Celebrating Easter with gritted teeth.

I woke up with the question that though good Friday and Holy Saturday felt weird this year, both of the resonate much more closely with the pervading feelings of many at this time.
or put it another way, Im saying ‘Christ is Risen’ through gritted teeth, when 5000 of our friends and relatives have died in the last 2 months. And that’s just in the UK.
Easter Sunday feels weird.
But maybe no weirder than the first one. The stench of death hung in the air. The gruesome death of crucifixion pervading the landscape as the crosses were placed back in their dug holes. A permanent reminder of death. No escape from death then, its reality real.
No wonder the disciples were so full of Joy when Jesus arose. They danced and sang , and praised… for all of about 2 minutes…
Until they walked home confused from Jerusalem, doubted it at all, and took themselves back to the fishing boat. Confusion heaped upon loss of hope. The one who was denied, about to seek vengeance? not only that, another reason to hide from the authorities, to be scared, authorities on the body hunt, wanting answers.
Questions filled the sky more than answers, but that had been the way of the journey with Jesus for the disciples until now, took them to their innermost thoughts, and let them wanting to know, discover and live in the more. That Jesus didn’t stay in the tomb raises so many more questions.
And if we stop asking them, we might miss out altogether even more.
Paul Ricoeur writes the following (quoting Moltmann), and it was what I found on my search this morning:

‘The Resurrection is not only an event of the past, is not only a manifestation of the sacred (as it was with the pagan epiphanies); it is an event that opens a new future and reinstates the promise by confirming it. Resurrection is the sign that now the promise his for all persons; its meaning abides in the future, in the death of death, the resurrection of all from the dead’ (Ricoeur, Figuring the Sacred, 1995)

Now is the time to celebrate Easter, doggedly hopeful, and its ok to know that doing it through gritted teeth is more appropriate than ever. The first Easter was as disorientating and bewildering, and occurred with the same stench of perverse power, and death.

The curtain torn, like never before

At that moment the curtain in the sanctuary of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom, The earth shook, rocks split apart, and tombs opened.’ (Matthew 27:51)

At that moment the curtain was torn, in two, from top to bottom.

For so long the desire for the curtain to be torn open has been from bottom to top. The challenge upwards.

But the temple curtain has been torn from top to bottom, and what has been exposed, laid bare, made transparent – for all to see? 

There used to be a boundary. A wall. A curtain.

Theres a red velvet curtain standing idle in your local theatre at the moment too. Not used. Curtains closed, the show isnt going on. That curtain used to divide the actors from the audience. That curtain was the dividing line of giver and receiver, knowledgable and ignorant, active and passive. The invisible boundary between stage and stalls. The entertained and entertainer. The illusionary on stage reality protected from the audience.Pleating_and_Fullness_for_Stage_Curtains

Unless of course that wall was broken.  If you think the famous Eric Cantona kung fu kick (1994, Selhurst park), your annual Pantomime, and Dead Pool movies – The crossing of the fourth wall has some interesting effects. But there’s a tension, and an unpredictability (except in the movies, for the audience isnt live) when the transgression is done. Its an act of violence, an act of vulnerability. The Panto could be disastrous if the wrong person is picked on.

But it wasn’t always like this.  The interactive plays of the past (see ‘Shakespeare in Love’) , the passion plays – brought the audience and participants together in the shared experience. It was only as the bourgeois took over and the poorest became the object and masks hid, that the separation occurred. (Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed, 1979)  The acts of theatre, on the street, have been from the ground up, from community organising, to challenge authority (Theatrical Theology, Hentzel, Church as the theatre of the oppressed, Theatrical Theology, Lugt/Hart, 2014). Social action did not lay anything bare.

As Vanhoozer writes: ‘A fourth wall can appear not only within the church but also between the church and the world’ (Vanhoozer, Faith speaking understanding, 2014) , and too often, he writes, ‘the church before the watching world has been a sorry spectacle, a demonstration of human folly, not Christs wisdom’. (and I might add, love and compassion) 

As I reflect on Easter, I notice the direction of the torn temple curtain, from top to bottom.

If there was a dividing line between church and watching world, church in its worship, its sacrament, in its reality is laid bare. You cant go to Durham Cathedral for worship. You cant even watch online a service held there tomorrow for Easter Sunday. You can watch a priest present the service from their dining room on a white table cloth. The curtain has been torn in two. And from top to bottom. The walls of buildings have been turned to dust. The beautiful liturgies and being taken to everyone, online and offline. What we thought was important enough for others to sit and watch on one side of the curtain, is now important to distribute to everyone, and to anyone. The fourth wall is torn down, and the audience isnt given one gospel performance, the multitudes are accessible.

And which plays, gave you the most enjoyment before this epidemic? The well polished, or the ones with people in them who you resonated with, the friend who had a part, the ones with effort put on earnestly. Agreed. You might have liked or laughed at the polished comedy, but the performance that gave you a deep smile? yes it was the one with your friend in it, or your daughters ballet troop.

The Curtain has been torn in two. Sacrament softly shouted.

And it is less a matter of ‘the church before the watching world, than ‘the church in (though not of) the watching world’ (Vanhoozer, 2014)

There is no strict separation between audience and actor, and maybe there wasn’t in the first place, but now everyone can hear, see, enjoy, share, church. And the church is part of this play in the world. The human condition and frailty laid bare for all to see. The clerical is not coronovirus exempt. A torn temple curtain exposes the ego, the power hungry, the fearful, those in denial, it also exposes to the world, the loving, caring, giving, hoping, comforting ministries, and they are so important that they are accessible.

When the church responds to the word of God as it ought, the church demonstrates the love of God and the mind of Christ, in word and deed’ (Vanhoozer, 2014)

What is important is not that God is a spectator and participant in our life today, but that we are attentive listeners and participants in Gods action in the sacred story, the story of Christ on earth‘ (Bonhoeffer, Life together, in Vanhoozer, 2014)

If you loved before. Love now. Now that light shines from behind the curtain. The equality of humanity and its condition exposed, and the walls have been called to dust.

The question is still of participation, but the story is now available beyond the walls. The stage of the world is full of the story. The improvised action of the gospel was displayed through kindness, social action and care, and they are accompanied by the worship, liturgy and prayer from the dining room, garden and lounge. One physical wall has been torn down. And making it as available offline is now also as much the challenge.

Maybe Coronovirus has become the great human leveller. Fractured and exposed the unreality, the closed and the secret. The system has been exposed in the same way that the church has. There is tension as ideologies have been exposed, sacred cows are exposed, structures have been exposed – often for the fragility, inhumanity, injustice of them, keeping a system alive that rewarded the rich, the extremely rich. And by God will they want that power behind the curtain back again.

The curtain has been torn in two, from top to bottom. And, then there was love. There was humanity at is highest. There was hope. Love for all.

‘No one lights a lamp in order to hide it behind the door; the purpose of light is to create more light, to open peoples eyes, to reveal the marvels around’ (Paulo Coelho,2006)

 

References

Boal, Augusto, Theatre of the oppressed, 1979

Coelho, Paulo, The Witch of portobello, 2006

Van der lugt/Hart – Theatrical Theology – 2014

Vanhoozer, Kevin, Faith Speaking Understanding , 2014

What if parents actually read the books Christian youth ministry encouraged young people to read?

I thought I’d imagine a parent writing a letter to the local vicar about the newly published book ‘Under Construction’ (2019) by Neil O Boyle, national director YFC, its a brand new book, and a number of young people might be about to read it.

Dear Reverend/Pastor,

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter, you may not know me, but I am the parent of Harry, who goes to the youth group in your church hall every Friday night. Tell you the truth Harry loves it, and as a parent its great that he gets the chance to meet up with other kids his age, and not the same ones he goes to school with, I think he goes because he fancies one of the girls but dont tell him I told you. Anyway, the church thing is new to us all as a family, I guess we’re ok about it, were not religious at all, but sympathetic to it, it’ll help Harry growing up im sure.

Actually Reverend, there was something more I wanted to thank you for. I dont know whether you realised it, but Harry went with the youth group to a camp in the summer with the other kids in the youth group, he had a great time, there was a band on and he loved the music, said it was nothing like church (hope you dont mind me saying) and there were other adults there who were being cool and friendly, and Harry was impressed. So, thank you for giving him that opportunity. Theres another thing too, whilst Harry was there there was someone who gave him a free book and said it was about developing a deeper relationship with Jesus. Now as you might imagine, Harry spends most of his time on a video games, and even though he showed me at the time, a few weeks ago, I was sure the book would stay on the bookshelf.

To my surprise, and a bit like the Bible one of your volunteers gave him a year or so ago, Harry tells me how much he is enjoying the book, if you want to give your children a copy its called ‘Under construction’ by Neil O Boyle, as a parent I wholly recommend it. The change in Harry since he has been reading the book has been amazing, he used to not have any decent conversation over the dinner table about things, just shove his food down, and be sullen, but not any more, he’s offering opinion on things like abortion, sexual assault, child killing, bullying and asking us over the dinner table about how good our prayer life is, also about watching too many video games, saying that these things are wholly shameful and God wouldn’t want people to do these things.

To my surprise he’s asked me to give his copy of Grand Theft Auto to the charity shop, when I asked why, he told me that if he played it too much he might end up killing a child on a railway line. As a parent I am just so proud that he is making these decisions based upon such diligent thinking and consideration of the facts of such high profile cases in British crime history. If this is what this book has been able to do for Harry, then I am just so pleased.

I must tell you this, The other day Harry and his older sister Matilda were having an argument at the dinner table, Matilda currently has a boyfriend and they’ve been together 2 years, and Harry quite abruptly asked her whether she had had sex with him (the book told him that sex was for having babies) and whether she was going to save having sex for her future spouse, because that’s the most important relationship. Now, Im sure Harry didn’t mean to say it in such a judgemental manner, but Matilda reacted bad to this. As a parent we tried to love both of our children, and so we’re thankful that Harry has helped us out by saying this, yes he may have destroyed any relationship he has with his sister, but as a mum I couldn’t be more proud that he’s learning a new perspective and without any critical thinking using it to help his sister be shameful about her sex life, saves her father trying to say it.

So Reverend, I was intrigued, what was this book all about? Forgive me ( are you the confession ones?) , but I kind of had to know what this genius book was all about, so one day when Harry was at school, I thought I would go and have a read, after all its just a book not a diary isn’t it.

Well what a surprise I got.

You see, not only is it a book, but it has exercises and activities in it, and Harry had filled some of them in. I thought, should I look.. but, a book for teenagers and about christianity what is it going to have in it, draw a picture of Jesus or some kind of bible story quiz, but no Reverend, not at all.

This is why you need to get copies of this book to your children Reverend.

I know I shouldn’t have done it, but there were reams of notes written, as Harry, usually not that diligent in school according to Parents evenings, had completed the activities. I bet you want to know what they were. Ill try and tell you, because what I discovered shocked me at first, but then I realised that all the information would be great to use as bribery against Harry if I needed it, you know as they say, knowledge is power.

I just started with the activities and where Harry had written, at 13 he’s already realised that he needs to make big changes in his life, he’s drawn what the foundations of his life are, he has a series of dots to draw the nature of waves in his life (any ideas what the waves of your life are Reverend?) , and on page 38 described the things that make him panic, now, Harry has always been pretty chilled and nothing phases him, but like a good boy, he managed to write a few things, Donald Trump and Climate change, they are what makes him panic, and on page 62 he’s asked the same thing again, there seemed a lot on this.

On page 102 Harry was asked to write down the principles that guide his life, now I dont know about you Reverend, but I wasn’t surprised Harry left this blank to be honest, though he had a go at it.

Harry made a good job of drawing something that symbolises his exercise (a football, what else) , and then Harry described his prayer life – do you have any idea there Reverend, that my 13 year old has been asked to describe his prayer life, he said it was ‘fine, but not as good as the leaders he met at camp’.

I was so thankful too, that on page 119 and 120, I was able to read about the internal labels of shame, rejection, guilt and other that Harry says have carried around with him, all his life. I thought I knew everything about my boy, but when I discovered how he’s felt guilty for the death of our family pet dog, and rejected because he thinks his sister gets more attention, and shame because he masturbates and there’s been conversations about girls, underwear and porn at school, but at least now I know some of the things he is going through. And Im going to tell his dad later too. If you want to find out the inner shame of your kids, then this book is amazing.

You’re going to think this book is amazing aren’t you, well sadly reverend, I think there are some not so good points. I think its great that there’s just so many opportunities for Harry to write down all the areas in his precocious little 13 year old life where he feels he is a failure, feels guilty, feels like he needs to change, there’s even a section where he is made to feel so bad about one of the things, its likened to a weed, on page 135. Harry said his weed was ‘masturbating’ and he didn’t feel it would ever go away or be removed, it looked as though there’d been tear stains on the page. Well as a parent, if Harry feels so shameful about his body now, then its unlikely he’ll end up doing anything like his sister has. He’ll probably never get married or be able to talk about sex with anyone, and as a parent, that’s far easier to cope with.

Reverend, there is a bit on page 80 that might shock you if you gave it a read, no its not the stories of sexual assault, rape and abortions, no, they’re all told as if its the woman fault, and in this PC culture, its refreshing to have some traditional women shaming attitudes, men cant be at fault for their penis at all, and im glad now that Harry can grow up thinking that he doesn’t need to take responsibility for what he does with his penis, a relief, given that now that he’s so embarrassed by what it does.

No, the bit you have to watch out for, is a little section where Harry had the chance to rate how good Dave and I have been at being his parents. And the little shit, sorry, darling Harry, gave us a grade of only 7 out of 10, and for some reason, and I looked in the text, an anticipated grade of 8? what’s that about then – what’s Harry expecting? an Xbox for christmas, is that what he’s anticipating, well not now…

When I read the chapter it was talking about abuse in the family, and men and women having sex to have families, I thought that was a bit weird, I mean Harry is 13 not 8. He was told that some couples its painful to not have children and God wants people to be together to have children. Well that’s a bit awkward for Harry as his Grandad recently remarried, if he has kids at the age of 75 there’ll be a shock. In the book I read that following Gods instructions about what to do when there’s abuse in the family or a parent leaves us. Im just so glad Reverend that in the Bible there are instructions for Harry when this happens, can you tell me which book in the bible is specifically for 13year old boys and what to do if a parent leaves, im so thankful the bible is so specific and helpful.

So, yeah, keep a watch out for the family pages, you might get a shock, especially if you’re expecting a high mark, this book doesnt have much positivity in it, so be ready for a low score.

Before I go, I am going to need to ask you for some help Reverend, as I said in the beginning, I haven’t ever been to church, but I would love to be able to discuss some of the questions that Harry is about to read and know what is going on so I can at least help him. So would you mind getting back to me, I note that you have an MA in theology, and this book is being for 13 year olds, so I guess these are standard questions. So could you give me a few hints on how I might answer these questions please?

  1. What its the Hallway of my life? – Because I am asked whether Ive left Jesus there
  2. What is the MY version of the Bible, and can I get a copy of it, I used to have a bible with weird drawings in it, think it was the good news, but what’s the MY version?
  3. What might the dry rot in the walls of my life be, and Reverend, these affect how I view my life – so as a Parent Id like to know- and Jesus exposes dry rot, so can you tell me what’s going on there please?
  4. This one is in the book, Can you understand this reverend? when the storms hit your metaphorical house (your life) does the roof leak and cause further damage by the manner in which you panic, react or stress, or is the roof watertight because you find yourself able to draw close to God, whether you sense him or not and find his peace? Reverend can you explain this one please?
  5. Do people who wear provocative clothes have no self esteem Reverend? (Thats what page 75 says)
  6. Reverend, does your life have a dining room and has Jesus walked round in it?
  7. Whats your prayer life out of 10 Reverend? – just so I can help Harry know what the vicars score is and compare, thank you.
  8. Reverend, how might I respond to the question whether I have an undeniable weed growing in my life?
  9. Why is this book all about bad things, shameful things, about introspection for 13year olds – yet nothing about God being about love – like I heard at Harry and Meghans wedding? Its almost a completely different faith to that one?
  10. Lastly – Reverend – I notice there’s a whole load of assumptions and claims made in the book- about girls having abortions, about video games and that they lead to being a child murderor – is this kind of amateur reading of society to make young people feel shamed what I might expect more of in Harrys life? If so, ill keep the real study in our house out of bounds, I wouldn’t want him to actually think critically about these things or discover research, like my own psychology degree papers to challenge it.

So, thank you Reverend, its been a long letter I realise, and you dont hear from parents very often I guess, if you could help me out with these questions I would be grateful, this whole house thing seems a bit weird but if thats the basics in christianity for 13year old then I really am going to have to pick it up quick. Oh and the sex before marriage thing, try not to tell Harry that his older sisters date of birth was only 2 months after our wedding date, keep that a secret, otherwise my score will probably go down to 3.

Thank you again, as I said Harry loves the youth group. And this book is going to really help me to discover all his hidden secrets and fears, its like a dirty diary full of sex and shame, just let me know if he talks to you about it, I can even give you a heads up.

Your Parishioner

Joanne, Harrys Mum.

PS, there’s some resources for the youth group available, I think you should get the youth group to do them. They’ll be a nervous shame-filled wreck of a group, and dead easy to parent.

Oh, and reverend, I thought id copy a few pages for you, just so that you can see for yourself how good this book is.

(after contemplating these words the Reverends response is here  )

 

Should discipleship be ‘action’ first?

Does anyone still use that phrase ;

its always the 20% of people in churches that seem to do 80% of all the work?

It got banded around for quite a while, though I’ve not heard it recently. It was, at best a passive aggressive way of encouraging people who only sat on pews every week to make more contributions in the life of churches. It neither rewarded those who did get involved, nor was much of an encouragement. However. We’ve moved on… haven’t we?

Though there is still a really ethereal conversation about discipleship that still happens, its as if there is a magical way that discipleship happens, that seems to be in need of being continually redefined, rejuvenated and energised. A cynic in me (yes there is one) might think that these attempts are to ‘sell’ the latest fad, model or concept, and with it a whole load of resources and practices. (and yes i do have an inner cynic)  The grown up in me might pose the question about whether there really is anything that can be humanly done about discipleship through churches. This is most pertinent when there are countless research on the ‘state of discipleship’ in churches (LICC have recently done one) . What they discovered that a significant number of active people in churches also self identified that they didnt feel that discipleship was happening. Yet, they were busy.

Maybe theres a few things to say here.

The first might be that a definition of discipleship that looks like Bible reading/prayer/study on a personal level might be genuinely not happening when a person is also involved in so much of the church’s activities. Its more group discipleship, than individual. Potentially.

So there may be a Definition problem.

There is also an expectation problem. Not unlike conversations about ecclesiology and models of churches (Healy 2001)- an almost impossible view of discipleship can act as a hindrance rather than an encouragement, its as if a ‘perfect’ process of discipleship is out there (though still yet to be defined) and until that happens there’s a striving, with often other metaphors like ‘whole life discipleship’ – that rarely about the struggles of life that include poverty, suffering, health and family issues – these can feel at times ‘in the way’ of ‘perfect’ discipleship. Almost that these are to be put to one side – God isnt in these… discipleship is somewhere else… at least that can be the implication. Discipleship doesnt = attendance or involvement – so what is it?  And theres nothing against the continual search – but the human search is for God, not for process or concept (Acts 17)

The problem with discipleship is not that we cant define it from the Greek (Mathetes) , not that we don’t see this as some kind of apprenticeship, or follower of Rabbi status (and i’m referencing Jo Dolbys PhD here) , or looking at Gospel discipleship – because thats been the church for 2000 years effectively – how to follow Jesus model/practice of it – but do it in the institutions of the church created since 70AD. The packages and resources have been written with every new discipleship package being better than the one before. It feels as if maintaining the church as an institution – with all the voluntary giving of time to enable this – doesn’t necessarily equate to the definition of discipleship – yet church maintenance is still good right?

We are urged to be disciples and witnesses in Jerusalem, Samaria and the ends of the earth – (Acts 1:8) – the Wednesday morning community project may have all the semblance of the ‘ends of the earth’ compared to Sunday morning. But theres only a call to stay in those places not move people. We may have to reflect on what discipleship in the ends of the earth may look like. It probably wont look like what Jerusalem discipleship did. So  what might that be.

I’d like to end this piece with three thoughts that hopefully add something to this discussion. Practice, Theory and Theology.

One significant thing comes from my practice.

A number of years ago i was the project coordinator of a detached youthwork project in Perth, Scotland. Because of the nature of the role expected of volunteers, they underwent training, on the nuts and bolts of detached work and also, we spent time looking at values, principles and thinking theologically through a practice of being out on the streets, being vulnerable, and how this might be mission. What i didn’t realise, or at least, what was a great joy, was that in the months and years that passed of walking and participating in the practice, how often each of the volunteer reflected on how being involved in the project was a place in which they were doing discipleship, doing mission was discipleship. It shouldn’t have blew my mind, but that it came from the participants and not me, sort of made it real. Did it help that I had framed the action as a missional/theological one.. yes. Did it continue to help that there were spaces for theological reflection ongoing in team time, session reviews and in the growing of this community, well, i guess so. But still, i wonder if there’s just something to be said with how ‘volunteering’ is made a discipleship activity. I think.

From Theory, I wonder where the discipleship conversation converges with the Faith Formation conversation. Are the two the same. Maybe. Its not often a conversation about discipleship from the platform of a UK conference also includes reference to faith or spiritual development (fowler/westerhoff etc) – but neither, does it look beyond a glimpse of the need, to the culture and a few biblical principles. What Andrew Root (in faith formation in a secular age)  does is look at how Spiritual and faith formation needs to take root in the culture that we are in. I cannot in this piece go into his detail, and I have written 5 pieces on his book Faith formation in a secular age (2017) already (links at the bottom of this piece) – but Roots suggestion is that Faith formation is a process of ministry, and ministering and participating in the tasks of God. Where he argues consuming church, spiritual experiences, and personal faith journey all meet culture that is looking for authenticity that is found wanting. Simply put, every one wants authenticity, and there’s nothing more authentic than a real church that transforms the world rather than creates enclaves and avoids it, equally, its not just a current age thing, or Generation Z thing, its everyone. Look at micro breweries, farmers markets and bake off, the desire for the authentic pint of ale, the real news is there, its not just an adrenaline experience… but a real one. A danger, Root argues is that Churches have embraced youthfulness in an attempt to be authentic, culture has won, they have stopped being actually authentic. Practical faith formation for Root is a process of ministering and ministry. Is practical faith formation discipleship? Its not far off… but forming is for performing, and performing is also forming…

The setting for discipleship though, is not the church though is it. Church is the place for the faith formation, discipleship happens on the stage of the world, in which the church is also a part. And this is where the third thing, Theodrama, for me comes into play. Understanding the theological, physical and social context of discipleship might reveal that being in ministry in the world is closer to discipleship.  Theodrama provides a metaphoric platform to imagine/realise that the whole of the worlds timeframe is Gods, that the whole world is a stage in which all are participating in a Holy redemptive drama, just that not everyone is aware of it. From those drinking in the wetherspoons that i am sitting in,  to the drivers on the bus, and the market sellers in the shopping centre, the teachers in the schools and youthworkers on the streets. The framework  of theatre, and drama, takes the notion of connecting stories further, and to consider the artistic and dynamic view of participation (which is Biblical) in God drama, as the context of discipleship. So therefore the church is a principle actor, guided by spirit, to act on the stage of the world in accordance with a number of prompts past(trinity, kingdom, bible etc), and present (spirit) to act in the future. Personal discipleship, may well be a community venture. Personal discipleship is about be more fully aware to these prompts in the every day. It is not the amount of bible studies, prayer times, daily reading notes that have been completed, its being aware of these to act appropriately in the every day. To act in the world where there are competing values (Von Balthasar) where there are prompts to do so and goodness, truth, love and peace to be appropriated. Discipleship may well be a process of awareness and a new reality. Its being able to respond to the voice of God in the midst of the action. Not avoid the action and head to the nearest 5 evening  a week bible study and avoid the world.  (Theres more on Theodrama in other pieces on this blog, see the categories)

Coming back to the 80/20 thing – there is a new issue in town. Its that because of a lack of volunteers, and also the exponential growth in community work projects and ministries in churches – 100’s of volunteers for these things are being grown from within them, food kitchen receivers become servers in kitchens, young people in youth clubs become junior leaders – all in the name of good empowering community practices. The question could be said that these are good ‘social action’ and ‘not mission, or discipleship’ and it could feel as though the powers, and the 20% who’ve gone through the ranks properly and have a mission/discipleship resource to sell, cant conceive that there might be another way.  We might ask a question – how might people be already disciples through the ministry of serving in a community that they feel home in and welcome (and want to create for others) ?  and not that all this serving is only a step to a ‘real’ discipleship elsewhere, that can look like ‘going to a study group’ or ‘alpha’ – the real discipleship could already be happening – from a point of action.

A task of the church, might be to develop practical theological reflection and participation through these serving moments at the time – because im not sure any church has a luxury of increasing barriers to faith – when clearly there are many who want to participate in the good that a church can do.

I would hope there is a space, or a awareness that an action first discipleship can sit alongside a ‘traditional church attendance discipleship’ – because for one thing, people are joining in the action of the mission of God because it looks like something that heals, does good and is something to believe in – because it is making a difference. They are already participating in Gods mission before knowing full well who God is. Well, to be blunt, none of us know who God fully well is. For some people they might be closer to the actions and drama of God in their participation of it in a food kitchen than hearing about it and the stories of those before them.

The task might be to increase theological reflection – not import a model view and make discipleship  unachievable. Root may be right, thinking of discipleship as a faith formation process causes a shift to think of people as ministers and helping people to ministry, and this can start from the food kitchen, the holiday club or the social enterprise. Real discipleship is practical and takes place in the world, that where the tensions and drama takes place, the choices and prompts by the spirit occur. When we talk about discipleship otherwise its often more about faith formation and learning. Discipleship on the stage of the world might be less about doing more faith formation (something measurable by attendance and vocational calling) and more about becoming more attuned and aware of God in the midst of the whole world. Being aware that God might well be in wetherspoons right now, and asking me to have compassion on everyone drinking here at 10 in the morning. Can hearing God in the midst and acting on it in the improvised moments, in the participation of conversations of ministry be measured as discipleship?  I hope so. But discipleship is also volunteering, and starts with the provoke to be part of building Gods kingdom in a place. I cannot argue otherwise that this isn’t the person who has relied on a food bank, a youth club, who is now participating in making this goodness happen for others. God is active and on the move. And its risky and challenging.

References

Andrew Root, Faith Formation in a secular age, 2017

Hans urs von Baltasare – Theodrama Vols 1-5 – 1980

Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 2005

Wesley Van der lugt – Living Theodrama, 2016

Nicholas Healy, The church, the world and the Christian life , 2001

Can church be developed and defined from its action?

Regular readers will know that this is something that i have teased at this quite a a while ago, amongst a variety of other pieces. I just thought it might be good to give it a rethink. I’m realising more and more that the broader church had a habit of wanting to redefine and re- strategise it purpose, often adopting marketing and business methodologies, or hankering after a new testament church model, that appeared in a bygone context, or develop a version of its nature (ecclesiology) so aloof from reality. One example being church as a holy separate people or a bride.. metaphors so alien, and not reflect the often reality of the present, the broken and the infiltrated by culture, yes sin, that church often is.

The danger too, that a kind of aspirational ecclesiology doesn’t nothing but frustrate and point out the inherent current frustration and failings, rather than acknowledge the good of what currently church is or does.

Nicholas Healy makes an interesting point, in that thinking about the church theologically, in the grand narrative, the theodrama, causes church to consider its present in light of both past and future. To recognise its role now, its link to past and the remembering of, but also how its future it’s to be, in dramatic terms rehearsed and to be looked forward to. Signposts and markers. Grief and hope. Past and future.. in the present.

And so, as a collective church, we are not as business leaders would have us do, try and imagine a blank page.. because. The church is part of an already bigger story. It’s a participant in something with already guidelines, it has a direction and a history, a director and a principle actor, a guiding spirit in the action. So it is no fresh start, but an imagining of authentic purpose that fits the task of participation in something, that a church has agency and will in, and is similarly guided and prompted.

Simply put, Nicholas Healy writes that a church in its participation in Gods Theodramatic missional story is one that is both practical and prophetic.

Whilst this might be most relevant if the temptation to separate the churchs mission from its ministry, the closer reality is that both mission and ministry occur within the same theodrama, and therefore ministry reflects the same practical a prophetic emphasis. For.. isn’t prayer both, and might praise and worship?

But thinking of Mission for one moment.

There could be a temptation to separate the prophetic activities from those that ard practical, when it is more realistic to consider both along a sliding scale or graph, where some activities might have higher or lower of each.

A solely practical activity might show love, but no voice to challenge the status quo..

Yet a solely prophetic activity might create change but lose touch with being loving and listening to those for who are affected, taking away agency from those in suffering. Potentially.

So there are scales. And I wonder too whether many actions by churches are implicitly more prophetic than they realise. But maybe not explicit in this.

Something prophetic need not necessarily be politically directly prophetic, but theres a difference between treating a young person as merely a token or consumer of an activity, than being a contributor and having choice within it, therefore a prophetic act in a society or even church culture that might not regard young people highly in terms of participation. The same might be for recipients of food, of freebies and handouts. Yes, all practical. But might prophetic action increase, for the individual, within community and also in the broader political structure also.

There may well be default lobbyists (prophetical) and default helpers and responders (practical).

But i am thinking that it may well be in the intersection of both where the church might find it’s true identith and purpose, theologically, socially and missionary, as it fcussed on having an identity orientated around its ongoing action, rather than an ideal, and keep on a cerebral study of redefinition. Rather, build an church from the place of its action.

References.

Nicholas Healy, 2000, The church, world and Christian life

Vanhoozer, Kevin, 2005 The drama of doctrine, 2012, Faith speaking and understanding.

Avery Dulles, Models of the church.

Mission: Developing gifts on our doorstep

Notes from todays sermon, at Headland Baptist Church, Hartlepool..

Todays subject is on Fruitfulness on the frontline, and based around the subject of mission, and about mission, about fruitfulness on the frontline. 22 year ago I took part in a gap year called Oasis Frontline, and they sent me to Hartlepool back then, so talking about mission on the frontline seems to have come full circle. Today is the first of them. It got me thinking, back to those days in 1996. What was unique or special about Hartlepool? Why would I a fairly middle class boy from the midlands not stick around and do mission in my own hometown? What was the attraction of going somewhere new? In another way, did moving away make mission any more possible, any more real? Granted, for the life experience and experience of culture granted.  But doesn’t it seem a bit weird – that we might often have an elevated view of people who leave somewhere and go and do mission somewhere else.

Its as if a real missionary goes elsewhere. Or a real missionary is someone who is sent to us. In my own experience, ‘the gap year team has come to do the youthwork’ ‘the frontline team has come to enable young people to come to church’ – somehow the experts are from afar. Some how someone else is the one who knows what to do.

But thinking about it – what do they know? Or more to the point – what is that we know that we negate by defaulting mission to someone else. What might we do, to be fruitful, on our own front door step.

Jesus said, love your neighbour as yourself. Love your neighbour – who is our neighbour – well maybe it genuinely is our next door neighbour and street. Not just the work colleague, interest group – but actually the family next door, the lady who is one their own.  Fruitfulness on the frontline, love our neighbour. Thats love. Not just hope they come to church and to an event, or even alpha. But love.

We are all missionaries. It is the principle purpose of the church. Of us. Forget everything else. It is to love the world, to love our neighbour and to witness to Christ in the context that we are in. So – that doesn’t matter where we are, does it, location becomes slightly irrelevant.

If we are to be true to the intentions of Jesus today we must put in the centre of our vision not the church, but the kingdom (Lesslie Newbigin) ,

‘the church can only exist as the church of Jesus Christ when it understands itself as part of Gods mission and lives out that understanding’ (David Bosch)

‘The church is missionary by nature’  mission is its essence, not just the outcome.

Because this is the first in the series, it kind of gives me an opportunity to ask and propose a number of questions, that may require further reflection, but that I think are useful, in all we do, and all the church does is about mission.

The first thing to think about – is if the church is to do Gods mission – what is the Mission of God?

The second is – Is Gods Mission is an extention of his character (and we’re not going to do a significant theological study here) – What is God like?

And how might these two things be our starting point for thinking about the mission of the church? For this church.

It would be much easier to just respond, react and do stuff wouldn’t it.

Do the things that the church down the road say, or the next great initiative from the Baptist union, or do something that we used to do, because it worked there, or then, or with them. But is this an appropriate starting point?

What instead might it be to understand that God is ___________________, and then try and act in this way in to our neighbours, to this community.

What if we held on to this, resisting all other temptations, but genuinely loved, genuinely forgave, genuinely acted with mercy, to the extent that we were doing Gods mission, being Gods ambassadors. To that extent…

It is important, not to start with a book on mission, but to start with the God of Mission.

If we start with theology – our understanding of God – and have this be the key motivation, ethic for mission – rather than our needs, or the need of the church – then what might that be like..

To start with God who is missionary in character and nature.

God who loves, God who listens, God who forgives, God who gives.. God who is… God who is community, God indeed who communicates, the God who speaks…

 

And I wonder if we don’t think of God as a speaking God very often, and for the rest of this time together I feel that as we think about Fruitfulness on the frontline, that we contemplate the communication of God, the conversation of God and how these might help us in developing Gods mission in the local community, doing so as an extension of Gods own character and actions.

Lets think about ourselves for a moment – have a think about the last or a recent conversation that you had with someone. Over a coffee, at the workplace, walking the dog, at home in the lounge.. 

For – you what made it a good conversation?

 

Now; A  question for us all to think about…. I would like you to think about a conversation that you know of that occurs in the Bible, one that exists between God (and in the new testament Jesus) and a human person.

So, it could be an old testament character, Moses, Esther, Joseph, Elijah, Jonah, or Jesus talking to a person, a disciple.. ill give you a minute to think about one such example… pick one well known..

  1. What is it you like about the conversation? Was it a good conversation – do you think?
  2. What does this conversation reveal about God?
  3. Are conversations important.. why?

I would hazard a fairly strong guess, that the conversations that we thought of, were long in nature, were ones that we know quite well, Jesus and peter on the beach, Elijah moaning after the battle with the prophets of Baal.

Yet in 2 Kings 5 there is space for a very small conversation, a very small moment, a significant conversation.

Read 2 kings 5  1-8…

The huge effect of this one girl and what she says, wasn’t a long conversation at all

What does the Girl, the servant girl say…

The essence of what is being said – I take a risk in caring about my master, enough to give him advice

I want him to get well..

I see the effect of his illness on her mistress and want that to be alleviated. In short, it is a sentence that conveys a sense of healing, a sense of risk, a sense of wanting better for someone else.

It is a sentence that from which the commander of the army, Naaman, listened to. She might well have pushed a nerve, triggered an emotion, he may have had a soft spot for her… and we don’t know this… but it carried enough for Naaman to act. And for Naaman to go to the king and for the king to commend a letter.  The voice of the servant Girl…. i mean, could that be the voice of God..?

Yet Naaman, when given the instructions by the prophet, didn’t initially take his advice.. that was a bit too weird… 

Having travelled all that way, Naaman had to take another new risk.  However, that is for another story.

To focus on mission on the frontline we must focus on the girl.

2. Another example, recently a few weeks ago we heard a sermon on Sauls conversion,  Yet, how many conversations did God need to have with Humans that day for Saul to become Paul and then to become a follower… yes 2..

Ananias – the forgotten man – let look at this one  Acts 9:10 –  disciple who has a vision

The Lord spoke to him in a vision..

‘Brother Saul… ‘’  This is meant as a symbol of Sauls healing, of the laying on of hands, but also note the risk that Ananias had to make in doing this, and the message God gave him of Saul, saying that Paul will how much he must suffer’ – suffering is part of faith. Being a witness is a sacrificial task. Paul the zealot now has suffering as part of his commission, in effect. But the conversation Ananias has with him, and with God is interesting.

What does God promise Ananias.. ?

He gives him knowledge of the situation, he calls him by name. Maybe more importantly, God gives Ananias the opportunity to talk back – But Lord – But Lord- thats Saul….

God doesn’t seem to be adverse to the push back- have you noticed this? But God…. But God… But God…

Maybe thats for another sermon.

Ananias the hearer and doer.

And addressed Saul as brother.. you are part of us.. you are with us now. Participation, risk and belonging. Healing.

 

3. The third conversation i thought we would look at it is one involving Jesus- actually, a quick question – which conversation does Jesus have is is the longest? – who does he speak to the longest in one specific conversation?

Give you a clue, Peter Hart preached on this a few weeks ago….

Yes, its the woman from samaria.

John Chapter 4.

And We wont look at it at depth, but we will look at a few of the questions and statements that Jesus uses:

Whats the first thing that Jesus says?

‘Woman please will you give me a drink’?

What is Jesus doing here? – Stating the flipping obvious – thats what… though we know that on one hand this isn’t obvious at all. This was the kind of act that wasn’t supposed to happen, yet it was a simple act. Woman – would you serve me?

Woman, this well is here, you have a bucket – could you use what you have to serve me?

Woman – you do this every day, any chance you could share your skill with me?

Woman – you have already been brave enough, to gather water in the heat of the day – would you take a risk and serve me, a man, too…

Woman – would you give?

Woman, you are standing, i am sitting, I am tired, i am exhausted, will you give me a drink..

We might get the significance easier because we know more about the situation, but thats nearly always the case after the event isn’t it.

Yes there are resonances with Elisha and asking the woman for oil. As importantly it might be a template for the conversations we could have. Jesus tired and weary asked the vulnerable to serve him.

The church tired, weary and exhausted, might need to do the same. Shift the power, sit by the well and receive from others. Sit on the wall and wait, watch and learn, and be in a place where the most vulnerable have gifts to give, and gifts to share- if only we might ask the right kind of question – or be in the right place where their offering is available..

Jesus gave space in the conversation for participaton, for the persons action, and for people to have left speaking to him in a better place than they were before.  And he used what they had. There is alot of using what they had in the New testament, from homes, to resources, to sharing of money, gifts and talent.

We can at time focus on peoples needs, but this doesn’t seem to be what Jesus does, that often, yes peoples needs are fulfilled, and a generous God gives. But I wonder if we can focus on peoples needs too much, and our conversations might reflect this, we have a desire to fix, to repair, to save what was lost, and to be the hero.

That doesn’t seem to be how Jesus operates. Remember, God is love… God is … and we are made in the image of God. So, maybe we need a different starting point. Maybe we focus not on needs, and solving these, and think about how a person might participate, might contribute, might do something that they are good at, how they are gifted.

Our neighbourhoods are full of people, young and old, who are bakers, creators, bicycle lovers, entrepreneurs and artists and more. Our streets are not dark and dangerous, they’re bright and imaginative’ (Mike Mather)

 

One of my Jobs is with Communities together Durham..(https://communitiestogetherdurham.org.uk/

And part of this role is to help churches to create spaces in which people gather, have conversation and develop opportunities to use their gifts, use their talents. Not a group of people who share a love for an interest like a knitting group, but a group of people who discover that they can learn a skill together and use it.

Mike Mather in his book talks about the story of Lucy and her flowers. This story can be found in this book: 

a copy of which you can buy here 

Read the story of getting out of the way

Amazing the significance of a conversation, of a question.

What might mission, conversation look like if we were prepared to ask the gift questions. To sit amongst the vulnerable, and ask

what skills do you have, what would you do if money was no object, and who will help you?

Moment to reflect on these questions… How might these be used by us in our everyday – what gifts do we have that we might share… – baking- artistry, what can we give each other, that we can also give to others…

Gods mission is to love the world, it is ours too.

Love so much that we see people for who they are, love so much that we build them up, we get out of the way, we sit tired by the well and let them use their gifts to serve us, we forget having the answer and be open to the wisdom of other, the person with the surprises who heals. Every conversation we have is a moment of theatre, every conversation is a moment where the ongoing drama of Gods redemption is carried onwards, is acted out. We are all missionaries, all conversationalists, even on social media, conversation is big business, everyone wants to hear from us. Sometimes the best conversation is the silent calm one. To think that we need to be ready to do the Mission of God, or professional, is not correct, we do the mission of God, from the place of our own normality, maybe our own desert place, our own reality, and have you noticed, that even in your desert place there is still energy to be generous, energy to give, energy to be used by God to love others. We are always on the frontline, discipleship and mission is a full on task of us all.

Our conversations that focus on the gifts of others might in reality be the most healing ones, our healing conversations might be those who help people to discover who they are, what they can do, and how they might contribute, not just to the functionality of the church, but the purposes of Gods mission in the bigger created world, the fixers, makers, artists and creators, the restorers, welcomers and the generous.

Reflect on the persons who don’t feel they have purpose who you meet, why not discover their passions, their interests. How might this be how we create the possibility of fruitfulness on the frontline. Its Gods world that we are all part of.  Might our fruitfulness not depend on us, but on how we encourage other to use theirs.

 

And I Would do anything for God..(but i wont get bored)

In his book ‘Faith Formation in a Secular Age’ (2017)  Andrew Root suggests that the biggest motivation in society, that has infected the church – especially in youth ministry , is what seems the influence of the avoidance of boredom. And in the church this looks like:

Must make this event exciting – or no one will come along

Our new youthworker must be excited and innovative (always thinking of the new)

What will make the programme lively and attractive?

We cant be doing the same songs, we must do new ones every now and then!

Young people wont be interested in coming to sunday church, they must have their own meetings

And, some of this also plays out in worship songs, using screens, countdowns and smoke machines, even in an avoidance of reading the bible or meetings (these are deemed boring).

Is Andrew Root right?

in Faith Formation he tells the following story:

‘ A famous bible scholar was meeting up with a young muscle bound man who expressed to him his deep deep love for Jesus. Judging from his passionate excitement, the professor believed the young mans commitment, so they talked about faith and the bible. When the topic of sunday worship came up, the young man explained that he rarely went, telling the professor that it had none of the adrenaline of the workouts, that ultimately Sunday worship was just too boring.

‘I thought you loved Jesus’ the professor asked

‘i do’ said the young man, and said with genuine authenticity, I really do!”

So, the professor asked, ‘do you think you would be willing to die for Jesus?’

Now more reserved, the young man said ” Yes…yes, I think i would, yes I would die for Jesus’

‘So let me get this straight, the professor continued, you are willing to die for Jesus, but not be bored for Jesus?’  (Root, A, 2017, p7)

The point that the scholar would try and make from this is that is the importance of co-orporate worship. The inconsistency of boredom vs commitment.

But Root seeks a different point in Faith Formation, because in an age where the authentic experience is sought… think not adrenaline junkies of the 1990s, but the authenticity of the farmers market/homebaked bread/real music – then in such an age, anything is deemed disingenuous if it lacked connection to the depth of subjective desires.

Therefore to be bored in an age of authenticity is not simply unfortunate or unpleasant it is to be oppressed and got rid of. if we have responsibility for our own individual journey of spiritual life then why would we consider anything boring to be worthy and part of it? if its boring our needs are unmet… arent they?

On one hand is Root right?

Well hang on just a minute. He goes on:

Because if on one hand the church’s pursuit of youthfulness (see this post  ) has created churches that are having a juvenile tantrum (Roots words not mine), then what an age of authenticity also reveals is that churches are criticised not for too much spirituality and depth, but not enough. It is as if they have somehow lost what they are meant to be. The depth of experience (found in the gym, or found travelling the world to ‘find oneself’) is not found in the church.

There are two issues here, and Im not sure even I can do both justice in the remainder of this piece. So, i will focus on the first of the two.

Has the church, in regard to youth ministry played the ‘avoiding boredom’ card far too often?  and what has been its response..

  1. Make everything louder than everything else? Ie bigger and brighter music, churches, buildings, more attractive – keep up with the entertainment
  2. Work out what it might mean when people say that they are bored of church..?

Boredom might mean actually not being involved. Boredom might mean that it is too simple. Boredom might mean that it is not challenging enough. Not that it isnt loud enough. Boredom might mean that it isnt real, or authentic enough. And what might make church authentic… authentic relationships, authentic involvement, authentic respect and faith formation, authentic opportunity to make decisions. (see my post here on developing these) So often boredom has just caused a reaction of adopt technology, adopt fun, adopt noise.

Whats strangely interesting is that the churches that have fared better over the last 50 years are those which retained something of the youth movement of 50 years ago. Possessing the spirit of youthfulness is equated to authentic, because being and staying young is exactly that. In and amongst this is a pretty non existent space for what church is or isnt actually meant to be about. But is that to be the case today? im not too sure…

The possibility of divine action is somewhat minimised for the sake of authenticity, faith is not connected to divine action but meeting in an authentic way. In short, is God more present when im not bored..?

The challenge for those of us who are involved in ministry and youth ministry is not that we cave in to calls to make churches and meetings more youthful, not to cave in to the cries of ‘young people arent going to come to church, its boring’ . The task is not to cave into church being more entertaining, for this will, or has already caused significant problems, where faith formation has almost completely been abandoned for youthfulness.

The challenge is to try and develop opportunities for ministry and gifting, usefulness and meaningfulness, not just a bigger brighter, louder, more colourful experience. If young people want that, they can get it at a coldplay concert. And that might be more authentic. For a coldplay concert does exactly what it says on the tin.

It will take a huge amount of effort to stand up in a culture that prioritised youthfulness as authentic to say hang on, lets do something meaningful, real and faithful. That might take guts to do, yet the hamster wheel of continual youthfulness is only going to have one winner. And it not faith formation, or long term discipleship. It is not experience of God, not the kingdom experiences of generosity, giftedness, gratitude and rest that permeate in church and discipleship, and ministry of the kingdom (Root, p 202) .

Making church less boring again, may well be a legitimate question. The response to it is one that will shape church for the next 50 years. Yet strategy will kill essence (Mather) , so we might as well get on and do the work of the kingdom, that looks like the ministry of God in the world. Being authentically inauthentic in a world of youthfulness. Do the essence of God.

Oh… and making church meaningful, hopeful and dangerous. A sub cultural movement of justice seekers called by God towards peace and reconciliation, generosity and gratitude. Now – who might find that boring..?