  It wasn’t hyped, or manipulated: but it was as if people had been longing for an opportunity to respond to God in a bodily way.

Afterwards, a lot of people gave, in their own way and their own words, testimony of seeing Jesus; or expressed thanks for having been equipped to see and to respond to Jesus, in a way they hadn’t experienced before.

That’s the way in which I intend to preach.  To help us see Jesus and respond: to come to Jesus, entering into covenant relationship; and to be sent by him, entering into kingdom breakthrough.  There will be occasions, I am sure, when I bottle it.  There have been in the past; just as there have also been times when, I have been told by people whose judgement I value, that my faltering words have been powerfully anointed.

And yes, there is a part of me that would like to be a celebrated preacher.  But – while I will always seek to prepare for a few as I would for a multitude – to be honest, the extent to which I crave recognition is the extent to which my life is not submitted to God, to which I have not embraced discipline and healing.

So there you have it.  I wear a ‘dress’ and preach to grandmas.  I am not known by millions around the world.  Like Jesus’ first disciples – like Peter, on whom he chose to build his Church – I have moments of cowardice, though I don’t think that would be a fair summary statement, because I seek to speak the truth of our need to see and respond to Jesus – the truth as I understand it, recognising with confidence and humility that, with future epiphanies, I will discover that my hunch about Jesus is affirmed but that my present understanding of who Jesus is is (at any given time) incomplete.

And I am not alone in these things.  There are others like me.  Reports of the death of the British preacher are misinformed.

As you were.

Friday, January 06, 2012

A Feast For Epiphany

The mind-blowing thing about the incarnation is not that Jesus looks like God.  (After all, Jesus is fully-human, and human beings are created in the image of God.)  The mind-blowing thing about the incarnation is that God looks like Jesus.  (After all, Jesus is also, uniquely, fully-God and the full revelation of God).

Jesus reveals what God is like, fully, in how he lived.  That means that the incarnation reveals to us that God, who could know everything and do anything without help, chooses to empty himself of these things; chooses to come to us, to learn with us, even to learn from us.  That the One who created you wants to know, at the very least, “what is it like being you; what is your experience of life, of the world, of time and space (of being part of something infinitely greater than you that would be infinitely diminished were you not part of it)?”

That God, who could know everything, chooses not to (and so opens himself to the delight of discovery) is, surely, what holds divine sovereignty and human free-will in creative paradox.

And if God, who is by nature omniscient, chooses not to be, then we, who are finite – whose knowledge is by nature partial and provisional – ought not to go about in the world as if we Know.  Isn’t this the temptation of human pride; that those who speak of God are, perhaps more than anyone, caught out by, subtly ensnared by?

As we carry the good news that Jesus has been revealed in the world, as rightful King over all creation, we ought to go with confidence in the good news but not with pressing, un-listening, insistence: for that is not how he came.  We are sent as
ambassadors not conquistadors.  We look for the ‘person of peace,’ who welcomes us in, who opens their life to us, who ministers to us.  We come enquiring...and from that place go proclaiming what we have seen and heard; not the other way around.  That way, rather than imparting information, we participate in transformation.  It is, by far, the riskier path; the path that does not commend itself to us.  It is the heaven-led path of Epiphany; the path that Jesus (having been shown it by the Magi) walks and bids us, “Come, follow me.”

Thursday, January 05, 2012


Advent is the invitation to hopeful waiting for Jesus to come...

Christmas is the invitation to joyful celebration, in the face of suffering brought about by his coming into the world, as light exposes the works of darkness...

Epiphany is the invitation to step out into the world, searching for clues to where Jesus may be found...

To search him out, in community with fellow seekers, looking not with earth-bound eyes but from the perspective of the heavens, leaving behind the comfort of our familiar world, where we are Somebody, to journey to the edge of our understanding and then to be led another step beyond, to find him where we would least expect to find him, in the midst of ordinary lives caught up in events far beyond their control, to give our resources to those he has entrusted himself to, to have our trust abused by those moved by dark self-interest, to inadvertently cause pain even great pain to the innocent and yet to trust that the One who has led us to this place will not turn his back on the hurting and confused.

Epiphany is the invitation to step out, in this case into 2012, into the unknown but foreboding days that lie ahead, with eyes open and hearts on fire, and ask, “Where is the one born to be king, born to liberate his people, born to usher-in the kingdom of life?”  Where is he here, coming alongside, his manifest Body – the local church, as a tangible alternative to ungodly structures of power – releasing and affirming life within the wider community?

Epiphany is the key that unlocks the treasure-chest of our life, enabling us to bring out old treasures and to add newly-discovered treasures, to be brought out in their turn, to teach and to train for life as ambassadors of the kingdom of heaven.

The four-week Season of Epiphany begins tomorrow, with the Feast.  How will we engage with this gift?  What old treasures will we rediscover anew? 
What new treasure will we find?