Friday, January 28, 2011
This is an article I worote that was first published in 'Candour' the PCANZ Ministers journal in Sept 2009.
What does it mean to have a prophetic ministry in a church in decline?
“We believe that the prophetic ministry of ordained pastors as prophets is not merely an option, still less an idle curiosity; it is incumbent on them as an important feature of their role and identity.” (Shelp and Sutherland 1985:8)
What does it mean to have a prophetic ministry in the church today? Hopefully there is not a comprehensive shrug of the shoulder and an ‘I don’t know’ in response to that question. Many of us have seldom if ever met what we would recognise as a Christian prophet (Yocum: 1976:29). While we may have a great idea of what the classical prophets were doing when they prophesied we find ourselves wrestling to understand what New Testament prophets were doing when they were prophesying (Hill 1977: 108). We are comfortable with terms like ‘Minister of Word and Sacrament’, and are coming to terms with phrases like ‘change agent’ and ‘servant mission leader’ but it is harder for us to identify with the list of gifts Paul says are needed for building up the church in Ephesians 4:11. I know of no-one who wants to step up and claim a title like prophet or apostle! And they are not titles in the biblical passage they are gifts given by the Spirit for the building up of the church. We are somewhat comfortable with ‘evangelist’ and more so with ‘teacher’ and ‘pastor’. However I believe to give hope to the church in decline we need to rediscover what these gifts mean for us today. In this article I will wrestle with the idea of a prophetic ministry in a church in decline.
John Calvin shaped our thinking on this matter. He addressed the list in Ephesians and split it into two arbitrary categories. First the ministries “that the Lord raised up...at the beginning of the Kingdom, and now and again revives them as the need and the times demands” (Calvin cited in Peel 200:42). Into this category he placed apostles, prophets and evangelists. The second group and only permanent gifting in his opinion were those of pastor and teacher (Peel: 2000:242-243).
Here are some understandings and misunderstandings of what a prophetic ministry is...
Weird guru type person: When we use the word prophet we often have in our minds the picture of the desert fathers or similar hermit-like figures, with the long beard and wild eyes, clad in animal skins. If that is the reality of what a prophet is then, “it is no wonder there are so few” (Yocum: 1976:29).
A seer: In first century near eastern religious prophets and oracles were the equivalent of clairvoyants and the psychic hotlines of today. They gave spiritual advice to people with questions and concerns. There are many who still have this picture in their minds. They focus on prophecy as foretelling rather than the more biblical understanding of one who tells forth God’s word; who brings the timeless word of God to bear, in a timely manner, to a specific time and place.
The social justice activist: James Glasse sees the pastor as prophet when they are concerned for social change and reform outside of the congregation they work in. I guess Martin Luther King Jr. would be the primary example of this understanding. Glasse’s main concern is ministers who want to be prophetic without being professional. They did not spend the time encouraging and building up the church or as he puts it ‘paying the rent’ (Glasse: 1972:35).
While this is one understanding of a prophetic ministry and reflects a kingdom concern for justice and mercy it does not reflect the biblical understanding of the prophet primarily speaking to the people of God and ministering within the faith community so they may together become a prophetic community, a people who reflect God’s new way of living to the world around them.
Acts of divine utterance: the Charismatic and Pentecostal understanding of prophecy is as divine utterance. It starts with an understanding of who God is. That God is a communicative God. “All through the scriptures God tells us that he desires to speak ever more intimately, evermore frequently with those who follow him” (Yocum 1976:11). In the Old Testament God chose to speak to specific people but in the New Testament the Spirit is poured out on all who believe. In this respect all God’s people can hear from God and tell forth what God wants to say. Neither this understanding nor the scriptures connect this activity with any office or position in the church. Gordon Fee maintains that as with all prophecy there is the need for discernment. Any such utterance needs to be weighed and the community needs to wrestle with what is said to see if it is from God. The Spirit provides the gift to do this as well. Fee cites 1 John 4:1 as evidence for the connection between discerning spirits and prophecy (Fee 1994:171). 1 Corinthians puts the context of the use of this gift in public worship and shows Paul’s Presbyterian roots (or more truly our Presbyterian roots in Paul) by insisting that it be done in order.
Inspired exegesis and interpretation: There is the hope that each time we faithfully expound scripture that prophecy happens. The reformed ideal is summarized by JI Packer ...’it appears that New Testament prophets preached the gospel for conversion, edification and encouragement...by parity of reasoning therefore, any verbal enforcement of biblical teaching as it applies to one’s present hearers may probably be called prophecy today, for that in truth is what it is’ (cited in Turner 1996:187). Of the reformers Zwingli seems to have articulated this most. His daily bible studies in Zurich were called the Prophezei or prophecy: Scholars, clergy and students would gather in the cathedral choir for an hour of intense exegesis and interpretation. Zwingli’s emphasis was on the role of the Spirit in interpreting the scriptures to people. He established some rules for interpretation to ensure Biblical fidelity: putting texts into context and comparing them with other texts in different literary genres ( Stephens 992: 38-39). There is an essential element of the scriptural understanding of prophecy here in that the word of God, through the Spirit, is understood and able to be interpreted and applied to the present situation.
I want to suggest a different way of looking at what a prophetic ministry is...
One of the most useful and challenging books I have read on this subject is Pastor as Prophet (1985). It is a collection of essays re-examining the role of the pastor. It was written in response to the move to see pastoral ministry primarily as a ‘helping profession’ and is a clarion call to rediscover what it means to have a prophetic ministry. It includes some material from Walter Brueggemann who I believe gives us important insight for ministry today.
The book affirms some of the basic roles and tasks of pastoral ministry as being prophetic. Preaching the word and administering the sacraments are prophetic because they constitute us as the people of God in the world (Hauerwas 1985: 43). In public prayer there is space to fulfil a prophetic ministry. In prayers of confession we confront evil in the world. In giving absolution we declare the gospel truth of forgiveness and proclaim the possibility of new life and transformation. In prayers for others we are able to speak prophetically to governments and power structures. In asking God to give guidance to these institutions we, as the church, are acknowledging their accountability to a higher power, which will ultimately have the say over what is done ( Migliore 1985: 128). Likewise pastoral visiting and identifying with the hurting and oppressed is prophetic in that it shows God’s concern for the pain and suffering in the world. Developing and encouraging leadership and pastoral visiting teams further is prophetic in that it shows God’s call for his people to be active in God’s mission.
The thing that challenged me the most is Walter Bruggermann’s idea of the pastor having prophetic imagination. Having a clear and biblical understanding of what it means to be God’s people or as Andrew Stanley puts it seeing God’s preferred future (1999: 17) and then working to see that alternative reality come into existence. Brueggemann sees the prophets’ role in this as critiquing the way things are and to energise people for the way they can be. Not innovation but calling for faithfulness to God’s original vision, for Israel and for the church in Jesus' Kingdom of God.
I spoke at a Youth Leaders convesntion recently and I asked the youth leaders present to raise their hands if they had a vision of what they were wanting to achieve in the ministry they were doing with young people. I was shocked to see only a few hands go up. There was little prophetic imagination happening. I fear it reflects the state of the church.
In the book leading congregational change, Jim Herrington et al presents a process for a church community to work through. Starting with developing a vision community to begin the process of looking at what it is God is calling us to be (2000:41). While he is a Southern Baptist his process fits well with us, with the need for a great diversity to be represented in that group. The process is to capture the imagination of the congregation in order to bring changes at a practical and paradigm level (Herrington 2000:62-63). Even to get to the level of changing the metaphor we use to construct our reality. It involves a careful and well thought out process of bring that change and seeing that vision coming to fruition.
Herrington also maintains that for this transformation to happen there needs to be an ongoing process of learning; unlearning old paradigms and being willing to explore new ones. We often think of our role as teaching elder as being confined to our preaching and Christian education, but an important element of that is resourcing leaders and elders and congregations so they can develop a prophetic imagination in order to look beyond the way things are to the way they can be. While you may not agree with all of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church it is an example of a clear vision of what church is about. When I gave it to my elders to read I found that for many it fuelled their imagination as to what the church should and could be.
We use the term ‘leadership’ to cover a lot of this. Often people talk about this process of change agent as bringing business models into church life. But in essence I believe it is what it means to have a prophetic ministry in a church in decline. The Biblical models for the prophetic are Moses and Jesus, who had clear God given visions for an alternative community of faith and both spoke and worked to see it come into being. They gathered a vision community around them and infected them with the possibility.
I have sat through a lot of good teaching even sometimes prophetic preaching; I have received and hopefully given good pastoral care. But I fear that as a church we have taught and pastored our way to decline and even death. We have not encouraged or prayed for the Spirit to give us the prophets and prophetic ministries we need for the church to be built up again, to rediscover the biblical vision for being the people of God. We need leaders who will have the courage to speak the truth about the way things are and about the way they should be, who have that Spirit given prophetic imagination. Hopefully we can pack our suitcases and head to this new kingdom.
You’re packing a suitcase for a place none of us have been
A place that has to be believed to be seen’
-Walk on U2 Lyrics by Bono (dedicated to Aung Suu Kyi)
Brueggemann, Walter. 1978. The Prophetic Imagination. Philadelphia: Fortress Press
Brueggemann, Walter. 1985. “The prophet as destabilizing presence’ in The Pastor as Prophet, EE Shelp & RH Sunderland ed. New York: The Pilgrim Press. Pgs 49-77
Fee, Gordon. 1994. God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul. Peabody Mass.: Hendrickson Publishing.
Glasse, James d. 1972. Putting It All Together In The Parish. Nashville: Abingdon.
Hauerwas, Stanley M. 1985. ‘The Pastor as Prophet: Ethical Reflections On An Improbable Mission’ in The Pastor As Prophet, EE Shelp & RH Sunderland ed. New York: The Pilgrim Press. Pgs 27-48
Herrington, Jim. Boner, Mike. Furr, James H. 2000. Leading Congregational Change. A Practical Guide for the Transformational Journey. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Hill, David. 1979. New Testament Prophecy. London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott.
Milliore, Daniel l. 1985. ‘The Passion Of God and The Prophetic Task Of Pastoral Ministry’ in The
Pastor As Prophet, EE Shelp & RH Sunderland ed. New York: The Pilgrim Press. Pgs 114-134
Peel, David. 2000. Reforming Theology. London: The United Reformed Church
Slep Earl E and Sutherland Ronald H. 1985. ‘Prophetic Ministry: An introduction’ in The Pastor As Prophet, EE Shelp & RH Sunderland ed. New York: The Pilgrim Press. Pgs 3-26
Stanley, Andy. 1999. Visioneering. Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Publishers.
Stephens, W P. 1992. Zwingli: An Introduction This Thought. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Turner, Max.1996. The Holy Spirit and the Gifts Then and Now. Carlisle, Cumbria: The Paternoster Press.
Yocum, Bruce. 1976. Prophecy: Exercising The Prophetic Gifts In The Church Today. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Servant Books
Saturday, January 22, 2011
For the director of music. Of David. A psalm.
1 I waited patiently for the LORD;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
2 He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
3 He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the LORD
and put their trust in him.
4 Blessed is the one
who trusts in the LORD,
who does not look to the proud,
to those who turn aside to false gods.
5 Many, LORD my God,
are the wonders you have done,
the things you planned for us.
None can compare with you;
were I to speak and tell of your deeds,
they would be too many to declare.
6 Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—
but my ears you have opened—
burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.
7 Then I said, “Here I am, I have come—
it is written about me in the scroll.
8 I desire to do your will, my God;
your law is within my heart.”
9 I proclaim your saving acts in the great assembly;
I do not seal my lips, LORD,
as you know.
10 I do not hide your righteousness in my heart;
I speak of your faithfulness and your saving help.
I do not conceal your love and your faithfulness
from the great assembly.
11 Do not withhold your mercy from me, LORD;
may your love and faithfulness always protect me.
12 For troubles without number surround me;
my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see.
They are more than the hairs of my head,
and my heart fails within me.
13 Be pleased to save me, LORD;
come quickly, LORD, to help me.
14 May all who want to take my life
be put to shame and confusion;
may all who desire my ruin
be turned back in disgrace.
15 May those who say to me, “Aha! Aha!”
be appalled at their own shame.
16 But may all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who long for your saving help always say,
“The LORD is great!”
17 But as for me, I am poor and needy;
may the Lord think of me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
you are my God, do not delay.
Let’s look at the psalm
We don’t know what it was in David’s life that caused him to write this psalm but in the ancient middle east being stuck in the miry clay was a deadly situation. It was common practise to put people down a dry well or in a cistern as punishment. They were used as prison cells but it could be a death sentence. You’ll remember this is how Joseph’s brothers had thought to get rid of him by dumping him down a well. While theses wells had no water in it there would be a layer of mud and silt at the bottom. Prisoners could find themselves struggling till they were exhausted to stay above this miry clay, then they would drown in it. There was no way of getting out unless someone came to help them. In Jeremiah Chapter 28 the prophet Jeremiah is imprisoned in such a well and would have died had it not been for the timely intervention of Ebed-meleck who asks the king to release him and then with friends hauls Jeremiah up by ropes. This is why it is a great metaphor for salvation from our sins, we find ourselves imprisoned in them, like self dug graves and we cannot save ourselves we need someone to reach down and save us.
This new song in David’s heart is two fold It is a testimony to what God has done for him, so that people will come to put their trust in God. We often think our faith is private, but the Psalm invites us to join David in telling people what the Lord has done for us. There is power in our testimony, it gives praise to God and it gives hope to those who are struggling and maybe going down for the last time. God uses our story, just like he uses the history of his people to bring his hope and salvation.
Leonard Sweet talks about assessing the health and vitality of a church not being as simple as the ABC’s that’s Attendance, Buildings and Cash but rather it is a matters of counting stories of changed lives in Christ.
The author of the book of Hebrews puts these words of David in Jesus mouth. In Hebrews 10:5 as Jesus came into this world he came to do God’s will. He came to do all that God had purposed for him and he did it wholeheartedly. Jesus, the messiah and descendant of David is the ultimate example for us of what David was talking about here. His obedience made the sacrificial system obsolete.
In the midst of a new trial, David laments, he sings the blues, but it doesn’t stop him remembering what God has done for him in the past. In fact remembering God’s greater salvation in the past enables him to have hope.
I want us to take three things from this psalm today.
Nicholae Moldoveau was a Christian musician in Romania and was sentenced to 12 years hard labour under the Ceaucescu communist regime; his crime being a Christian. In prison he turned to writing praise and worship songs. They stopped giving him pens and paper to try and stop him composing worship music. Moldoveau would not stop he put soap on his bars and wrote his music with his fingers. Then when he was finished he would commit the song to memory. After twelve years he was released and one of the provisions of his release was that he did not write anymore of his songs. His reply was “Just keep me here and save yourself the trouble. I will not stop worshipping my God with my praise songs.”I don't think his faith and trust was ever inprisoned and the 360 songs he composed in prison are now used in churches right across a free Romania.
Friday, January 21, 2011
Let us pray (often said by me in a sort of high english anglican clergy acent in private of course not in worship)
We’ve got so much to shout and sing about
So much good news to tell the world
There are the vast eternal, big things
You’re a great and mighty God
We are amazed and awed by your world around us
Particularly Our beautiful Island home
With its vast array of landscape and vistas
Its distinct unique native flora and fauna
Even the trees and animals that have been introduced
The way that you have been acting in human history
Working to achieve your purposes and reconcile us with you
There are your great acts of mercy and grace
You are a kind and loving God
You sent Jesus to live amongst us
He showed us your great love
He healed the sick cared for the poor
Spoke of your kingdom and just ways
Then gave his life for us
And gave us hope of new life in his resurrection
You have poured your Holy Spirit upon us
You enable and empower us to live for and witness to Jesus Christ
There are the deeply individual and personal reasons as well
You are a God who is with us and cares for us
We were lost and you came and found us
In our brokenness we feel your healing hand making us whole
You give us meaning and hope for our lives
Life is hard yet in the midst of our ups and downs you are there
You are our comfort and guide, you provide for our needs
You invite us to join in your mission in the world
You call us to live for something beyond ourselves, for you
While we want to shout and sing about you and your love
There are things in our own life that we cannot crow about
We are fallen and sinful people and in need of your forgiveness
Lets face it, there are times when were full of ourselves,
When it’s all about us, we take more than we need
Squander what you have provided while others go without
Care for our own comfort more than the needs of others
Put others in what we think is their place to elevate our own status
Forgive us O lord and help us live for you and love like you
Then some of us do not value the gift of who we are
We struggle to feel of any worth
Even though we know you don’t make junk we feel that way
We can unhealthily invest all in others and neglect caring for ourselves
Forgive us O lord and help us know who we are in you
We confess that we have done things that we ought not to have done
We admit there is good we should do left undone
Forgive us O God
This is worth shouting about telling out about
As we have confessed our sins God is faithful and just and cleanses us from all unrighteousness
The slate is clean, there’s no secret file in some filing cabinet or cosmic computer
God has forgiven and deleted all trace of our debt
We are free to go and live life in all its abundance
Fill us O God with your spirit that we may live that life for you
Help us to proclaim all the good things that you have done
To share it with those who are in the dark about how good you are
that they may experience you love in what we do and say
so they will join us to shout and sing your praise our God, Father, Son and Spirit
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
I read novels for entertainment and will devour one in a few days but with Sweet's books and other more weighty tombs it takes me a while to read. I take my time, savour what is written and being a bear of little brain it takes me a while to let it sink in. The twisted plot of a crime novel no problem almost poetic EPIC thoughts of a university professor, not so easy. Plus it has to get past just comprehension to understanding.
Nudge is a book Sweet has written about that most slippery and some ways tarnished word Evangelism. Sweet uses the MSN 'giving someone a nudge' or facebook's more offensive give someone a poke, as a metaphor for sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. He maintains that Christ is alive and active in the world and evangelism is often nudging people to pay attention to the God who is already present and working in peoples’ lives. That we are called to 'pay attention' to God and help others pay attention to God as well. One of those nudges maybe the one that moves someone to a new relationship with Jesus, or it may simply be part of the process of God getting and maintaining someone’s attention. Those nudges Sweet calls 'small saves'.
Strangely enough as I opened the book 'nudge' to read Sweet was giving the example of birds flying into his West coast of US America home and having to be nudged out by the family.... it was strange reading this after I had just spent the last 40 minutes trying to do exactly that, to nudge a bird out of the chapel hall and out to the freedom of the world outside.
Sweet said some birds got it quickly and it only took a few nudges others it would take hours as the bird would fly to window after window, perch after perch and end up a bit bloodied and battered before finally someone would manage to nudge it or carry it into the freedom of the outside.
Amazing coincidence (a divine coincidence perhaps at least a divine nudge). To be reading a passage from a book at the same time as a real live example/illustration was flitting round my head.
Since I've been back from Christmas I have found myself in a series of conversations with people, both coincidental and people seeking me out that have felt like divine appointments. Where I have been able to 'Nudge' people and see them move ever so slightly towards Jesus.
Totally non-churched students who felt comfortable to talk with me about their respect for Jesus as a historical character and social revolutionary, and express their feeling that if more of his followers were like Jesus then the world would be a better place. The only Nudge from me was to add an amen! In fact I had to wonder who was being nudged, as I found myself sensing a burning bush moment, these are the people I'm calling you to Howard. Through to Christian students who are looking for someone to help process stuff that they are thinking and experiencing. Again sensing that renewed nudge in the midst of other stuff (don't get me started) that makes me doubt what I'm doing at the moment. All while the student population is on holiday.
Back to the bird, in the end I simply left the bird in the chapel over night, knowing that the only consequence may be cleaning droppings off the furniture and floor (although it seemed to be a very house trained fantail) and when I opened the door this morning apart from a row of birds on the outside waiting to come in, the fantail simply jumped down onto the mat, turned to look at me as if to say thank you (Sweet mentioned in his book that birds at his place never did this. New Zealand birds are probably more polite:) and walked out.
Sadly it was met by another fantail that attacked it and the bird turned round and wanted to come back in (Again something Sweet says he never experienced) but after herding it back out the bird took a while to recover and I stood by to protect it. Then after a while it flew off. Sadly I wonder if there isn't a sermon illustration and reflection on the way the church can sometimes be in that.
As I posted before Sweet starts his book with the affirmation that every bush is burning and it was interesting to get such an interesting illustration of it like this and a nudge to keep on nudging because God cares so much for the sparrow and fantail and knows when one falls to the ground think of how much more he cares for those he nudges in our direction, to nudge in his.
Sunday, January 16, 2011
Gracious and merciful God
We come together this morning to praise you
You are just in all you do
And full of kindness
You are the solid rock we build our lives on
You hold us as steady as a post
You are the God of the big things
When we try and contemplate them it blows our minds
You spoke and it came into being
The vastness of space,The ocean that stretches over the horizon
The beauty of hill, forest and river valley that is our land
You are the God whose plans are being worked out in history
We wonder at what is happening in our world
Yet behind the ebb and flow of nations
and sometimes the seeming chaos
You are working to bring all things together in Christ
You loved the world so much that you sent your son
That all who believe in him will not perish
But have abundant life for ever
You are the God of the little things
The wonder of the smallest flower and leaf detail
You made us all unique and different
You know all about us
You care about all that happens in our lives
Our individual joys and sorrows
The cares and concerns hidden in our hearts
You chose to dwell with us by your spirit
You work your plans out in us
You lead us and guide us
Thank you God
For your great love
Lord God we acknowledge our wrongdoing
And ask for your forgiveness
We do not always acknowledge you in all we do
We do not thank you for what you have done
We try living our own way instead of following your word
We do not love others as you love us
We are often silent when faced with evil and injustice
Our compassion is often smothered in our own comfort and cares
Father forgive us
What great Love, what mercy we have received in Christ
As we have confessed our sins you have been faithful and just and forgiven us our sins and cleansed us from all unrighteousness.
Help us to live for you
Fill us with your spirit that we may know you more
That we may be lead into all truth
Equipped and enabled to love your people and world
To share you love in word, deed and in service
All glory to you living caring God
Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Thursday, January 13, 2011
On top of this they have their own nightmares to attend to. Mitchell has to struggle with overcoming an addiction (blood) and changing the behaviour of his tribe, a counter culture that sees itself (at least during the first series) with the potential to overthrow and dominate, enslave the rest of us. George wrestles with trying to live normally with a disease that affects him and with which he can kill and infect others, one that if it became known would mean he was totally ostracised if not killed. He deals with the consequences of infecting the women he loves. Annie has to wrestle with being irrelevant and invisible to all but a few. A state she was in before her death as she lived in an abusive relationship with her fiancée who eventual killed her. In each other they find a community where they can start to heal and become more human by flatting together.
There may be obvious connections with certain issues in our society and by exploring these through the use of older myths from our literary and folklore past the writers and producers has done a good job. We all have to wrestle with the dark monster that lurks within us. We all have to somehow learn to find meaning and purpose and love and community and transcendence amidst the brokenness. Setting the series in a post-industrial wasteland like Bristol, which even on sunny days seems to have a layer of darkness and decay (no offence to the city of Bristol).
Like many new remediation and retelling of vampire, ghost and werewolf stories we find that we are captivated and drawn into the lives of what we are conditioned to see as evil and the thing of nightmares. Perhaps this is part of the way this series connects with our post modern, post colonial, multi cultural urban landscape. We find ourselves living next day to the other, they are no, longer the thing of myth or propaganda, rather they are... human and our stories are intermingled and we need to get along. In the midst of that we form new tribes, based round lifestyles and life choices. Flats and workplaces, local haunts, neighbourhoods and fibre optic links.
One thing I find hard to take is that the villains in this comedy/drama, the haters, are from religious folk. Dr’s who are determined to rid the world of vampires, werewolves and ghosts. Who (and I hope it does not ruin the plot for those behind even way off at the end of the world New Zealand) kneel before a cross and pray before they ring and arrange for a twelve steps meeting of vampires to be fire bombed. Slowly as we see the back story of these folk we see that they too ares struggling with being human, the main protagonist is haunted with nightmares of seeing children and we assume loved ones being killed and their throat being cut out. We never see the vampire that does it and I suspect that he is a vampire in denial. The other main character is slowly falling in love with Mitchell. Maybe this is a reflection of what post moderns have said all along and those who win write history!
Perhaps in the world we live in, it is right that people see some religious and Christian people as haters and as the agents of anti-human evil. Since 9/11 the world has been in fear of fanatic Islam, there is sadly a history of Christianity being connected to murderous regimes. One of the haunting questions of the Holocaust and Nazi-ism is how could a country that had been so Christianised and the centre of such deep profound theology also be so easily lead into a hateful political system that saw human split into Aryan and non human categories. I was talking to a left wing gay activist on Monday and heard her say that she and her community disliked Christians who were fervently anti gay, while appreciating Christian groups who went to gay pride marches with placards that said simply “we are sorry”, “we are sorry for the way our brethren have treated you”. She also admitted to being fascinated with Jesus as a historical character and as a social revolutionary. We found ourselves agreeing that the world would be a better place if Jesus followers were a lot more like Jesus.
The show has made me wonder about being human, about being a follower of Jesus about having to identify with the worst as well as the best of the Christian faith/religion and its legacy. As a spiritual discipline I’ve been reading through ‘The One year bible’ and as its January I’ve found myself reading through the Genesis account, having daily instalments of that melodrama that is the lives of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Israel) and the lads. I’ve found myself thinking I’m not sure I like these folk that much, and wondering how their stories could be seen as anything but cautionary tales for those who purport to identify Christianity strongly with family values. But they are very human, they are not super human super spiritual flawless heroes from the past. They struggle with doubts, feuds, family disagreements, wrestling with living in a foreign land, working with limited resources, being afraid, going their own way, even plotting and conniving and family violence. They are very human and what it tells me more and more is that relationship with God is based on God’s grace and God’s love and God’s faithfulness. Not that we are not called be to changed by experiencing that, but that in the end it is all about God’s grace. Therefore we are called to be that gracious to others.
The other section of scripture I am reading is the gospel of Matthew and we find in the gospels in Jesus someone who finds themselves alongside those ostracised by their society. He invites a tax collector to come follow him, He heals the sick and demon possessed, makes people whole, he calls us to love our enemies. I wonder if Jesus were to walk into the series ’being human’ what would change? Jesus would find himself with and alongside the vampire, werewolf and ghost. Now I know that academic theology may not really allow for such expressions of the undead, but in Jesus day just perhaps the unclean lepers, gentiles and quisling tax collectors and others that seemed to be drawn to Jesus we probably as vilified in religious circles as these others. Jesus came to give us life and again as Leonard Sweet says (sorry just my other serious reading material at the moment) says Jesus came to make us totally human. We are called to share how in our struggles how Jesus enables us to find meaning and purpose, community, belonging and family, and to stop living as the undead and find abundant life. Not sorrow free or struggle free ‘come to Jesus and it will be all right’ life, but a fullness of life as basic relationships are formed and matured in love.
I had intended to finish this reflection off with some practical out workings for me, but as i wrote them they seemed a bit cheesy and trite. I guess the scripture does warn people not to leave it till after they die become undead beofre they contemplater eternity and look for new life in Christ. Secondly we can settle for life as undead rather than life in all its abundance that Christ speaks of offering us. Lastly let me just say I sense the spirit inviting me to get out of the office more and mixed up in the drama/comedy of the world around me. To risk being human and in the midst of that share the one who is able to make us whole.
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
In the Hedge rows and specimen trees of suburbia
And the single concrete encased trees of city centres
At even the faintest hint of light they raise their voices
Our land of birds sings its dawn chorus praise to you O God
And we join our voices to theirs to give you praise
We join them to praise you for the wonder of your creation
The night sky, galaxy and star, that point us to eternity
The beauty of land and sea, flora and fauna
The wonder of our own unique individuality
That we are fearfully and wonderfully made
Praise you O God.
We join them to acknowledge your provision
That every good gift comes from your hand
You make the crops to grow and the earth to bear fruit
While birds don’t need to go earn a crust we do
And you have blessed us with skill and talent to use for work
Our heavenly father provides our needs
We join them to thank you for the light
We were lost and alone in our dark night
We were far away; you shone your light into our world
You sent your son Jesus to be our way, our light
You have given us your word to be a light for our path
You send your spirit to reveal your truth
Lord God we give you praise and thanks from our Island of Birds
Lord God we also turn over the darkness within to you this morning
We have sinned and fallen short of your glory
We seek your forgiveness and restoration
In your death on the cross and your being raised to life we have hope
We know that we can be made as clean and as new as the dawn
WE confess our sins
We take it for granted and thinks it’s our due Forgive us Lord
We receive your grace but have not extend it to others Forgive us
We have seen needs but horde what we have for our own comfort
We do what we should not and leave undone the good you call us to do
We repent and we ask you to forgive us and help us to change our ways
This is our hope; that Jesus died for our sins
In Christ we are set free and made new
This is the good news for us today and always
That as we confess our sins God is faithful and just and forgives us our sins and cleanses us from all unrighteousness
God who knows even when a sparrow falls to the ground
God who knows us and loves us
Fill us afresh with your spirit we pray
That we may know you more and serve your people
That we may be enabled to love and empowered to tell of your grace
To the glory of God Father, Son and Holy Spirit
extol him, all you peoples.
2 For great is his love toward us,
and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever.
Praise the LORD.
Psalm 117 is short and to the point and is slowing becoming like an anthem for me. Let me tell you about my week and you may see why.
On Sunday I preached at a Chinese Church here in town and had the great privilege of meeting a Nepalese Christian freshly moved to the city from Nepal.
On Monday I had to listen carefully as a Japanese friend of mine wanted to discuss theology and Ministry here in New Zealand. Here at the University I work with a Samoan Methodist minister. On Tuesday I lunched with two colleges at St Andrew's one Irish and the other Indonesian. This morning I heard stories of a week of thanksgiving that the Cook Island congregation at the local Pacific island Church has at this time of year (it's the end of the tropical cyclone session, that's a good reason to give thanks). The creative use of drama etc. to tell bible stories reminded me of the Tokelauan dances I used to enjoy while working at a church in Rotorua and I have to say I have appreciated the Tokelauan air-conditioner (read beautifully weaved fan) that I was given recently at a launch of research on ending sexual violence, done by seven different Pacific island groups (all praying together at the launch for the research to bring healing and wholeness to their various communities).
Today through my office came a Greek Orthodox priest who had recently moved here from the mid western USA. While I am writing this a Philippine Canter from the local Catholic Cathedral is doing vocal exercises in the university chapel in Latin sounding very much like Italian Opera. A good foil to the hard rock Prasie music I listened to on the way into work.
I've shared some thoughts with a Malaysian women who goes to a Baptist Church having lunch here... What a wonderful sign of the breadth of God's Love and the diversity of his people.
Then of course as I signed in to my blog this morning Inoticed over 250 people had read my last posting over night mainly from USAmerica. I am always suprised in the way our Wide Wired World (WWW.) brings us so close together.
in the end this is just the kind of mix needed to share God's Love with a new Auckland Environment with its many different cultures, ideologies, understandings. languages and lifestyles.
Tuesday, January 11, 2011
In an attempt to move away from such economic indicators the PCANZ (Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand has come up with a list of indicators to help parishes assess where they are at which is called healthy congregations. It is a list of eight indicators of congregational health which i do find rather helpful and challenging.
An outward focus among leaders and attenders in their concern for evangelism and wider community care. There is a readiness to discuss matters of faith with others, to act with Christ where there is a need and to invite others to church. The congregation behaves as a good steward of creation (the created and built worlds) and works with others for justice and peace, being with those with whom Jesus identifies.
Healthy relationships with the wider church - locally, nationally and beyond. The congregation will participate in mission and share activity at these
A sense of direction. Attenders perceive their congregation as having a definite sense of direction and purpose.
Worship that is true to God, enhancing of life, promotes growth in faith, is relevant to the cultures/contexts in which we live, and is inviting to people unfamiliar with church.
A lively faith. Healthy congregations tend to have higher levels of at tenders growing in their faith or experiencing moments of conversion or faith commitment. Among attenders there are high levels of devotional activity such as prayer and Bible reading.
A strong sense of community among attenders embracing all generations, different cultures and diverse ways of being human - creating a sense of belonging, managing conflict, and working towards reconciliation, healing, and renewal. High levels of involvement in small congregational groups will be evident but will not exclude participation in activities in other communities and settings.
An involving leadership. Leadership has a strong sense of vision for the mission of the congregation to which attenders are committed. Leadership is inspiring and purposeful yet puts a priority on listening to attenders' ideas and encouraging them to discover their gifts and use them. Those with roles receive adequate levels of support.
Newcomers and numerical growth. Healthy congregations are more likely to be attracting and holding newcomers, retaining young adults and growing numerically. For congregations whose mission is in the many places/contexts in which its members live through most of the week the
indicators of health include the outcomes of their activities and the ways the local congregation provides support.
They invite churches to look beyond numbers to nurture, beyond fiscal measures to missional movement, just keeping the door open to what are we doing beyond our own doors, just doing what we have to keep going, doing what God calls us to keep growing (In love with God, love for one another and expressing love to the world around them). Even with a small congregation like we have at StudentSoul I can see these health indicators in starting to develop in what is just a seedling.
Sweet however brings things down to a more pragmatic level and a more measureable way when he invites churches to thing in terms of other metrics.
Stories, and not just the “Old, Old story”, but how the old, old story of God’s grace is made new and brings new life through us. Often Churches will look back to a idealised past. They will to use the words a U2 song be ‘stuck in a moment’ and the stories they tell will go back to that time. Be it the Billy Graham Crusade in the 1960’s, the charismatic movement of the 1980’s (where they sing one line of majesty and it’s like they are having an acid flash back) or a time when the church was full and had an important place in the community or city. But what are the stories of change and transformation that God is doing through the church now. Where is the new life now?
If you want to count definite says sweet count the number of cigarette butts in the car park. I guess thats not that we are to encourage smoking and look for tobacco sponsorship to keep things going, rather its an indicator of whose there, whose about. As I work at a secular university I find more and more the people I sense God calling me towards are not the religious and churched. This could get messy. Sweet also says we often forget that Jesus talks about sowing seeds in good ground and maybe the most fertile good ground is in those who are poor and in need of grace and very much like the people who flocked to Jesus in his earthly ministry, we look to become (forgive me here) more like the people who were suspicious of Jesus and mocked him with a title I really value ‘the friend of sinners’.
Sweet wonders if we don’t look at our ability to meet our tight cut down budget, but rather the width of our compassion budget. Counted in money given hours of service by congregational members, the way in which it can be said that no one had a need. Not judging us by our services but by our service and our serving.
There are other indicators, the depth of our relationships with each other, the elasticity of that relationship, how can they be stretched to welcome and embrace new people.
Sweet also suggests like healthy congregations that we need to look at our worship and ask the question how local is our voice. Do we speak the language, are we indigenous to our context and able to speak the Gospel into that.
All these are helpful when asking the question is what we are doing successful. I know so many people will dislike that word, I do, but I am aware that there is a need to do evaluation and reflection. It’s an ongoing challenge in an ongoing world where the church is in decline and in some cases in denial but also when you are off on a limb trying something new.
Sunday, January 9, 2011
13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other
Jesus in John 15 said the same thing using the metaphor of him being the vine he said. ‘Remain in me as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”
You see just like grapes or any other fruit grows because of its relationship with the tree or vine that its growing on so it is with us. We grow Christ-like fruit in our lives because of the relationship we have with God.
Paul had written to the church at Galatia to remind them of this very point. He was writing to correct some false teaching that they had received from a group within the early church that historians call the judaisers. They were a group that taught that while we were forgiven through faith in Jesus Christ, that the way to live out our Christian life was to adhere to the customs and laws of Judaism. To become a follower of Jesus Christ you had to become a Jew and follow the law. It had its very concrete outworking in making gentiles get circumcised and live by the letter of the law of Moses. It impacted on the worship life of the church, in Galatians 4:10 Paul says I see you’ve even begun observing special days and months and seasons and years!. They had started to even celebrate the Jewish religious calendar and festivals. Instead of being about a living relationship with Jesus Christ, they were settling for a religion, trying to appease God through keeping rules and regulations, rituals and rites.
Paul’s response is to tell them that it’s not regulations and rituals that are at the centre of the Christian faith, its relationship. It’s not traditions and tight codes of behaviour its relationship. That by grace and faith in Jesus Christ that we are bought into a new relationship a new covenant with God and we have been set free from the law. It does not mean that the Law is done away with, but that there is a better way. Law showed that we were sinners, it was there to limit evil and wrongdoing, rather he says that the law is to be fulfilled in the commandments ‘ To Love God and love your neighbour as yourself’. It’s not about the regulations it’s about the relationship.
The fruit comes through the presence and influence of God’s Holy Spirit dwelling in and with us. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the trinity. The Holy Spirit is God, the Holy Spirit was eternal before creation, as God was active in creation. Is the agent of God’s providence working in history, The Holy Spirit is active in our salvation, active in our being sanctified, that is being made more like Jesus Christ and in bringing all God’s plans and purposes to fruition. The Spirit is our comforter and guide, The Spirit leads us into all truth, and convicts us of our need for God. God dwells within us by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit enables and empowers us to witness to Christ and love one another and the world round us.
The way that central relationship is shown to each other and to the world is through our calling to be witnesses to Jesus Christ and our capabilities, the gifts of the Holy Spirit gives for us to serve and minister to each other and the world round us. But foundational to that is the way being in relationship with God transforms our character. This is where the fruit comes in. Our witness to Jesus is shown as Jesus says by our love for one another. The end result of a fruit tree is not just the fruit it produces but it produces fruit to reproduce itself. The right context for using the Gifts of the Holy Spirit is also Love: Love that is characterised by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 by a list of virtues that mirrors the list of the fruit of the spirit in Galatians. All this springs from that relationship with God.
In Rotorua we had a cherry tree in our front yard. I could tell it was a cherry tree because of the beautiful red cherry like fruit it produced. Now our family love cherries. At Christmas time the favourite pastime is sitting round talking and devouring heaps of cherries. One of our favourite holiday memories is going up to central Otago to pick our own cherries and then eating them on the way home and spitting the stones up out of the sun roof and moon roof of our van. The real funny thing about that is that some people in our family who will remain nameless have no sense of direction and you ended up having to avoid miss-directed stones ricocheting round the van. So I was looking forward to the cherries on the tree in Rotorua. Of course one taste of the cherry and I knew exactly what sort of cherry tree it was, it was an ornamental cherry tree, and the fruit were sour and bitter. You can tell a tree from its fruit.
Jesus said the same thing talking about recognising false prophets in the sermon on the mount.
‘By their fruit you will recognise them, a good tree cannot produce bad fruit and a bad tree cannot produce good fruit. Thus by their fruit will you recognise them’
Paul in writing to the Galatians does the same thing. He had talked about the fact that because of grace in Christ we are free from the law but has to say that that freedom is not a licence for indulging our flesh, our own human desires. Rather again that Christians were to exercise that freedom by allowing the Spirit to lead us and walking in the spirit. It freed us for a relationship with God.He then gives us two lists. One is the results of allowing our fallen human nature and appetites to be what guides us in our freedom. In Galatians 5:19-21, Gordon fee sees the list breaking down to four categories, fulfilling desires for illicit sex, it’s amazing how the purveyors of all kinds of pornography defend it as a legitimate use of freedom of speech. Illicit worship, where worship becomes about fulfilling my needs rather than a search for truth, the breakdown of relationships, all ways wanting it my way and the fourth category is excesses. These are the outworking that we can all see when we throw off restraint and simply let our natural desires be our guide. Contra to that says Paul when we allow the spirit to lead and guide us in our freedom the fruit of that relationship are those that allow us to show love to others and bring a real abundance of life. In fact they are the things says Paul you don’t have to legislate against. You don’t have to limit them. The more the better
For Paul we were free in Christ from having to live by regulations, but that freedom wasn’t to be about indulging our human desire because as he points out in his list, human nature isn’t all good it is fallen and this is what it can lead to, But our freedom needs to be lead and guided by a relationship with God whose nature is ethical and loving.
It doesn’t grow over night. The Corinthians has gifts and fruit mixed up as indicators of growing maturity in Christ. They thought that certain manifestations of the spirit were signs of their Christian maturity but Paul says no they are not. He could tell they were not because of the way they were treating each other. Rather Christian maturity comes as the gifts of the spirit are used in Love. But that character takes time to develop.
Friday, January 7, 2011
Maker of heaven and earth
We bring our prayers to you
Confident in your love
We thank you that you care for us
When we cry to you
The sound of our voice does not just echo off the ceiling
Rather you hear our prayers and you answer
We thank you that you show us your love
You are not an inactive God
Your arms tied by some predetermined fate of ours
Rather you work in history and our lives for good
You saw us in our desperate need
You sent your son Jesus to be one of us
To show us your love and bring us back to you
When Jesus returned to the father
You did not leave us orphaned and alone
You poured out your spirit on all who believe
We know your love and your presence fills our lives
We praise you O God
You know us and love us
We know you and love you
You call us to follow you and share your blessings with the world you love
Lord God we confess our sin to you
We have not shared your love with the world around us
We have sort our own comfort not the care of the poor
We have held grudges and withheld mercy
Forgive us Lord
We know your great love
Yet there are times when we have walked away
We have chosen our own ways and not yours
Forgive us Lord
Praise you O lord
As we have confessed our sin you have been faithful and just
You have forgiven our sins and cleansed us from all unrighteousness
You call us to sin no more and follow you
Fill us a fresh with your spirit
Enable and empower us to live for you
Sharing your love and truth with the world
To the glory of God father Son and Holy Spirit
Wednesday, January 5, 2011
over the break I've read heaps of cheap throw away, wallow away the hours novels, and also two plough through deep insight, wrestle with books by author Leonard Sweet. I haven't finished either yet and have had to slow down to savour the rich images and almost poetic style and to allow some of the insights and profundity soak through to my Winne The Pooh like grey matter (I am a bear of little brains).
One thing that stuck me a=was in the opening chapter in Sweets book on that much misunderstood word Evangelism. "Every bush is burning", now as a Presbyterian the burning bush has a special place in my world. It and the encounter that Moses had at he bush is central to our denomination, the bush is after all the logo we use. the encounter with God tells us so much that is at the heart of what we believe God is holy, God hears, God knows, God draws near ( exemplified in the incarnation, how near can God get) and that God answers and seek to liberate his people, and that God is sovereign and able to accomplish what God says God will do.
To say every Bush is burning however is to invite people to see what is round them and realise that God is wanting to speak to us through the fauna of our twenty first century environment. Be it the trees round us.
I am writing this while sitting in the Maclaurin Chapel with a great view of a special tree just outside which for the past two years has at so many different times spoken to me of God's grace and purpose.
the middle had been broken out of it when it was small and it has grown out and along the ground rather that up into a big high oak tree. It speaks to me of God ability to make broken things beautiful, beauty for ashes, as a tree it is much loved and is often a place where people sit (up it) chat, laugh , study and pray.
Our van broke down on New Years. A tire rod in the front suspension broke, Scary really, things are always tight and I always find that if something breaks in the van then its going to cost a fortune for someone to just look at it. Amidst the bushes (those rubber things that stop your suspension clunking and grinding) I again experienced God's love and care. The van broke down at a picnic for a group from the church we attend when we are not doing studentsoul or preaching somewhere on Sunday. The person who was right there happened to be a mechanic and very graciously sorted the problem for us at the cost to us of a second hand part. I had of course been doing the old 'where are we going to get money from panic trick' and in the midst of that I had sensed God say 'Trust Me" that’s all very well God I said "I Do, just let me have a bit of a lament like the people in the psalms as well!" Well I again experienced God's grace shown through one of his people.