Thursday, December 29, 2011

responsive prayer for New Years

Loving God maker of heaven and earth

We join together this morning to praise you

We enter your gates with thanksgiving

And into your courts with praise

You are eternal with no beginning or end

You made us, and you are working your purposes out in our world and our lives

Know that the Lord is God

We praise you in this New Year

We praise you that what ever the future holds we know that it is held in your hands.

The LORD is God he made us and we are his

We look back at this past year

We see that you have been with us, provided for us and lead us in your ways

We are your people and the flock for which you provide


We praise you for Jesus Christ

 We have celebrated at Christmas that you became one of us, you pitched your tent in our neighborhood

That you live amongst us and showed us your great love and mercy, that you gave your life for ours paying the price for all we have done wrong,

and in being raised to life again have given us fresh beginnings and new life in you

For the Lord is Good

We look forwards this New Year

Unable to see beyond the next bend or over the horizon

Yet we prepared to follow you our times are in your hands

The steadfast love of the lord endures forever

His faithfulness to all generations

We confess our sins to you

We have done what we should not do and left undone what We should do

We have either thought too highly of ourselves and not cared enough for others

We have thought too little of ourselves and allowed ourselves to be written off as worthless

Forgive us LORD

As we have confessed our sins God is faithful and just and has forgiven us our sins and cleansed us from all unrighteousness

We give thanks and bless your name

Thank you that you send your spirit upon us to lead us into all truth and to empower us to live and witness to you.

May we be filled a fresh this new year to follow you more closely and share your love with the world around us

We worship the Lord with gladness

Father son and holy spirit

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Unpaking the Nativity...Part 6....John 1:1-18... Jesus: The word became flesh, The light of the world, God pitched his tent in our backyard.

Leading up to Christmas this year I’ve been inviting people to join in a family tradition from back when I was young. Unpacking the nativity scene. We used to have a nativity scene that was kept in a box with a blue lid and about the middle of December it would be found, unpacked and placed on the mantle piece in the lounge. During Christmas our attention would be drawn to many different things. The growing pile of presents that made wonderful sounds when you shock them, the bang of Christmas Crackers and those silly hats and the wonderful smells that came from the kitchen before the family meal. But the nativity scene drew us back to think again about Jesus and his birth. This year as we’ve unpacked the nativity scene it hasn’t just been taking figures out of  polystyrene packaging but looking at each of the people that these figurines represent and what they have to say to us for our lives and faith today.

We looked at Joseph a man of righteousness and compassion and Mary, a woman of faith and courage. We saw these as the qualities God chose in the parents that nurtured his son and that men and women need to develop in there lives today.  The shepherds and angels told us that the one born in the stable was Good News to be shared with great and small and the magi told us that this good news was for all people and that we should seek to know the truth in Jesus Christ. We looked at Herod and his storm troopers who are not in the nativity scene but who cast a shadow over this otherwise happy scene and we saw that in Jesus God came into the real world full of difficulties and strife and set up an alternative way of living ‘the kingdom of God’.

In a nativity scene you will notice that everyone one is looking towards a central spot and that is because the most important person in this scene is the child in the manger; Because Christmas is about Jesus.

Luke and Matthew in their gospels focus on the story of Jesus birth but John draws back and gives us a big cosmic picture. He looks back not 2000 years but into time before time when there was only God and he says that before the beginnings of anything there was the word and the word was with God and was God and that through this word God created everything that was made.  When you feel that peace as you sit by a lake or find yourself awed by a mountain vista or the panorama of the night sky you are touching or being touched by the very unique breath print of God word. In Jesus this word became flesh.

Then John changes metaphors and talks about human being living in darkness and that God made a light to shine for them. We tend to  think with our modern street lights and quarts halogen lamps we have banished the dark but there is still a darkness that dwells in the hearts of humanity and it was into this darkness that God chose to shine his light in the person of Jesus Christ.

Then John says that this light this word becoming flesh and dwelling amongst us.  How more Kiwi can the bible get than to talk of the coming of God as a human being as God pitching his tent in our neighbourhood? In fact it my very cheesy joke that New Zealand is really into the Incarnation at Christmas we all jump into our cars and head off to our summer holidays at the beach, we literally become an in car nation.

And if you’ve ever spent your summers camping by the beach or in those temporary suburbs we call camp grounds you’ll now that when all that’s between you and your neighbours is a few feet and a bit of canvas that well you’re very much on display. John tells us that while no one has ever seen God face to face in Jesus Christ we beheld him full of glory and grace.

The idea of God being so vast and huge makes its hard for us to comprehend and harder still to think that God cares about us and could loves us. In fact when religions approach God is with the idea of awe and fear., or we try and have rules and regulations and rituals to make our deity approachable. We often view God like Michael Angelo does on the Sistine chapel ceiling. God distant reaching down from a cloud towards Adam and almost touching figure tips with him. But Christmas tells us that God is so much more approachable. That God draws even close, and we don't need our religion to bridge the gap, in Christ God became one of us.

When each of my four children were born the most amazing thing I remember was putting my finger on their hands and having them wrap their hand round it. They all had good grips. That is how close God chose to come to us, in such an intimate and profound touch. That’s how approachable God is. Those hands as Jesus grew would hold Mary’s hand for stability as he learned to walk and would learn skill with wood and tools as he worked alongside Joseph in the carpentry shop. Those Hands that would invite people to come and follow him and reach out to heal the sick, welcome children to him to be blessed, embrace the outcasts, gesture as he told us God’s word. They are also hands that human being would nail to a cross and would be folded over his dead body as it was buried. They are also Hands that would cook fish for disciples and be touched and checked out when he rose from the dead. The word became flesh and dwelt amongst us God is approachable.

This Christmas I hope that you might draw close and touch afresh our approachable God, who in Christ pitched his tent in our neighbourhood. Not just be reminded of him by a nativity scene or some other family ritual but that you might embrace him and place him at the centre of your life all year round. Christmas is time for family and as John reminds us, in Jesus, God approaches us and invites us into his family, he came to his own and to all who accepted him he gave the right to become the sons and daughter of the most-high God. And that knowing him afresh this Christmas you would allow him to use your hands your life to show his love to this world that God loves.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Unpacking the Nativity... part 5... Matthew 2:1-18... Herod and His StormTroopers: Two Kingdoms in Conflict

There are many traditions that we connect with Christmas, things that tie us together as a community or a family, things that infuse the festive season with a variety of meanings, Symbols and rituals that express for us what Christmas means. In our family when I was growing up a nativity scene was always unpacked from its box with the blue lid and placed on the mantle piece to remind us that amidst all the other things we did and the other messages we received that the birth of Jesus was the reason for the season: That the one born in Bethlehem those 2000 years ago should be the focus for our Christmas and our lives. Leading up to Christmas this year I’ve been inviting people to join this family tradition and to unpack the nativity scene. Not just pull these figurines from their polystyrene box but to hear again the biblical story of Christmas and see what each of these characters, have to tell us about Jesus whose birth we celebrate.

As I’ve gone and got images of nativity scenes from the Internet, and looked at various nativity sets to use as a focus for this series of talks, one thing that strikes me is that somehow this scene seems to good to be true. The faces are all calm and peaceful it’s almost become the idealised hallmark moment. Maybe its like those old Norman Rockwell paintings or photos of an idealised past like a 1950’s America with the perfect family in front of their perfect house in the well manicured suburbs living a perfect life. Made even more idyllic as they slurp their cola flavoured beverages.  It seems unreal, divorced from a world where people die in terror attacks or are left devastated by tsunami and earthquake. Where diseases like HIV/AIDS kill hundreds of thousands each year and in some countries there are whole generations growing up orphaned by this twenty first century plague. Where the number one killer for over two thirds of the world are the affects of poverty and in the other one third it is the effects of over indulgence and excess. But as I read the gospels account of this birth you see that it is not divorced from the reality we live in rather God chose to enter this world in the midst of our suffering and even our terror.

As we read Matthew’s gospel there is a shadow cast across the nativity scene. The shadow of Herod, “a paranoid dictator who when hears there’s a child born kill of the Jews send out death squads to kill al male children under two” (as Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn puts it) .. The hope of Christmas is that God shines his great light into even this darkness; sending his defenceless son into this hurting world to show us his love and the difference it can make.

In fact the nativity scene tells us that God didn’t try and give his son a charmed and privileged life free from the troubles of the world. Luke Sets the international scene by telling us that Augustus was Caesar at the time of Jesus birth and he had called a census for tax collection purposes, there was major upheaval as families were forced to travel to there town of birth to register. You could imagine the road congestion and demand on accommodation if we in New Zealand were asked to undertake a similar exercise. Mary pregnant was forced to go with Joseph from Judea to Bethlehem a journey of well over 100 km’s of mountainous terrain. We often see her riding on a donkey a fact that the scriptures never tell us but on foot or riding you can imagine why it could have triggered the labour. They cannot find any room at the inn, like refugees all over the world they had to make do with makeshift quarters and this is how God chose to come into this world. Born not in a palace or in the lap of luxury but round the back in a stable and laid in the feeding trough full of hay. Profound …God chose to identify with the humble and lowly.

Matthew’s gospel concentrates on the local political landscape. Caesar had appointed Herod ‘the king of the Jews’ as reward for the ruthless way he had put down rebellions. Over the course of a three-year bloody civil war he had asserted his rule on Judea and Samaria and a large area north east of Galilee. He was known as Herod the Great and was a prolific builder of cities, rebuilding Samaria and a great town and tower on the Mediterranean coast both which he named after the emperor, he rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. Despite these achievements the Jews always disliked him because while he was a Jew by religion he was an Edomite, by birth. He was always weary of plots to over throw him or usurp his power, he had married into the family who had a more legitimate claim to the throne but this didn’t stop him from one by one wiping out that family including his wife. He also had three of his sons put to death supposedly for plotting to over throw him. While his atrocity of having all the male children under two is only recorded in Matthews’s gospel it does fit in well with his bloody and tyrannical ways.

Saved only by God’s intervention in a dream Jesus and his family flee as refugees to Egypt until Herod’s death. Again profound that God would enter in to the midst of this world of terror and tyranny.

Perhaps for Matthew’s readers the fact that while Herod had been made King of the Jews by Caesar The signs in the sky that lead the magi to come showed that God had appointed one child to be born king of the Jews.  Here we have the profound truth of the nativity that the kingdom of God had come into the kingdom of man. A king and a kingdom like no other. That is a stark contrast to Herod’s rule. As William Barclay commented

"a king who would rule not by force but by love and would reign over the hearts of humanity not from a throne but from a cross. As we can see a king so different that any other: Whose kingdom would not be territory carved out by conquest and political treaty but would be where the reign of God was honoured in the hearts of men, who would not lord it over subjects and servants but would wash their feet and call them not servants but friends and give his life for them. A king that would not deal with his enemies with violence and death but with love and grace and call all who claimed him as their own to do the same. Whose greatness would not be measured by buildings and cities raised but lives and hearts changed and renewed, the broken healed, the poor lifted up and given dignity and hope, the lost welcomed home, the sinner forgiven and reconciled, the sick healed, the prisoner set free and the blind receiving their sight."

 This is the hope of Christmas, this is what Jesus born humbly in the stable offers to us today in the midst of all the great goodness and dire evil of our world, The kingdom of God.

Bono U2’s lead singer wrote a song as a response to the Omagh terrorist bombings, where 29 people including a pregnant woman were killed. The song has haunting and challenging lyrics like the following. 

Heaven on Earth, we need it now
I'm sick of all of this hanging around
Sick of sorrow, sick of the pain
I'm sick of hearing again and again
That there's gonna be peace on Earth
Jesus and the song you wrote
The words are sticking in my throat
Peace on Earth

Hear it every Christmas time
                                             But hope and history won't rhyme
                                             So what's it worth
                                            This peace on Earth
                                              Peace on Earth
It expresses the very real thought that we talk of Jesus inaugurating God’s kingdom of peace and love with his birth life death and resurrection but over 2000 years later were still waiting in the midst of the darkness. The Christian response to that is that we will wait till Christ returns again to conclude history and judge the world then all things will be put right. Till then the hope is that people will meet this one born king of the Jews in a way that will transform them, that will turn them into people who will live and work for seeing the kingdom of God come into this world. Who will love their neighbours and Christ has loved us, love even their enemies give all they have to the poor, stand for righteousness and the poor and powerless against injustice and act in ways that reflect the love of God for all. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Unpacking the Nativity... Part 4... Luke 2:8-20... Shepherd's and Angels: Good news for great and small.

We all have family traditions that we associate with Christmas: Maybe they are cherished childhood memories or things that we try and instill in our children or things that we watch our grandchildren enjoy. They give us a sense of connectedness between the past and our future. One of my childhood memories is a nativity scene that used to stand on our mantelpiece in the lounge. I remember it being unpacked sometime about the middle of December from its box with the blue lid with a plastic window in it. So this Christmas I want to invite you to join in this family tradition and unpack the nativity scene. No not just take it out of its box but allow ourselves to take the characters we associate with the nativity out of the idealised scene and have them speak to us afresh this Christmas.

Today we want to unpack Luke’s account of the birth of Christ and in particular its focus on shepherds and angels. Because they tell us that the birth of this child was good news for both great and small. We live in a time when angels have come in to vogue again. They are popular in films like ‘the city of angels and Michael even that rather sacrilegious movie Dogma. They adorn artwork and cards. But as Phillip Yancy says in ‘The Jesus I never Knew’ they have become rather cuddly creatures. Not quite celestial tele-tubbies or teddy bears but cute and cuddly. Likewise the shepherds in the nativity scene have become rather cute and if not cuddly sanitised. You have to admit the children’s Christmas pageants might have a bit to do with that, because well you know that all the young girls make beautiful angels and the boys make great shepherds, tripping over long dressing gowns and wrestling with towels and head bands as they troop down the isle. We need to step beyond these images to grasp something of their significance for us.

It seems that the appearance of angels was on the most part anything from cuddly, and when angels appear often the first words out of their mouths are fear not. Angels are spiritual beings in scripture, creatures of light, it tells us that they are God’s messengers. When Luke tells us a host of angels joined the one angel who announced the good news of Jesus birth to the shepherd it was a host or army. We may think of a choir of children or even a grand choir from a cathedral but perhaps we should think more the impact of facing the All Black’s Haka. Although the fearsomeness of the angels is not in their aggression but rather the radiance that comes from being in the presence of the most high God. 

As I read this chapter in Luke I can’t help but think of the movie ‘the kingdom of heaven’, which I re-watched with one of my daughters the other day, about Saradin retaking Jerusalem there is a solitary horse man on the hill and then the camera pans up and behind the fold in the land there is a great army of men flags waving sun glinting off spears and shields. It’s awesome, it’s frightening.

The angel’s appearance in the story has several things to tell us.

Firstly it shows us how thin the veil between the realm of man and the spiritual realm is. These beings did not have to travel eons across the vast expanses of space rather the sky is rolled back like the curtain on the stage and there they are. The amount of angelic activity round this birth shows us that here at this place and at this point in history is the thinnest of points between the heavens and the realm of man. Where the creator of it all is born a human being. God draws near and his messengers and armies gather to see and give God praise.

It also shows us the dual way in which we are to view the reality we live in. Its a world of solid hills and mountains, vast distant stars, animals and human beings but beyond that we find ourselves in a greater cosmic reality where the purposes of God are worked out and as in the vivid and fantastic imagery of revelations we see that there is a battle raging between the forces of God and evil. Here in this Child's birth is Gods great move that will bring salvation and an end the reign of sin and death.

Thirdly, the angels are the beings that know what is going on, they are the ones who know beyond a shadow of doubt who the child in the manger is. They have heard God’s plan they have been sent to announce his birth and they give God praise for the way in which this birth will be good news to all people. Maybe they would have wondered at why they were there in a field arrayed in splendour before shepherds in the field instead of the temple in Jerusalem or the palaces of the world. It is the only time that they will have the privilege of making such an announcement because in the wisdom of God the proclamation of whom this child is and what he has done will be left not to angels but to people like the shepherds and people like us who have come to know Jesus. Two angels get the privilege of declaring to the women at the tomb who had come to anoint Jesus body that the one they seek is not longer there he has risen, but apart from that the telling of the good news of Jesus Christ is left in our hands. JB Phillips in his story ‘the visited planet’ has a senior angel telling a young angel the wonders of when the son had visited that small insignificant planet and as they look at the dark globe before them there is a great flash of light when the angelic army sing god’s praise and then an even greater flash as the power of God raises Jesus from the dead but after that like a series of small candles being lit at a vigil small light come on all round the world as one person tells another about the wonder of the God’s coming amongst us.

 The shepherds do seem rather a strange group to be the ones who are told of this birth maybe one would consider the religious authorities in Jerusalem to the best people to hear or the king and the powerful people in the world. But maybe they were not willing to hear. The religious leaders while looking for a messiah were looking for a certain type of messiah a certain type of saviour and as Paul says to the Corinthians the wisdom of God was as foolishness to the wise. In fact in Luke's gospel, it is two elderly people humble people who pray at the temple who of the religious community sense the spirit's prompt that here is the one they long for (Simeon and Anna in Luke 2:22-39). Herod definitely knows the ramifications of the birth of and the disruption it could cause he sees Jesus as a threat. But the good news comes to shepherds out in the fields going about their work. People who because of their work were both held up as virtuous if they cared for their sheep but also because of their living rough as being outcasts from polite society. This sets the agenda for God’s amazing grace, that God’s good news was indeed for all people. That God was identifying with the humble and the powerless and the outcast. AS Phillip Yancy says Christmas shows us some profound things about God, the one who the angels worship is a humble God and an approachable God whose love is for all. So it is the shepherds who go and see what they were told of by the angelic host who have the privilege of declaring to people what they have seen and heard. They declare the coming of the kingdom of God. Later Fishermen and tax-collectors, women with questionable backgrounds prostitutes and lepers declare that in this person Jesus is God’s good news. It goes on to ordinary people like you and I. Last week in Church a women commented on a sermon I had preached that mentioned the shepherd's being at work and she said for her it was an aha moment that the call for us as witnesses to Christ was the market place, the work place that God's good news was to be revealed and heralded there rather than reserved for church. Amen I said.

God today looks to the humble and the weak to declare the good news. That the one who created it all, the one who is constantly praised and honoured by the angelic hosts loves us and became one of us. He seeks out the poor of spirit, the lost the lowly and broken and offers them healing and wholeness and then invites them to share the wondrous good news with a world he loves.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Unpacking the Nativity... Part 3...Matthew 2:1-18 The Magi: God's Goodnews For All.

When I was growing up we had a nativity scene that took pride of place in our lounge it was a way, in the midst of the tinsel, food, catching up with distant relatives, festivities and phonetic pace of Christmas, of focusing back on the reason for the season: Jesus birth. We knew Christmas was coming when the naivety scene would be unpacked from its box with the blue lid with the plastic window and put in its place of honour. This advent I want to invite you to join in that family tradition by unpacking the nativity scene with me. No, Not just removing these figurines from polystyrene packing and tissue paper but looking afresh at each of the characters that we traditional associate with this scene and see what they have to say to us as we celebrate Christmas  

Today I want to look at the Magi, these mysterious figures who Matthews tells us came from the east where they had seen a sign in the heavens that heralded the birth of a special child, one born to be king of the Jews.

In the orthodox Christian traditions the coming of the magi is celebrated at Epiphany. In countries where the orthodox faith is strong Epiphany is the major festival for giving gifts not Christmas. Epiphany is celebrated twelve days after Christmas usually on January 6th. That’s where you get the twelve days of Christmas.

I guess because we know so little about these men and where they came from that they have become very much wrapped up in Christian tradition and legend to fill in the void in our knowledge.

 We don’t know how many of them there were, old traditions talked about twelve, then later it became three. This number was based on the number of gifts they gave to the Christ child.

We don’t know what they looked like or their names, but they have been given persona's in tradition. The one who gave the Gold is known as Melchior, he was old and had a grey hair and a long grey beard, Asian in his colouring and appearance. The one who gave the gift of frankincense is known as Caspar and he was young and clean-shaven and ruddy in complexion, European type. The third that gave the gift of myrrh is known as Balthazar, he was dark in his colouring and had a beard, African perhaps.  I Love the Christian art of Chinese artist He Qi, because it allows us to see the gospels in (for me as a person from European decent) a different cultural perspective and the 1mages to the left and right are his depiction of the Magi as wide men coming from China and also in the orthodox understanding of being from different continents .  

What we do know about these visitors is helpful to us as we approach Christmas.

 We know that Matthew called them magi. A strange word and when I was young I wondered why the packet soup we ate when we were in a hurry had been named after them. E. Ellis in a article  New Bible Dictionary article says Magi is a word used by ancient historians to refer to a priestly tribe of the Medes. In Daniel (1:20, 2:27 and 5:15) its used to refer to a class of wise men non-Jewish religious men who were astrologers and interpreted dreams and message of the gods. This is probably what Matthew has in mind when he calls them Magi. By New Testament times Magi had become synonymous with anyone who practised magic for example Simon called Magus, who the apostles encounter in Acts chapter 8. Who wanted to buy the power to bestow the Holy Spirit on people.

So firstly we do know that they would have been gentiles and this is the reason why they appear in Matthew's gospel they are a foreshadow of the amazing truth that in the coming of Jesus Christ God’s salvation was for all people: That the messiah had not come just to save his own peculiar people but to save all God’s people. For Matthew writing for his predominantly Jewish audience it was important to let them know that right from the beginning the good news of Jesus Christ was not only for the Jews but also for the Gentiles. Maybe the way in which the major racial types have come to be represented in the traditions surrounding the magi is a reflection of this fact that the kingdom of God would become a worldwide revolution of grace. For the Jewish readers of Matthew it would be shocking to have these men of another religion and race come, recognise and worship their messiah first. As revolutionary perhaps as it is for us today to realise in a world where Christianity in the west is in decline and is booming in places like Africa, Asia and Latin America the average Christian today is not a white fat cat American man, but rather an unimaginably poor, brown skinned woman living in a third world mega city. They are our sisters and brothers in Christ.

Secondly, what we know about the Magi is that they sought after truth. They saw a new sign in the heavens and then they went searching for the truth it revealed to them. It shows us something of the way in which the Holy Spirit is at work even in the lives of people of other religions to bring them to know the wonderful good news of Jesus Christ. They are not the enemy they are on a quest for truth. The Magi didn’t know the full extent of what the sign in the heavens meant they deduced that there was one born king of the Jews. This was enough to lead them on a search for that one.

Both the powers of that day and the indifference of the religious leaders they met along the way didn’t put them off seeking the truth. Seeking Jesus.  Herod’s self interest and paranoia, his desperate desire to eliminate any threats, could have led them to just about ruin everything. But open to the voice of the spirit they are warned in a dream not to go back to him but to go home a different way. The religious people in Jerusalem knew where the messiah was to be born but did not seem willing to venture with these people from another religion to find the messiah they were all waiting for.  They were too busy and too caught up in their temple rituals to look beyond that for the truth. The magi persevered in their quest for the truth and were rewarded with a chance to be amongst the first to worship Jesus ‘the way the truth and the life’.

In recent times this quest has turned into a Christian slogan “Wise men still seek him today…’ That’s true while interest in organised religion is on the wain in the west people are still fascinated by Jesus Christ. People who seek spiritual truth from all faiths or no faith are drawn to Jesus. They are longing for a real personal encounter with a real spiritual truth. In the western world maybe many of us have become like the political and religious leaders who met the magi along the way. We have become more interested in persevering our social status and influence or our rituals and traditions and have lost the zeal to meet with the person of Jesus Christ and so people who seek the truth and seek to meet Christ who follow God given signs often pass us by.  Leonard Sweet puts it like this

“Christianity is in decline where faith is being passed on by churches for whom the real presence has vanished from the world, churches that no longer have confidence in scriptures or the spirit, churches whose cold Christ can no longer warm the heart. Christianity is growing where churches are crazy enough to expect that ‘every day life’ and every day, will be invaded by the unknown.”

 I pray we are crazy enough as to expect to encounter the Christ of Christmas everyday of the year.

Thirdly we know that the magi bought gifts through which to pay homage and worship to the king. People have seen different aspects of Jesus ministry in the gifts that he was given.

Gold is a gift for a king, and Jesus was a man born to be king, but in a totally different way than we would expect as William Barclay says he would reign, not by force but by love; and he was to rule over men’s hearts not from a throne but from a cross.”

Frankincense was a gift for a priest; it was used in temple worship and in temple sacrifice. The function of the priest was to open a way to God for human beings. The Latin word for priest is pontifex, which means bridge-builder and this, is what Jesus did for us he opened the only way to God, he built a bridge that we may enter into the very presence of God. 

Myrrh was a gift to someone who was going to die. Myrrh was used to embalm the bodies of the dead. Jesus came into this world to die. A picture by the painter Holman Hunt illustrates this. It shows Jesus as a young man at the door of the carpentry shop in Nazareth stretching after being bent over the workbench all day. The setting sun casts his shadow on the wall of the shop and it forms a picture of the cross. In the background is Mary reacting with horror as she sees it and remembers the words of Simeon spoke to her in the temple “that a sword will pierce her soul.” Jesus came to die and through his death to make a way across the chasm of our sin may be built: A bridge to life with our heavenly father. The gifts foretell Jesus as the true king the perfect high priest and in the end the supreme saviour for us all.

So be on the look out for Magi this Christmas, they may not fit our picture of someone seeking truth but we can with the holy spirits guidance help them find the truth and the one they are looking for.  Maybe they are people that the spirit is going to use to lead us to encounter our messiah in fresh ways and places.

People join the magi this Christmas and seek Jesus. Seek him to worship him and acknowledge him as your saviour and king. Don’t just seek to revel in the rituals and traditions that surround the season they are great and can point the way like the star did for the magi. Seek Jesus, become quest-ers who are willing to come from a far to encounter the one born king of the Jews. Bring your gifts to the king in worship and know that the one we are celebrating this Christmas is good news for all.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

unpaking the nativity...part 2...Mary:a women of faith and courage (Luke 1:36-56)

When I was growing up one of the traditions we had as a family for Christmas was that we had a nativity scene that would be unpacked from its blue box with the plastic window and placed on the mantle piece. Amidst the tinsel and food, presents and festivities it reminded us of ‘the reason for the season’, the birth of Jesus. God coming as it says in John’s gospel and tabernacling with us in a very New Zealand Christmas Holiday way pitching his tent in our neighbourhood.

Leading into Christmas this year I want to invite you to join in my family tradition of unpacking the nativity scene and placing it at the centre of our thoughts this Christmas. Unpack it not simply by taking the figures from out of a box and arranging them in a certain way but unpacking it in the sense that we look again and afresh at each of the figures from that scene and look past the way they have become very much stylised characters and see what they have to say to us as we too allow the one born at the stable to have a central role in our lives as he did in theirs.

This week I want to invite us to reflect on Mary, a woman of faith and of courage. Maybe she is the hardest figure for us to unpack because she has become a figure of deep religious devotion and adoration. The cover story of a ‘Time’ magazine in April this year reported on the way that Mary was growing in importance even in protestant circles. Despite this how we should honour Mary has been a focus for division and argument between various Christian traditions. This perhaps hides a lot of what she has for us today.

The best sermon I ever heard about Mary was from a 16 year old girl from our youth group at St john’s in the City, Leslie was a gifted speaker and when I had asked here to speak on Mary all I had given her as a starter from this talk was well Mary would be a girl about your age, and Leslie really related to it. You see Mary was a young woman possibly no more than in her mid-teens. She came from a lowly place. She lived in a small town in a small unimportant province in occupied Israel. In here society she had little importance, position or status. In fact even Luke, who of the gospel writers are most prepared to use women’s remembrances and perspectives, starts not by naming her but referring to the name lineage and occupation of the man she is betrothed to. She would have been a virtuous Jewish girl and we can see from her song recorded in Luke that she had a deep faith. Like most Jewish women of her time she would have been praying for the coming of the messiah to deliver Israel.

In Phillip Yancy’s book “the Jesus I never Knew” he reflects  that in religious art Mary is always shown as accepting the angels visitation like it was a benediction but this does not reflect the gospel narrative. It tells us that she was troubled by the angel’s message.

She is troubled at the angels affirmation that God is with her and that he has blessed her greatly. The angel goes on to tell her that she will become pregnant and have a son and name him Yeshua or as we know him by the Greek equivalent Jesus. The angel tells her that this child will be the messiah taking on David’s throne and reigning forever. This does nothing to alleviate her troubled mind and she asks how it is possible for her to have a son, as she is a virgin.

The angel says that this will happen by a miracle, God’s power would rest on her. The angel then points to another pending miraculous birth, Mary’s relative Elizabeth who was barren and deemed too old to have a child is now six months pregnant and the angel concludes ‘there is nothing that God cannot do’: A good definition of a miracle.

Mary’s reply shows her faith she says, “I am the Lord’s servant, may it happen to me as you have said”. AS her relative Elizabeth will say to her how blessed you are to believe that the Lord’s message to you will come true. Mary continues to show her faith in her song, known as ‘The Magnificat’ that points to the profound effects that this child will have and God’s goodness to his people. She has been described, as being the first disciple, declaring the Kingdom of God her son would usher in. 

But we see that Mary not only had faith she also had courage. For Elizabeth there was great rejoicing and praising God for her pregnancy and the birth of her son. Luke tells us her neighbours and relatives rejoiced with her and celebrated the baby’s birth. In Jewish custom the Village choir would gather and sing for the birth of a baby boy, as this maybe the coming of God’s promised messiah. But for Mary it was a troubling time. She was a young girl only betrothed to Joseph and her she was pregnant. Maybe the impact of that has been lost in our society today where there are many teenage pregnancies but it was a great scandal. Her husband Joseph could have easily rejected her and she would have been stoned for adultery. Matthew tells us he was going to give her a quite divorce until the same angel too visited him.

We are never told how the grandparents reacted to this situation but perhaps from friend and family dealing with similar situations you may guess some of the anguish they went through. Despite all this Mary faces the situation with faith, trusting in God. It may have been wise for Joseph to take Mary away from her home village for the birth of the child, as she would not have to put up with the shame of not having the rejoicing and support of everyone. It is rather ironic that the village choir would not have come to sing for this particular birth because of the stigma of the child being illegitimate. It fell to the angels to herald this child’s birth.  She would have had the child without the comfort of relatives, as a mere male it’s interesting to note that when each of my children was born my mother in law appeared, God bless her, and that was of great comfort to Kris. It took courage for Mary to face this.

Malcolm Muggeridge questions weather it would have been much different today, with family planning clinics offering convenient ways to fix mistakes that may bring embarrassment to families. He says  “it is point of fact, extremely improbable, under existing conditions, that Jesus would have been permitted to be born at all. Mary’s pregnancy, in poor circumstances, and with the father unknown, would have been an obvious case for an abortion; and her talk of having conceived as a result of the intervention of the Holy Spirit would have pointed to the need for psychiatric treatment, and made the case for terminating her pregnancy even stronger. Thus our generation, needing a saviour more, perhaps, than any that has ever existed would be too humane to allow one to be born.” 

Courage and faith exemplify Mary through out the gospel accounts. When she goes to the temple a week after Jesus birth simeon the one person in the Christmas story who seems to be able to look beyond the child to see the shadow of the cross tells Mary that a sword will pierce her soul she stores even these things in her heart. In John’s gospel we see her prepared to approach Jesus about the wine problem at the wedding in Canna, looking to her son to do something, even though his time had not come. Maybe in a moment of doubt and confusion in Marks gospel it tells us that she and Jesus brothers came to bring him home fearing that he had become deranged, it took courage to question what she had stored in her heart. She is there at the cross, as her son is brutally and unjustly crucified. She receives his kindness as Jesus asks his much beloved friend to care for his most beloved mother. She is also there in the upper room at Pentecost, knowing her son has risen from the dead and faithfully standing with his disciples. This is the woman of faith and courage that God chose to carry and nurture his only begotten son.

For us today there is there are two things I want to draw from Mary.

Firstly, that we need both faith in God and the courage to live that faith out. Seeing the kingdom of God being born into the world today not only takes convictions it takes the courage of our convictions. Our faith needs to be put into action. Mary’s words “ I am your servant may it happen to me as you said” are not words of passive resignation to fate they are an active embrace of God’s will and purposes.

It takes courage and faith to allow God’s kingdom to be our priority. For example in Mary’s song it tells us the good news of Jesus Christ will mean that the poor receive their fill and the rich go away empty handed. We tend to want to think that the rich are blessed, that we are blessed in this country with what we have, but the gospel call on people who have much, is that much is expected. Jesus calls us to side with the poor and the powerless in our world and it takes courage to go against the flow of consumerism and materialism. It takes courage to speak up and say that we follow a different set of values and truths when the situation demands it, knowing the resistance we will face, the possible scorn and being written off.

Secondly, we need to realise that God is able to use the humble and lowly to achieve great things for him. The fact that a young Jewish girl of faith could be chosen to bear the son of God shows that we too who ever we are can be used to achieve God’s plans and purposes in the world if we will be prepared to respond with faith and courage. It does however take faith and courage.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Unpaking the nativity (An Advent series) part 1: Joseph a man of integrity and compassion (Matthew 2:18-25)

When I was growing up I knew Christmas was coming when my mum would go to the hall cupboard and search round amongst the impossibly large number of boxes that lived on the top shelf. She’d eventually find what she was looking for and bring down a blue box with a clear plastic window in the front and open it up. She’d take out what was housed inside, unpack it from all the tissue paper and place it on the mantelpiece in the lounge. It was a nativity scene and it would sit there, in pride of place, from sometime around the beginning of December till we came back from our family holiday after Christmas it was designed to be a focus for us of what Christmas was all about.

As I reflect back on it I think it’s rather strange that coming from our protestant tradition, which had rejected icons and religious statues that we were happy to have this stable and figurines to remind us of Christ’s birth. But when you think about it they were appropriate as a reminder of the fact that the infinite, eternal, God who is spirit, revealed himself to us by stepping into the physical realm of human beings.

I have to admit that the nativity scene has lost some of its power in the midst of the electronic mass media we live in today. We are used to airbrushed scenes on the cover of Christmas cards. It’s almost become the ultimate hallmark moment. Advent is the season in the Church calendar when we prepare ourselves for Christmas, we prepare ourselves to celebrate the birth of Christ, leading up to Christmas this year I want to invite you to join in our family tradition and unpack the nativity scene. Not physically rather unpack has come to be a term used in academic circles these days to mean explore and understand. Let’s Unpack the nativity by looking again at each of the figures we are used to seeing there and exploring what they have to share with us of the good news of Jesus Christ.

I want to start this morning with Joseph, he’s almost the forgotten man in the nativity. Quite rightly we get most of our understanding of Christmas from Luke’s gospel, which looks to Mary as its source. It is Mary’s story and Luke tells us that Mary is to be seen as the most blessed women. Matthew’s Gospel emphasises Joseph’s side of the story but what we tend to emphasis is the star and the magi coming from the east. Perhaps the other reason is that we enjoy the celebration and while Luke tells us that Mary stored these things up in her heart as American pastor Chris Benjamin says For Joseph it was a matter of things he struggled with in his soul.

Joseph is a man of real integrity and compassion and a man of faith who trusts God. The gospel tells us that Joseph was betrothed to be married to Mary when she was found to be pregnant. In first century Jewish culture a couple who were betrothed to each other engaged were deemed to be married but did not yet live together as man and wife. For Mary to become pregnant was a real scandal, if Joseph was the father it put them both in a position of shame within the community and if he wasn’t the father, as he knew that he wasn’t, it meant that Mary was in danger of the worst penalty of the law. AS it says in Deuterononomy 22:23-24 the penalty for this sort of infidelity was death by stoning.

Now in our romantic love saturated soap opera world maybe Joseph would have simply said that it didn’t matter and that he loved her anyway and would marry her. But Joseph was a religious man and was aware of the fact that he could not simply go against the Law of Moses. He is in a moral dilemma. After a while he decides that the best thing for him to do is send Mary away to her relatives in the hill country and while she is there he will initiate a quite divorce with some sympathetic officials and he would wear some shame for this but at least he would save Mary and her family form the worst of the shame and possible consequences. As we see later in the gospel Jesus would be drawn into the debate of the age on marriage about how strictly the Law of Moses on divorce was to be adhered to. One school saw Moses divorce clause as only being that a man could divorce his wife only for infidelity and other saw it as meaning he could divorce his wife if she displeased him in any way. Jesus response was to affirm the stricter interpretation of the law and say that God had put that clause in the law because of the harness of mans hearts and in Matthew 19 we have the words that are still often used at weddings ‘therefore what God has joined let no one separate’. Joseph under either understanding of the law was in the right to divorce Mary and would be seen as being very compassionate to do it in this quite way. He wants to do the right thing by her and society and by God, but what a dilemma to find oneself in; Stuck between the law and compassion.

But then we see that the angel of the Lord comes to him in a dream, I wonder how many sleepless nights he had wrestling with this one and as he finally falls off to sleep he has a dream. The angel of the lord appears to him and tells him that Mary is pregnant by the Holy Spirit and that this is God’s plan and that he should not be afraid to take Mary as his wife and not to have sex with her before the baby is born. In fact the angel tells him to call the child Yeshua which we now by the Greek equivalent, Jesus because he will save his people. This is grace and good news breathed into the situation for Joseph. It gives him not an easy road to walk but one where he can by faith trusts God and marries Mary. The gospel message here is that God is with us and in the midst of Josephs wrestling and struggling God draws near and provides a gracious way forwards.

It would still have been a hard wedding day, she would have come back from staying with her Aunt Elizabeth and the evidence would be obvious and the people in the town would talk and whisper and make assumptions and even snide remarks. But Joseph is a man of integrity a man of faith whose trust in God is lived out in the way he acts and as we see from the gospel story he love Mary, he takes on the responsibility for Mary and the child. He accepts this knowing that it is God’s plan. He acts as a father for the boy. He brings him to the temple in accordance to the law and names him Jesus. He leaves all that he has and in response to another dream takes Mary and the child to Egypt as refugees from Herod’s tyrannical death squads. We know that he provided for Jesus and his family until his death. That he brought them up in the Jewish faith, every year they would come to Jerusalem for the Passover. On his twelfth birthday in Jesus speaking to his parents we can see that Jesus was aware of who his real father was. He is a man of integrity compassion and faith a good man for God to leave his only son to raise and nurture.

I want to suggest two things that this means for us today.

Firstly we need Joseph’s example today. In film and media we are presented these days with images of weak men. Maybe not weak in the arm and leg but weak when it comes to moral fortitude, they are easily led around by another part of their anatomy rather than their brain. They give in quickly to opportunity and temptation. It could be argued that this reinforces or reflects real life that we are living in a fatherless generation: Men find it easy to walk away from their responsibilities for the pursuit of personal fulfilment. AS a character in the film ‘Boyz’n’da hood’ says any swing dick can make a baby but it takes a real man to be a father. Even business and politics are short on men of strong moral fibre as Leonard sweet said of the 1990's‘ The decade that brought us the greatest burst of literature on leadership also brought us corporate scandals with Enron and and Adelphia and Tyco and Global Crossing and Arthur Anderson, and they have brought us President Bill “it-depends –on-what-the meaning of is ‘is’ Clinton.” Then Eight out of ten people in a recent poll expected that top executives would take improper actions to help themselves at the expense of their companies, and as we are living through the fall out of the credit crunch where executives looked after their own obscenely sized bonuses and people have occupied city financial centers and city centers round the world protesting against cooperate greed. You have to say with a down cast heart that the church doesn’t have the best track record recently either. So Joseph is a good role model for us of a man of integrity and faith. He shouldn’t just be seen as the guy at the back of the stable whose major role seems to occur when he’s sleeping. Rather he should be acknowledged and honoured for his righteousness and compassion, his integrity and faith they are characteristics that God chose to play an important part in the formative years of Jesus life. They are characteristics we need to allow to play an important part in our lives and in the formation of our children.

Secondly, Joseph offers hope to all who would find themselves struggling with moral dilemma trying to live with doing the right thing and the pull of compassion and love. He shows us that with the Good news of Jesus Christ that there is the dream of hope, that God is with us in the midst of our wrestling and desire to live for him and able to bring his grace into our lives and situations. It’s interesting to note that this God with us solution wasn’t a everything is now wonderful Hollywood ending , he still had to deal with hardship and shame but in the end it was a way that God was able to bring good not only for this couple, but the whole world. And that is the hope of the gospel “God is with us” and while that is not going to mean its going to be all beer and lamingtons all rides into the sunset and string quartets, it does mean that if we are willing to allow the God who is with us to speak into our situations and then come awake and follow his word that we will see God’s good worked out in it. In being willing to dream of a God with us possibility we too can see Christ being born or at least brought into our circumstances and world.

As we unpack the nativity we can see that Joseph is not just the quite extra in the background that he is an important part of the story he is an essential part of God’s plan. He is an example for us of a man of integrity and faith fit to nurture Jesus. He also experiences the hope that this child, this Immanuel, this God with us can bring to our lives as we wrestle to serve God and do what is right, he shows us that in our lives today we too can know hope and dream of new possibilities because of the child who is born in the stable. In your life today in all you face dilemmas and challenges to your integrity hear again the good news of hope and God with us.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Steve Holmes on "Contemporary Worship and Contemplative Prayer" A recommendation.

I enjoy the insights of Steve Holmes a Baptist minister and  lecturer in Theology at St Mary's College St Andrew's. His most recent blog entry on "Contemplative Prayer and Contemporary Worship", reflects both the direction I feel myself moving and some of the insights from my study leave on New Monasticism.

His blog is called shored fragments and is well worth reading and subscribing to.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures: A review and reflection

Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger's book Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures ( 2005, Baker Academic) is an excellent exploration of what is known (or maybe formally known) as the Emerging Church Movement. It has the scholarly rigger of being part of Ryan Bolger's Doctoral study and a back up research for one of Eddie Gibbs earlier books. I appreciated the way in which these authors strived to present the Emerging Church, in many of it's a different emerging forms and expressions in the US and UK, in its own words,  as Gibbs and Bolger state in their conclusion.

"We wanted emerging church leaders to be heard in their own words. Our roles have been that of interpreter and commentator. We refrained from acting as censors or critics when something was said about which we have our own opinions. We sort to include leaders who had walked away from their previous ecclesial tradition out of frustration and disillusionment as well as those who continue to work within a traditional, seeking its transformation."

With this ethos the voices of these attempts of doing a new and fresh expression of church within a post modern and post Christendom context spoke, and spoke to me.

Gibbs and Ryan started their book by putting the emerging church into the context of a whole raft of different christian responses to the changing fabric of society in the west. Gen-X Churches, both stand alone and the church within a church model, developing churches and services that reflected and catered for generations so culturally different than the previous ones.New Paradigm churches, expressions of a particular tradition repackaged (sorry my word) in a new cultural context (eg Mars Hill in Seattle is a new paradigm reformed church), seeker friendly formats and finally in what has become known as emerging church. It was helpful for me as I reflect back on over twenty years of ministry to see that I had been involved in all those developing expressions of church, investing in some of the conflicts and controversies associated with them and open to their shortcomings and pit falls as well as their possibilities and strengths. In reading the short bio's of emerging church leaders in the first appendix of this book I discovered I had shared a lot of the same journey of many emerging church leaders.

This brief historical also helped me to put some perspective on the three years of church planting that I have been involved in as well. I wish I had read this book before I started with Studentsoul Auckland. Many of the church planting material I had read before this was so caught up in a model of church that reflected a different, modernistic understanding of church planting that I found myself looking more at the metrics of Attendance and becoming another version of the wannabe mega churches. What we eventually became was more an expression of emerging church (Well a compromise really).

Gibbs and Ryan then spend the majority of their book looking at nine trends or markers of the emerging church.

Three central trends.

1. Identifying with the life of Jesus as a model for life: focusing on Kingdom living
2. Transforming secular space: emerging church rejects the modernistic separation of secular and sacred space. To the extent that kingdom living happens in both. That God is active and able to peak through all things and have a commitment to the idea of Missio Dei, That the spirit is at work in the world and Christians are called to venture out and connect with what God is already doing.
3. Living in Community; That church is not about buildings and what we do on Sunday but is about living a Christ centered life together as a community on a 24/7 basis. Which means not just a development of physical community, although some have gone down the line on new monasticism, but rather than church is about what we do together and any worship event comes out of that.

Gibbs and Ryan then see six other rends in emerging church that flow out of that.

4. Communities and evangelism are about welcoming the stranger. All are welcomed to be part of community.

5. Serving with Generosity: emerging churches believe in serving others but not as some sort of bait for the evangelistic hook but because it is an outpouring of the love they have received from Christ. Not having to keep a modernistic church structure of buildings, paid staff, professional clergy etc going they are able to share what they have with those in need.

6. Participating as Producers: emerging churches look to include all their members in worship and community. They see much of the traditional church and mega church movements as having worship as a consumer product, rather than being an event where all can use their gifts and abilities to give thanks to God, and lead the community.

7. Creating as a created being: emerging church affirms creativity and art. There is an ethos that everyone can contribute to this and value is not put on professionalism but expression. Community size is often regulated by how big a group can be and still maintain and allow space for people to contribute creatively.

8. Leading as a body. Emerging church see leadership as a body ministry, decisions and direction and vision come from the group as a whole. Leadership exercises a role within that and is not vested in one person but is taken up by those who are gifted and impassioned in such areas. The role of the leader is seen as that of facilitator, allowing space for others to exercise their gifts and abilities. There is no professional clergy. The emphasis is on a sustainable model of bi vocational ministers in a priesthood of all believers.

9. Merging Ancient and Contemporary spirituality. Emerging church seeks to explore the heritage of spiritual disciplines, both personal and communal, from the whole of the church family and past and adapt them as a rhythm of life for today's world.

AS i read this book I couldn't help but focus on Studentsoul Auckland. To a certain extent we unknowingly really were trying to walk this emerging track with a leader (me) who had more invested in a modernistic understanding of church. I now know more than ever that Mic who was one of our first people to come along was in actual fact a real god send and leader. I should have listened more to him as he expressed church more as a community, desired to serve the least as an act of worship and invite people to participate more in our worship times.

One of the struggles we had was the fact that I was thinking in terms of a modernistic church that was able to grow to support a professional pastor (me) and it is interesting in the three years I was doing Studentsoul, being employed as a second chaplain at Auckland uni. was more a bi vocational ministry, if I had seen it as such. On the flip side when it came to refinancing more time, the faithful people who had seen it as a project were looking for more progress along the lines of a church rather than a developing community.

I really struggled with the dilemma between adopting an aggressive advertising programme and wanting things to develop more organically through relationships and community. In the end what growth numerically we had came from community involvement and building a relationship with me. Assessing size as a success also was caught between the emerging paradigm that it was depth of community that mattered and wanting to be big enough to be self sustaining financially also was a tension.

AS a group we defined our vision almost by accident. the teaching style invited everyone to be involved in the exploration and interpreting of scripture.

After reading this book I am torn even more between looking for employment simply to make a living so I can continue developing and working with this small community and its mission amongst Uni students and finding a place that will sustain me and my family in the mainline denomination I serve.  

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Mystic Way Of Evangelism: A contemplative Vision For Christian Outreach (Elaine Heath): A reflection more than a review.

 Elaine Heath's book The Mystic Way of Evangelism:A Contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach (2008, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids)  is profound. I am a Tui Billboard indoctrinated Kiwi (sorry to overseas readers for this bit of kiwiana) so when I read Brian McLaren's endorsement to this book, that his hunch is that it just might be (for some readers) the most important book they read this year, I had to reply "Yeah Right" ( My son tells me that this Kiwi expression is the only example in the English language of two positives making a negative)... But after reading the book I had to say I changed my opinion  "Yeah... right" it was a good hunch Brian, this is an important book.

Heath starts by giving a definition of evangelism that counter acts the vision many have when the word is used of programmes, techniques, and used car salesman like rants or even the targeted person of 'freindship evangelism. She says "Evangelism rightly understood is the holistic initiation of people into the reign of God as revealed in Jesus Christ." and then fleshes that out  in stating
"evangelism is intrinsically relational, the outcome of love of neighbor, for to love neighbor is to share the love of God holistically. The proper context for evangelism is authentic Christian community, where the expression of loving community is the greatest apologetic for the gospel."

Heath then suggests that the Mystics of the Christian tradition have significant insights, understandings and light to share with the church today. In fact the wisdom they share can be seen to offer an alternative vision for doing church and outreach. She points out that Mystics being private people is false. Their seeking after God and holiness is anything but...

"Christian mysticism is about the holy transformation of the mystic by God, so that the mystic becomes instrumental in the holy transformation of God's people. This transformation always results in missional action in the world. The idea that mysticism is private and removed from the rugged world of ministry is false."

After a helpful explanation of the two main streams of mystic experience Apophatic (emptiness and unknowing) and Kataphatic (a mediated knowing), Heath structures her exploration of the church developing a contemplative vision for outreach through the threefold pathway common to mystical thinking.  Purgation, Illumination and Union.

I found Heath's idea that the church in the west, (applicable to New Zealand as much as Heath's USAmerican setting) is passing through a long dark night of the soul very helpful and poignant. There is a spiritual dryness and a flailing about looking for something that will satisfy that dryness going on in the church today. Heath sees this as a process through which the church is able to de-idolise lot of its structures, rituals, buildings and assumptions to again focus and come to God. She says it is the process of by which we realise we have mistaken the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself. French social theorist Jean Baudrillard talks of religion as a simulacra, a model for which the reality behind no longer exists. There is truth in that assertion that we have built and worship a glorified simulacra that needs to be stripped away... but as we do we do not discover a nothingness rather maybe again we will discover the reality of God. "welcome to the desert of the real" just maybe the place in which we encounter the one... I know very Matrix.

While I was wrestling with Heath's text I was also reading through the first few chapters of Ezekiel which has at the end of each of its harsh pronouncements of doom repeats the phrase "then you will know that I alone am the LORD". Heath puts the decline in the church in the west in the same category as Israel heading into exile, a stripping away of idols, even the temple worship itself, so that the people of God might again find that " I alone am the LORD". Into this collective dark night of the soul Heath says the mystics who have been there before us have illumination that may herald a new dawn.

I have to admit I have not really read or reflected on the Christian mystics and it was refreshing and indeed illuminating to be introduced to many of these Christian forebears. Heath picked two mystics balancing ancient and modern as well as male and female, western and eastern, catholic and protestant to shed light on the church in the night. She looks to Julian of Norwich and Hans Urs Von Belthasar to set the ground works for an alternative narrative of a non-punitive doctrine of atonement, looking at "human brokenness as the universal context for evangelism'. Picking up an understanding of restoration and recreation as an outworking of God's love for humanity.

She then explores the ministry of Methodist Preacher and Theologian Phoebe Palmer and Russian Orthodox hieromonk Father Arseny, to explore the idea of Ministry as Holiness . Both Palmer and Arseny gave themselves to serving and caring for others in the midst of suffering and oppression that bought liberty and transformation.

Heath moves on to explore this idea of holiness in ministry as Kenosis (an emptying of self) through the lives of Henri Nouwen (the mystic I do know and whose writing I have found beneficial and transformative) and Thomas R Kelly. That once we come home to love and know that we are Beloved of God we can give invest ourselves into loving others.

She then moves on to explore the threefold wound of racism, sexism and classism and how the mystics have confronted that and provide a way forwards. She uses the ministry of the abused daughter a freed slave Julia Foote and Mechthild of Magdeburg and the Beguines to explore this. She asserts the need for the church to address this three fold wound saying that amongst other stories the story of the church in America (and yes in the west) has been 'A long story of church-sanctioned in justice as women and ethnic minorities have been forced to live their faith from the margins". And that the church in the night needs to confess and repent of this.

Finally Heath explores the  life of Bonaventure and John Woolman to explore the need for the church in the night to rediscover a care for the earth. To heal the split between the sacred and the secular which is a pillar of modernity.

In her third section Union, Heath uses narrative theology to paint a possible future for the church, that comes out of the purging of the night and an embarrassing of the illumination of te mystics. I have to admit her story of a church that lives out Heath's vision is compelling and refreshing and hope filled. It is an important piece of Prophetic imagination, that leave me saying ... Yes Lord.

If anything Heath's book for me opens up a new way of thinking. It is easy for us to get used to hearing one voice, one stream, one thread of Christian thought and to think that it is the overall meta-narrative. It becomes the lens through which we read Scripture, do theology and view the world. For me Heath opens up another lens.

Heath has a lot to say to me and to the Church. Her vision for a new way of living and reaching out is compelling. As I have moved on from reading her book to 'The Emerging Churches" by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Blogger, I can see that there are many elements of her work that echoes if not resounds in that movement.

On a pragmatic level,I applaud  Heaths assertion that Contemplative prayer needs to be at the center of how people are formed and shaped for ministry. Her vision that in the future churches will have teams of bi vocational ministers (those who work and pastor) who reflect the gender and ethnic diversity of the communities they are called to serve is significant. She has taken Brian McLaren's (Dorothy on Leadership) assertion that the leaders of tomorrow will not be professional but amateurs (done out of love) and imagined it real terms. The model of a professional clergy and maintaining buildings and programmes as a focus for church life and outreach I believe are not sustainable. Embarrassing and inviting people to journey will us rather than to believe then belong I find attractive.

In the end this book leaves me torn. Torn between having so much of who I am invested in what is the church in the night and sadly the security it offers one... One of my leanings in attempting to do a church plant for me personally is how much I have been conditioned to the institutions... and the possibility of something new. I hope my response to this desert of the real (again in a Matrix Moment) is not that of the Character 'Cypher'... I want to go back into the Matrix...  Watch this space.