Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Jesus-given : Shepherds

Over the course of the past year I've been working on a series of papers on discipling apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds (pastors), and teachers.

Here is the latest: my thoughts, for what they are worth, on shepherds. For those who are pastoral types, and those discipling them.

Saturday, June 22, 2013


It struck me today that one of the things that I do that simply isn't reflected in my blogging is watch a lot of television drama. I love the small screen. Why? Well, I love stories; and the big screen simply doesn't tell stories very well: it tends to hide weak characterisation and plot behind big visual impact. Two hours isn't long enough to develop a story - even trilogies tend to attempt to go one better than the film before on impact more often than attempt to take us on a journey. Eight or ten 50-minute episodes allows a story to be told (and the BBCs The Hour shows that you can have amazing attention to visual impact through colour, rather than big budget set piece special effects). I like story-telling; but I don't read very well - reading takes such an effort for me (a consequence of dyspraxia and dyslexia) that I very rarely get more than two-thirds of the way through a novel, however engaging I find it. So I watch a lot of TV drama.

Earlier this year, we watched Broadchurch (ITV). Seaside town is rocked by the death, in suspicious circumstances, of a young boy. As a Whodunnit it didn't work: the identity of the person responsible was telegraphed by the refusal of the investigating officer to believe that anyone could be unaware if someone close to them was a killer. But then, I would suggest that Broadchurch was not a Whodunnit, but an exploration of what such an event does to a community. And as such, it was excellent. At first, the town turns on itself: everyone is a suspect; everyone has secrets, and, as those secrets are dragged into the public glare, more than one person who had moved to the town to rebuild their life after some sorrow or other finds their life made unbearable once more.

In Broadchurch, everyone is a complex character. And yet the script-writers do something very interesting: every character is likeable. Not in a too-good-to-be-true way, but in a people-are-both-flawed-and-yet-still-likeable way. This is a truth we need to be reminded of, when tempted to dislike our neighbours.

The town goes on a journey, from turning against itself to coming together, in order to rebuild their lives. Interestingly - unusually in fiction, though an accurate observation of real events - the vicar and the church building plays a central role in this process, despite the vicar's own struggles as an alcoholic in recovery, despite the suspicion with which clerics are tarred in relation to young boys, despite the irrelevance of the church for many most of the time.

A second series has been commissioned. It will be interesting to see where the story goes.

More recently we have watched The Fall (BBC). Sexually predatory female police officer heads up the hunt for sexually predatory male serial killer. In many ways, each is the mirror of the other. Both see themselves as outside, and above, 'herd' morality. As such, neither is as interesting as they believe themselves to be. Nor as unique, for it turns out that moral ambivalence runs through everyone. When we write our own rules, it turns out that we have no originality in us.

Whereas in Broadchurch every character is in some sense likeable, in The Fall there is not one likeable character in the entire cast. And this, too, is a very honest portrayal of people: a great many of whom are quite unlikable, if how we feel about others, and behave ourselves, is any guide. Honest, but without any sense of hope.

I don't believe that the Church has a monopoly on hope, and I certainly wouldn't want the church portrayed as the place of hope in every drama, but hope is necessary. It must be found somewhere: and it must be found somewhere outside of ourselves; must be found and cherished with others.

A second series has been commissioned. While I suspect awards will be won, I'm not sure I can be bothered to keep watching.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Clothes : House

"For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs."

I am reflecting on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday, Luke 8:26-39, and the Epistle paired with it, Galatians 3:23-29. Both passages are concerned with wearing clothes, and living in a house.

Clothing has always been about more than a practical covering. Clothing has a key role to play in our cultural identity, symbolizing our connections with others. Different societies, and different layers of society, have come up with their own clothing solutions, as a means of reminding us, and informing others, of our place - of where and how we fit in to the Bigger Picture. Clothes might denote social status, profession, family ties, affiliations - or the overlaps of two or more of these.

In the Greco-Roman world, there was not the sheer diversity of clothing that advances in technology down the ages has made available to us. The main factor distinguishing different groups was the quality of the raw material used, as indicator of social status. But men, regardless of wealth, would ordinarily wear a knee-length woolen tunic under a woolen cloak. In Jewish culture, clothing was part of the marriage contract: wives were required to provide the family with clothes (made in the home); husbands were required to provide their wives with the the raw material to do so.

Like clothes, houses are not simply practical means of protection against the elements: the ways in which we go about solving that problem speaks volumes about our cultural values and connections to others. In Jesus' world, houses were typically one- or two-room homes built around a shared central courtyard. People lived in extended family groups - and those extended families worked together as well as lived together. So, for example, Jesus' home would have been an extended family of builders, or stone masons, possibly living next to other families of builders - until he was rejected by that community (for pointing out that God's concern extends beyond his chosen people and the land he had given them) and found inclusion within an extended family of fishermen instead (see Luke 4).

So when we read about Jesus, having gone beyond the border of the Land, being met by a man who for a long time had not worn clothes or lived in a house, we are hearing a story about one man who has been rejected by his family meeting another man who has been rejected by his family. And this man - unlike Jesus' own people, his own family - recognizes who Jesus is.

But the man is worried that Jesus, also, will reject him. Worse: that he will hold out the hope of freedom, only to dash it once more. And in a sense, Jesus will reject him (which raises another issue: what do we do when Jesus says, "No!"?).

This man's situation is contained: he cannot be restrained, but he can be managed; he lives among the dead, where no one else will go, for fear of the spirits of the dead. (Only after the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire did the departed come to be seen as friends; only then did cemeteries come to be located first within cities and in time gathered around church buildings.) Here is contained fear: Jesus' actions, defying the containment, result in unconstrained fear - first among the unclean spirits, then among the citizens when they find the man 'clothed and in his right mind.'

Not for the first time, Jesus is not welcome. The man who did welcome him begs to be allowed to depart with him; and Jesus refuses. Jesus rejects him. Why? Because Jesus did not cross the Lake to extract the man from his community, but to restore him to his community; more than that, to reunite a divided community, to restore the community. The man has been clothed - someone (Jesus?) has surrendered their outer garment, their cloak, to cover his nakedness (or lack of outer garment). Now he must go home. Now he must return to the extended family, the network of workplace relationships, that had been unable to cope, and take up his part within the family - telling everyone who he will come into contact with through that household what God had done in restoring them to one another.

In his letter to the believers in Galatia, Paul picks up the same language, of being 'clothed in Christ' and of being sons and heirs - that is, members of a household - to express the restoration of a divided community, whether divided along lines of ethnicity, social status, or gender...

We are never brought into a private relationship with God, a personal religion; but, rather, into a community that serves one another and the wider community; a community that has a story to tell of what God has done for them.

The question is, is such an (offensive) act of God too frightening to welcome? Are we more comfortable settling for the compromise of contained fear? Or, where are we happy to welcome such restoration, and who do we wish to keep at arms' length?

Health Warning: to pursue the restoration of a divided community might result in your being rejected by your own...

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Crossing Cultures

People connect with other people, in groups of different sizes, each with its own particular strengths, and weaknesses.

There is public connecting to others. We do this, typically, as part of a large group sharing a particular interest-based experience: going to a concert, or watching a sporting event. We experience being part of something bigger than ourselves. Though most of those present are not principally involved – not performing in the band or orchestra, not playing in the team – they are, nonetheless, an integral part of what is going on. Typically, we stand, or sit, side-by-side; and do not expect to have a conversation with those around us. And we don’t do this weekly: even if you are a season-ticket holder for a team or concert hall, and you attend every event (which you probably don’t), it takes up certain times of the year.

Christians connect publically, in worship services where most of those present are not performing, but are, nonetheless, an integral part of what is going on. But we ‘aim for’ weekly attendance (they weren’t here: do you think they are ill?); and we (good Anglicans, at least) throw in an awkward Sharing the Peace moment.

There is social connecting to others. We do this, typically, in recreational ‘third places’ – co-workers in the bar for Happy Hour; children in the park after school. Here, movement and interaction are fluid, as we encounter people and make first-impression decisions on whether we want to get to know them better, or not. It is a smaller crowd than our public belongings, and involves a certain degree of conversation.

Churches tend not to connect socially so much. Where they do, they typically do so over fairly rigidly brokered terms, such as the Summer Fair – they don’t tend to be fluid – and churches tend to be so focused on their own programmes that they don’t get involved in the social connections going on in the neighbourhood around them...

There is personal belonging to others. We do this, typically, with friends, people we have some degree of shared – and growing – history with. They could be people we went to university with; they could be neighbours. We tend to get together as and when we can. In a highly mobile society, we might now live a long way apart and not see each other face-to-face particularly often. Getting together is precious; we might go away on holiday together; we probably keep in touch through social media. When we do get together, it is relaxed: there is no set agenda. Some of us might go off and do one thing, while others do something else; or, some of us might end up in the kitchen, while others end up in the garden. We probably don’t meet up in one another’s homes as much as in the park or at the beach. We talk about...anything and everything: what is going on in the news, what we are up to...

Churches are big on personal connecting. We typically do that in small groups that meet - a weekly diary appointment, a scheduled business meetingin the home of a regular host, and sit in a room doing a Bible study.

There is intimate belonging to others. That is, friendships where we can – and do – share our secret hopes and fears, the things we need someone to know but wouldn’t want most people to know. This might be a sexual partner, or a parent, or sibling, or a longstanding friend or very small and tight circle of friends. Typically these friendships have grown over a length of time; they have not been engineered by anyone not in the group.

Churches are not as big on intimate connecting as they are on personal and public connecting. Some fear the very idea. Some put people in such positions, and hope it will work out.

What is interesting is this. People connect with other people publically, socially, personally, and intimately. This goes on around us, and may go on within our church. But the form such connections take in Christian circles is typically very different from the form they take in the culture around us. For ‘very different,’ read ‘totally alien.’

I watched an insightful talk on the Verge Network website recently, in which Todd Engstrom asked, If a missionary is someone who leaves their familiar culture in order to take the gospel to people who don’t know Jesus – people who have no hope of salvation, who aren’t empowered and sent by the Holy Spirit – then why, in seeking to bring those people into our cultural forms, are we expecting them to do the work of being a missionary, not us?


Today is the feast of Barnabas. ‘Barnabas’ (‘Son of Encouragement’) was a nickname (his given name was Joseph) (in the same way that ‘Peter’ – ‘Rocky’ – was a nickname given to Simon). He was one of the first members of the church to endorse Saul (who became Paul), and the two of them became co-conspirators in the gospel. Sent as representatives of the church in Antioch to the church in Jerusalem, they returned to Antioch with John Mark (who may have been a relative of Barnabas). Together, they set off from there on a journey to Cyprus (where Barnabas came from) and on into what is today southern central Turkey; but after Cyprus, Mark left, returning to Jerusalem. Some time later, having returned from their trip and reported back to the church in Antioch and in Jerusalem, Paul felt it right to go back and visit the new churches in Turkey, to encourage them. Barnabas wanted to take John Mark, but Paul did not think that it was wise to do so, because he had deserted them before. Paul and Barnabas, longstanding close friends and co-conspirators, disagreed so sharply that they parted company. As far as we know, they were never reconciled; though Paul and John Mark were, in time.

This morning I was having breakfast with several other church leaders, and at the other end of the table I overheard animated discussion about these events. Paul, the consensus affirmed, was obviously a difficult character to work with; prone to angry over-reaction. Barnabas was clearly the better role model...

I am not convinced. My reading is that Paul and Barnabas were both concerned for John Mark. There is no need to air-brush out their disagreement in order for this to be so. We are told that Paul did not think it wise to take him – and wisdom is not the same as pique. Wisdom might recognise that courage can only fail so many times before a young person’s spirit is crushed. Mark had run away – twice already, if we accept the tradition that the young man who was present at Jesus’ arrest and ran away was Mark; a story, if the tradition is right, Paul may well have known about his sometime travelling companion. If he had not yet faced up to this and worked it through – again, Paul would be in a place to judge this – running away a third time could well prove unrecoverable. Is it not, perhaps, Paul’s judgement that John Mark is not ready?

Unable to go where he had planned with Barnabas, Paul – compelled to carry the gospel – headed elsewhere with another co-conspirator, Silas. Barnabas took Mark; but he, too, doesn’t go on the full journey Paul had proposed.

Barnabas takes Mark to Cyprus.


Cyprus was where their cut-short journey had begun. From Cyprus, Mark could have looked out at the horizon, towards the place of his failure, day-after-day, until he was ready to face his fears. And ultimately the way we move beyond our place of failure, our moment of desertion, is to be led back to that painful moment by Jesus and in those surroundings be restored and re-commissioned. But only Jesus can do that, and he does not have to take us back to the place physically (as we see when he restores Peter, who denied knowing him in Jerusalem, on the shore of Lake Tiberias). So I don’t think that is why Barnabas took Mark to Cyprus.

I wonder whether Barnabas took Mark to Cyprus because that is where Barnabas’ own story begins.

How do we encourage someone else? How do we help them to grow as a disciple? By sharing our story of being a disciple: as fully, as honestly – victories won, defeats suffered – as possible; all the time, making connections between our story and God’s story, between our experience and the person of Jesus. And the only way we can share our story that fully is to invite others into it: to give them that access, to take them to significant places, to introduce them to people who have invested in us.

That is why when I am encouraging someone in need of encouragement, I tell them about Sheffield. Not because St Thomas’ is the perfect community (this story, too, contains sharp disagreements and partings of company within it, and more than once); but because it is where the journey that has led me to meet them began. That is why, when I have had the opportunity, I have taken people to Philadelphia, the campus God gave St Thomas’ ten years ago this very weekend just past.

According to tradition, Barnabas was martyred on Cyprus; and Mark went on to collaborate with Peter (in writing the Gospel according to Mark) and with Paul, as well as planting and overseeing churches in his own right. But he was able to do that because, at a crucial moment when courage fails him, Paul and Barnabas both invest in his life: Paul, by protecting him from further loss; and Barnabas by inviting Mark into his own history.

How, then, might we observe the feast of Barnabas? With a meal – obviously! – but also in telling stories, of those places and people who have been used by God to shape us, to the encouragement of others, and the glory of God’s name.

Thursday, June 06, 2013


‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”’
Luke 10:27, quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18

Because we in the West are so influenced by ancient Greek thought, by the impulse to classify everything into distinct categories, we have a tendency to hear these words as highlighting difference:

‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”’

and, indeed,

‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”’

But what if the spirit of these words – perhaps best understood as both an invitation and a challenge – was more concerned with unity?

‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”’

Differentiation is not entirely unhelpful. Indeed, it is a necessary stage, without which we are unable to navigate the world as we set out from home. Ancient Hebrew thought is also concerned with differentiation, such as that between ‘clean’ and ‘unclean.’ But while setting out from home – moving from Eden to fill the whole earth – is part of God’s intention for us, it is also God’s intention that we eventually return home – return to that place where we walk in harmony with one another and with God. And that movement requires first a stage of differentiation and then a stage of unification. This is why it is written that in Jesus, God is reconciling all things to him. God fills and bursts our containers.

The other evening I was with friends who are committed to living a life that attends to seeking to love God, the extended family of faith God has given us (self – the person only exists in community), and those who live alongside us (neighbour). That is a good thing. What I shared with them was what God had put on my heart, to ask the question: “How have you spent time with God today?”

I was not surprised that the first reaction was one of discomfort, of guilt. Why? Because of that tendency to separate things into different categories: the tendency to see loving God, self, and neighbour as ourselves as three different kinds of activity which we must seek to perform. Loving becomes defined by certain activities, which become tasks, which become squeezed out, which become opportunity for guilt. I gave God five minutes today...I haven’t told anyone about Jesus today...

One of the ways we remind ourselves that we are called to love God, self and neighbour is visually, through a triangle, a shape that has three sides, three angles. But a triangle only exists when there are three sides coming together at three angles: a triangle is a unity, at every point, in every moment.

We are never not with God, never not with our extended family of faith, never not with our neighbour. We are not alone in the world.

I love God when I acknowledge his presence, as I sit in the garden, as I acknowledge his presence in the person I am talking to. And I love that other person as I acknowledge God’s presence in them – for in so doing I am drawn to recognise them as made in God’s likeness, honoured, rather than focused on the particular ways in which that likeness is marred in them...and how that marring jars against the particular ways God’s likeness is marred in me. I love – or not – my extended family of faith and my neighbour as I make decisions that have an impact on them – including the simple, daily decisions, such as what I buy, and where.

Is the movement of your life focused on differentiation (remember, this is not entirely unhelpful, especially in the first half of our journey through life, but will become increasingly hard to juggle as we are drawn to start on the homeward journey), or becoming increasingly unified (not monochrome, but celebrating reconciliation between diversity)?