Monthly Archives: October 2007

Wineskins 3

connexions » Blog Archive » Martyn Percy on Methodism and Charismatic Christianity

Fascinating partial book review from Richard Hall. As I comment on his post, this is a book I have shortlisted for reading during a sabbatical. Here is Richard’s summary of Martyn Percy on Methodism:

Connoisseurs of Connexions will be particularly challenged by
Percy’s nine-page case study of Methodism, which, beginning as a
radical intra-church movement combining missionary zeal with passionate
social concern, has become “mired within the process of
bureaucratization and routinization” (p. 128). “If any evidence of this
were needed,” Percy continues, “one need only turn to the Millennium
edition of The Constitution, Practice and Discipline of the Methodist Church. As Angela Shier-Jones notes:

‘Pythagoras’ theorem cane be stated in 24 words. The Lord’s Prayer
in traditional English form has only 70 words… the Ten Commandments can
be listed using 179 words… [but] The Constitution, Practice and Discipline of the Methodist Church requires no less than 225,966 words – to tell us what?’”

Observing that “Methodism has experienced a relatively recent
collapse in its theological confidence” (p. 130) – a crisis he relates,
in part, to the “mixed fortune” of contemporary hymnody and the decline
of “the Methodist monopoly of ’singing theology’” (p. 130) – Percy
suggests that, returning to its roots, it may be as “a movement rather than a church” that “the spirit of Methodism” (p. 131) might best be conveyed in the future.

Some of this is precisely the kind of point I have been trying to make lately. Methodism did begin as ‘an intra-church movement’. We never have built a proper ecclesiology (exactly one of Percy’s later criticisms of charismatic Christianity). We have translated an intra-church movement into a church, and got ourselves roundly confused. So often I hear it from Christians outside Methodism that they find our ecclesiological approach baffling, isn’t it time we listened?

Having said that, can Percy be serious if he associates Methodism’s loss of theological confidence with the use of contemporary hymnody? He is right about Methodists singing their theology, but how many who do so are devoted in mind and soul to the theology Wesley wrote? It had long become a cultural thing – an association with styles of poetry and music. Contemporary hymnody (and yes, much of it is theologically superficial) rode in on the back of that, often appealing to those who were culturally alienated by the dense lyricism of Wesley and the nineteenth-century hymns with SATB music in an age of solo vocals.

The bureaucratisation is bang on, though. Ordained friends from other denominations who have worked ecumenically with Methodists all attest to the fact that we are the most bureaucratic denomination (he says, in the middle of the annual October count). We suffer death by a thousand cuts of Standing Orders. About fifteen years ago, when Ronald Hoar was President of the Conference, he called for a simplification of our structures. Some of that has happened, but nothing like enough. I know I shall sit with my copy of CPD before me at a Church Council tomorrow night. It takes on more importance than Scripture. No wonder I – like thousands of others – have been attracted to the cell church movement, which has certain similarities with the Wesleyan version of the Evangelical Revival.

Yes, the cell church movement has recaptured something of the spirit of what Percy calls the Methodist movement. Might we be more profitable seeking a revival of the movement more than of the denomination?

Technorati Tags: , , , , , ,

About these ads

links for 2007-10-28

links for 2007-10-24

Wineskins 2

connexions » Blog Archive » Rediscovering the Circuit

Richard Hall has some good words to say about the Methodist circuit system. I especially like the way he amends the ‘strong helping the weak’ value to the one of gaining a wider perspective. Like him, if we were to get local pastors (and other leaders – see the previous Wineskins post) in each church, I would still keep something like the circuit system as part of that sense of apostolic connectedness. However, Richard’s post admits that the circuit system was not originally set up with ordained leaders in mind. It was a supplementary support in the Evangelical Revival, and as I argued before, Methodism hasn’t really grasped that nettle.

Another problem we face is alluded to by comment #1 on the post, by Olive Morgan. She laments the lack of support for circuit events. I suggest this is a combination of at least two factors. Firstly, younger church activists often operate in a post-denominational fashion, looking for the right church for them and their loved ones (and that isn’t always consumerist, although it can be). They are thus less attached to the denominational structures. Combined with this, the generations which were more denominationally loyal are getting older. (Olive Morgan openly admits on the blog strap line that she is an octogenarian.) Many are now of the age where they don’t like to go out at night. Maintaining a sense of connectedness happens less in the Methodist structures now and more in local cross-church co-operation. I believe we should lament inward-looking congregationalism and celebrate the connections where they happen. The circuit doesn’t need to be the provider of all connectedness, but it can be the cheerleader for all that happens.

Technorati Tags: , ,

links for 2007-10-21

Tomorrow’s Sermon: Persistent Prayer, Audacious Faith

Luke 18:1-8

Introduction
My parents didn’t have a television when I was born. (Yes, I am that old.) They
first had one when I was about five. They must have been alert even then to the
dangers of television corrupting young minds, and limited what they allowed me to
watch. American imports came under particular suspicion, especially Batman.
They didn’t ban me from watching cartoons, although I think they frowned on
them. I did manage to watch The
Impossibles
and Wacky
Races
. Blue Peter passed
the parental test. That was factual and educational.
But not a lot else did. Certainly, they deemed cartoons frivolous and mind
rotting.

Only in adult life have I come to see that cartoons are more
than just the frivolous. They can be humorous, but making a point. The Simpsons are perhaps the classic
example. Children can laugh at the antics of this four-fingered yellow-skinned
American family, but adults can detect a deeper message, a satire. And away
from the television or cinema screen, cartoonists – such as in newspapers –
pull a similar trick. Their exaggeration is part of an effect that is not
merely meant to make us laugh, but to get over a point. Margaret Thatcher’s
large nose, Cherie Blair’s wide mouth, or a grumpy Gordon Brown are depicted so
that a message about them may be conveyed.

So can I suggest to you that Jesus was a cartoonist? A
cartoonist with words. He painted extreme and ridiculous images with words to
startle us into thinking about God and his kingdom, and responding
appropriately. I view today’s parable, about the unjust judge, as something
like a cartoon. It depicts extreme characters in order to make us take prayer
seriously. Let’s spend some time thinking about the two key characters of the
judge and the widow. And then let’s see where they and the story lead us in
terms of our attitudes to prayer.

1. The Characters
The Judge

How crazy is it for Jesus to liken his loving heavenly Father to an unjust
judge? This week one minister
said it would be
blasphemous, were not so much like something out of Monty
Python
for Jesus to make such a comparison.

And so it is. The judge is a terrible character![1]
By fearing neither God nor people, he contravenes Old Testament criteria for
judges in Israel. He is the type that prophets like Amos would have condemned. Such
judges were known in New Testament times, too. People made a pun on their actual
title in Hebrew to call them ‘Robber Judges.’ Some were known to pervert justice
for a dish of meat.

In fact, it’s worse than not respecting people. Jesus is
saying that the judge had no sense of shame. And that is the worst condemnation
for someone in the Middle East. It is not enough to say to someone, ‘You have
done wrong!’ It is more effective to say, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself!’
If he feels no shame, then no appeal to morality will hold any sway with him. What
will? A bribe. Nothing else.

How unlike God he is, then. In contrast, God has no reason
to feel shame. God is not a robber, but a generous giver. He cannot be bribed,
and would not want to be. Yet the judge fulfils the ‘God’ rôle in the parable.

The Widow
Widows and orphans were those had first tight of call upon a judge, according
to Jewish interpretation of Isaiah and other scriptures. They are the most
vulnerable, with no one to protect them, especially in a male-dominated
society. If a widow owned anything or was entitled to anything of value, you
could be sure that human vultures would attempt to take it from her. We can be sure,
indeed, that she has gone to the judge over a financial matter, since a matter
of money was one issue in which a judge could sit alone, without colleagues.

The widow need not necessarily be elderly – not in a culture
where women married at thirteen or fourteen. It is quite possible that her
husband has died young (life expectancy not being what it is in our society),
and she has been left with young children to raise. She needs all she can have,
and comes to the judge crying out not for vengeance but for justice.

She has no male representatives to go to the judge for her. Otherwise,
she would not have gone to court – a man would have gone in her stead. She would
have stayed at home. She also has neither the means nor the inclination to bribe
the judge. What hope has she? She arrives; perhaps there are others who want
their cases heard, too. Some of the more sophisticated and wealthy petitioners
may be having quiet words with officials, paying ‘fees’ – a euphemism for
bribes – and being heard first.

What can she do? She can do what men fear of women: she can
nag. She can also take advantage of the fact that a man who shouted at a judge
for justice might fear for his life, but a woman’s life would be respected and
honoured. For all her disadvantages, she has a certain safety in going to
court, regardless of her chances of success. So she goes – and rightly milks
the advantage she has. What does she have to lose? She doesn’t own anything
anyway. She wears the judge out with her persistent cries for justice. Even a
man who doesn’t have any sense of personal honour, with whom the moral appeal
won’t work, can be worn down.

2. Prayer
Persistence

Last week, American media
reported
the story of a woman who passed out with shock at her husband’s
funeral. She was rushed to hospital, where her jewellery was removed for
safekeeping by her son. He put it in a rubber glove, but then mislaid it. The hospital
said it would have been collected with the rubbish and sent to a landfill site.

The family called the waste management company that had
taken the ‘trash’ from the hospital. They had not disposed of that particular
consignment yet. They agreed to deposit it at their site, separate from other
rubbish. The family and a hospital official – who refused pay for this – began to
search for the jewellery, while dressed in protective plastic clothing, and
enduring a hot day.

After seven hours, the family members were exhausted, and
were ready to quit. But the hospital official said,

“I prayed to God and pulled one more bag — because we were
about exhausted — and our prayers were answered. There it was.”

The official said it illustrated the principle by which he
lives:

“Don’t give up five minutes before the miracle.”

I found this story via an American Methodist with a healing
ministry
. He
commented
:

How often do we give up 5 minutes before God answers our
prayers?

Time and time again I read of healing that doesn’t come from the first time
that prayer and laying upon of hands is offered. So often it comes after much
prayer, and many healing sessions. How often do we pray for someone or
something, then give up on God? How often do we feel that our prayers are fruitless?
How often do we give up rather than persist in prayer?

There’s a person in my life for whom I pray and get tempted to think God has
not heard my prayers. This person’s situation is getting worse rather than
better. But I persist. I know that God hears my prayers and is responding to
them. Over the course of time my prayers are being honed into more focused and
insightful supplications. I seek a deeper understanding of how God’s mercy and
grace work in those praying and those being prayed for. And when doubt enters,
I hearken back to the words of the [hospital official] … and endeavour not to
give up 5 minutes before the miracle.

One person who read the story offered this response:

This reminds me of a wood festival that I went to this
summer. I paid £5 for the privilege of climbing a 70 foot pole lumberjack style
- wearing spiked boots and using a strap.

It was surprisingly exhausting. I stopped at what I thought was about 3/4 of
the way up, too tired to keep going. When I looked up to see how much farther I
still had to drag myself I discovered all I needed to do to touch the top was
reach up a bit with my hand.

When you feel too tired to keep going, look up. You might be a lot closer to
your destination than you think.

Right at the outset, Luke lays out the reason for Jesus
telling his disciples this parable:

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray
always and not to lose heart. (Verse 1)

Don’t lose heart, says Jesus. The widow didn’t. Don’t you,
either. You’re not coming to an unjust judge, but to a loving Father. Don’t let
hope slip away. God the Father is the God of hope. Keep going.

Where are you losing hope? Where are you being tempted to
give up? Jesus invites us to remember – along with that hospital official –
that we might only be five minutes away from a miracle.

Persistent Prayer Is
A Sign Of Faith

Jesus doesn’t just want gently to encourage us to be persistent. He says something
stronger than that. He wants us to do so as a sign of genuine faith:

‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant
justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in
helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when
the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ (Verses 6-8)

God will help his people. He will be patient with us,
because he is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, as the Psalmist
says. He knows we are weak and sinful, but that will not change his loving and
merciful desire to help us. And if we know God is like that, then we couple
persistent prayer with audacious faith. Because God is good, we persistently and
daringly ask him for good things.

Another
American Methodist
I’ve read this week had collected a series of
secular quotes on this theme of audacity
. They might illuminate the point I
am trying to make:

The fifteenth century priest Erasmus said, ‘Fortune favours
the audacious.’

An unknown source said, ‘Audacity has made kings.’

Publilius
Syrus
, a first century BC Roman author, said, ‘Audacity augments courage;
hesitations, fear.’

Benjamin
Disraeli
said, ‘Success is the child of audacity.’

And finally, von
Goethe
said, ‘In every artist there is a touch of audacity without which no
talent is conceivable.’

Jesus wants us to be bold as well as persistent in prayer. In
the Lord’s Prayer he has us praying for the kingdom of God to come, paralleled
with the request for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven. That’s big! This
is not, ‘Lord, may I have a Mars Bar’ prayer. This is big stuff.

But we can learn from children. Because we are God’s children,
we are encouraged, if not urged to pray, just as a parent would think there
were something strange about their child if it did not bring requests. In my
four and a half years’ experience as a parent, I find that when Rebekah wants
something, one thing I cannot do is pretend she has not asked for it! She will
repeat it, and repeat it. Moreover, the volume of her voice will probably
increase!

Keep going! Be bold! The God and Father of our Lord Jesus
Christ is no unjust judge. He will hear us much more willingly than the unjust
judge entertained the widow. Do not lose hope. Keep praying. And keep praying
for Big Things.

 


[1]
What follows is based on Kenneth
Bailey
, Through
Peasant Eyes
, pp 127-141.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Tomorrow’s Sermon: Persistent Prayer, Audacious Faith

Luke 18:1-8

Introduction
My parents didn’t have a television when I was born. (Yes, I am that old.) They
first had one when I was about five. They must have been alert even then to the
dangers of television corrupting young minds, and limited what they allowed me to
watch. American imports came under particular suspicion, especially Batman.
They didn’t ban me from watching cartoons, although I think they frowned on
them. I did manage to watch The
Impossibles
and Wacky
Races
. Blue Peter passed
the parental test. That was factual and educational.
But not a lot else did. Certainly, they deemed cartoons frivolous and mind
rotting.

Only in adult life have I come to see that cartoons are more
than just the frivolous. They can be humorous, but making a point. The Simpsons are perhaps the classic
example. Children can laugh at the antics of this four-fingered yellow-skinned
American family, but adults can detect a deeper message, a satire. And away
from the television or cinema screen, cartoonists – such as in newspapers –
pull a similar trick. Their exaggeration is part of an effect that is not
merely meant to make us laugh, but to get over a point. Margaret Thatcher’s
large nose, Cherie Blair’s wide mouth, or a grumpy Gordon Brown are depicted so
that a message about them may be conveyed.

So can I suggest to you that Jesus was a cartoonist? A
cartoonist with words. He painted extreme and ridiculous images with words to
startle us into thinking about God and his kingdom, and responding
appropriately. I view today’s parable, about the unjust judge, as something
like a cartoon. It depicts extreme characters in order to make us take prayer
seriously. Let’s spend some time thinking about the two key characters of the
judge and the widow. And then let’s see where they and the story lead us in
terms of our attitudes to prayer.

1. The Characters
The Judge

How crazy is it for Jesus to liken his loving heavenly Father to an unjust
judge? This week one minister
said it would be
blasphemous, were not so much like something out of Monty
Python
for Jesus to make such a comparison.

And so it is. The judge is a terrible character![1]
By fearing neither God nor people, he contravenes Old Testament criteria for
judges in Israel. He is the type that prophets like Amos would have condemned. Such
judges were known in New Testament times, too. People made a pun on their actual
title in Hebrew to call them ‘Robber Judges.’ Some were known to pervert justice
for a dish of meat.

In fact, it’s worse than not respecting people. Jesus is
saying that the judge had no sense of shame. And that is the worst condemnation
for someone in the Middle East. It is not enough to say to someone, ‘You have
done wrong!’ It is more effective to say, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself!’
If he feels no shame, then no appeal to morality will hold any sway with him. What
will? A bribe. Nothing else.

How unlike God he is, then. In contrast, God has no reason
to feel shame. God is not a robber, but a generous giver. He cannot be bribed,
and would not want to be. Yet the judge fulfils the ‘God’ rôle in the parable.

The Widow
Widows and orphans were those had first tight of call upon a judge, according
to Jewish interpretation of Isaiah and other scriptures. They are the most
vulnerable, with no one to protect them, especially in a male-dominated
society. If a widow owned anything or was entitled to anything of value, you
could be sure that human vultures would attempt to take it from her. We can be sure,
indeed, that she has gone to the judge over a financial matter, since a matter
of money was one issue in which a judge could sit alone, without colleagues.

The widow need not necessarily be elderly – not in a culture
where women married at thirteen or fourteen. It is quite possible that her
husband has died young (life expectancy not being what it is in our society),
and she has been left with young children to raise. She needs all she can have,
and comes to the judge crying out not for vengeance but for justice.

She has no male representatives to go to the judge for her. Otherwise,
she would not have gone to court – a man would have gone in her stead. She would
have stayed at home. She also has neither the means nor the inclination to bribe
the judge. What hope has she? She arrives; perhaps there are others who want
their cases heard, too. Some of the more sophisticated and wealthy petitioners
may be having quiet words with officials, paying ‘fees’ – a euphemism for
bribes – and being heard first.

What can she do? She can do what men fear of women: she can
nag. She can also take advantage of the fact that a man who shouted at a judge
for justice might fear for his life, but a woman’s life would be respected and
honoured. For all her disadvantages, she has a certain safety in going to
court, regardless of her chances of success. So she goes – and rightly milks
the advantage she has. What does she have to lose? She doesn’t own anything
anyway. She wears the judge out with her persistent cries for justice. Even a
man who doesn’t have any sense of personal honour, with whom the moral appeal
won’t work, can be worn down.

2. Prayer
Persistence

Last week, American media
reported
the story of a woman who passed out with shock at her husband’s
funeral. She was rushed to hospital, where her jewellery was removed for
safekeeping by her son. He put it in a rubber glove, but then mislaid it. The hospital
said it would have been collected with the rubbish and sent to a landfill site.

The family called the waste management company that had
taken the ‘trash’ from the hospital. They had not disposed of that particular
consignment yet. They agreed to deposit it at their site, separate from other
rubbish. The family and a hospital official – who refused pay for this – began to
search for the jewellery, while dressed in protective plastic clothing, and
enduring a hot day.

After seven hours, the family members were exhausted, and
were ready to quit. But the hospital official said,

“I prayed to God and pulled one more bag — because we were
about exhausted — and our prayers were answered. There it was.”

The official said it illustrated the principle by which he
lives:

“Don’t give up five minutes before the miracle.”

I found this story via an American Methodist with a healing
ministry
. He
commented
:

How often do we give up 5 minutes before God answers our
prayers?

Time and time again I read of healing that doesn’t come from the first time
that prayer and laying upon of hands is offered. So often it comes after much
prayer, and many healing sessions. How often do we pray for someone or
something, then give up on God? How often do we feel that our prayers are fruitless?
How often do we give up rather than persist in prayer?

There’s a person in my life for whom I pray and get tempted to think God has
not heard my prayers. This person’s situation is getting worse rather than
better. But I persist. I know that God hears my prayers and is responding to
them. Over the course of time my prayers are being honed into more focused and
insightful supplications. I seek a deeper understanding of how God’s mercy and
grace work in those praying and those being prayed for. And when doubt enters,
I hearken back to the words of the [hospital official] … and endeavour not to
give up 5 minutes before the miracle.

One person who read the story offered this response:

This reminds me of a wood festival that I went to this
summer. I paid £5 for the privilege of climbing a 70 foot pole lumberjack style
- wearing spiked boots and using a strap.

It was surprisingly exhausting. I stopped at what I thought was about 3/4 of
the way up, too tired to keep going. When I looked up to see how much farther I
still had to drag myself I discovered all I needed to do to touch the top was
reach up a bit with my hand.

When you feel too tired to keep going, look up. You might be a lot closer to
your destination than you think.

Right at the outset, Luke lays out the reason for Jesus
telling his disciples this parable:

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray
always and not to lose heart. (Verse 1)

Don’t lose heart, says Jesus. The widow didn’t. Don’t you,
either. You’re not coming to an unjust judge, but to a loving Father. Don’t let
hope slip away. God the Father is the God of hope. Keep going.

Where are you losing hope? Where are you being tempted to
give up? Jesus invites us to remember – along with that hospital official –
that we might only be five minutes away from a miracle.

Persistent Prayer Is
A Sign Of Faith

Jesus doesn’t just want gently to encourage us to be persistent. He says something
stronger than that. He wants us to do so as a sign of genuine faith:

‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant
justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in
helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when
the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ (Verses 6-8)

God will help his people. He will be patient with us,
because he is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, as the Psalmist
says. He knows we are weak and sinful, but that will not change his loving and
merciful desire to help us. And if we know God is like that, then we couple
persistent prayer with audacious faith. Because God is good, we persistently and
daringly ask him for good things.

Another
American Methodist
I’ve read this week had collected a series of
secular quotes on this theme of audacity
. They might illuminate the point I
am trying to make:

The fifteenth century priest Erasmus said, ‘Fortune favours
the audacious.’

An unknown source said, ‘Audacity has made kings.’

Publilius
Syrus
, a first century BC Roman author, said, ‘Audacity augments courage;
hesitations, fear.’

Benjamin
Disraeli
said, ‘Success is the child of audacity.’

And finally, von
Goethe
said, ‘In every artist there is a touch of audacity without which no
talent is conceivable.’

Jesus wants us to be bold as well as persistent in prayer. In
the Lord’s Prayer he has us praying for the kingdom of God to come, paralleled
with the request for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven. That’s big! This
is not, ‘Lord, may I have a Mars Bar’ prayer. This is big stuff.

But we can learn from children. Because we are God’s children,
we are encouraged, if not urged to pray, just as a parent would think there
were something strange about their child if it did not bring requests. In my
four and a half years’ experience as a parent, I find that when Rebekah wants
something, one thing I cannot do is pretend she has not asked for it! She will
repeat it, and repeat it. Moreover, the volume of her voice will probably
increase!

Keep going! Be bold! The God and Father of our Lord Jesus
Christ is no unjust judge. He will hear us much more willingly than the unjust
judge entertained the widow. Do not lose hope. Keep praying. And keep praying
for Big Things.

 


[1]
What follows is based on Kenneth
Bailey
, Through
Peasant Eyes
, pp 127-141.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Tomorrow’s Sermon: Persistent Prayer, Audacious Faith

Luke 18:1-8

Introduction
My parents didn’t have a television when I was born. (Yes, I am that old.) They
first had one when I was about five. They must have been alert even then to the
dangers of television corrupting young minds, and limited what they allowed me to
watch. American imports came under particular suspicion, especially Batman.
They didn’t ban me from watching cartoons, although I think they frowned on
them. I did manage to watch The
Impossibles
and Wacky
Races
. Blue Peter passed
the parental test. That was factual and educational.
But not a lot else did. Certainly, they deemed cartoons frivolous and mind
rotting.

Only in adult life have I come to see that cartoons are more
than just the frivolous. They can be humorous, but making a point. The Simpsons are perhaps the classic
example. Children can laugh at the antics of this four-fingered yellow-skinned
American family, but adults can detect a deeper message, a satire. And away
from the television or cinema screen, cartoonists – such as in newspapers –
pull a similar trick. Their exaggeration is part of an effect that is not
merely meant to make us laugh, but to get over a point. Margaret Thatcher’s
large nose, Cherie Blair’s wide mouth, or a grumpy Gordon Brown are depicted so
that a message about them may be conveyed.

So can I suggest to you that Jesus was a cartoonist? A
cartoonist with words. He painted extreme and ridiculous images with words to
startle us into thinking about God and his kingdom, and responding
appropriately. I view today’s parable, about the unjust judge, as something
like a cartoon. It depicts extreme characters in order to make us take prayer
seriously. Let’s spend some time thinking about the two key characters of the
judge and the widow. And then let’s see where they and the story lead us in
terms of our attitudes to prayer.

1. The Characters
The Judge

How crazy is it for Jesus to liken his loving heavenly Father to an unjust
judge? This week one minister
said it would be
blasphemous, were not so much like something out of Monty
Python
for Jesus to make such a comparison.

And so it is. The judge is a terrible character![1]
By fearing neither God nor people, he contravenes Old Testament criteria for
judges in Israel. He is the type that prophets like Amos would have condemned. Such
judges were known in New Testament times, too. People made a pun on their actual
title in Hebrew to call them ‘Robber Judges.’ Some were known to pervert justice
for a dish of meat.

In fact, it’s worse than not respecting people. Jesus is
saying that the judge had no sense of shame. And that is the worst condemnation
for someone in the Middle East. It is not enough to say to someone, ‘You have
done wrong!’ It is more effective to say, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself!’
If he feels no shame, then no appeal to morality will hold any sway with him. What
will? A bribe. Nothing else.

How unlike God he is, then. In contrast, God has no reason
to feel shame. God is not a robber, but a generous giver. He cannot be bribed,
and would not want to be. Yet the judge fulfils the ‘God’ rôle in the parable.

The Widow
Widows and orphans were those had first tight of call upon a judge, according
to Jewish interpretation of Isaiah and other scriptures. They are the most
vulnerable, with no one to protect them, especially in a male-dominated
society. If a widow owned anything or was entitled to anything of value, you
could be sure that human vultures would attempt to take it from her. We can be sure,
indeed, that she has gone to the judge over a financial matter, since a matter
of money was one issue in which a judge could sit alone, without colleagues.

The widow need not necessarily be elderly – not in a culture
where women married at thirteen or fourteen. It is quite possible that her
husband has died young (life expectancy not being what it is in our society),
and she has been left with young children to raise. She needs all she can have,
and comes to the judge crying out not for vengeance but for justice.

She has no male representatives to go to the judge for her. Otherwise,
she would not have gone to court – a man would have gone in her stead. She would
have stayed at home. She also has neither the means nor the inclination to bribe
the judge. What hope has she? She arrives; perhaps there are others who want
their cases heard, too. Some of the more sophisticated and wealthy petitioners
may be having quiet words with officials, paying ‘fees’ – a euphemism for
bribes – and being heard first.

What can she do? She can do what men fear of women: she can
nag. She can also take advantage of the fact that a man who shouted at a judge
for justice might fear for his life, but a woman’s life would be respected and
honoured. For all her disadvantages, she has a certain safety in going to
court, regardless of her chances of success. So she goes – and rightly milks
the advantage she has. What does she have to lose? She doesn’t own anything
anyway. She wears the judge out with her persistent cries for justice. Even a
man who doesn’t have any sense of personal honour, with whom the moral appeal
won’t work, can be worn down.

2. Prayer
Persistence

Last week, American media
reported
the story of a woman who passed out with shock at her husband’s
funeral. She was rushed to hospital, where her jewellery was removed for
safekeeping by her son. He put it in a rubber glove, but then mislaid it. The hospital
said it would have been collected with the rubbish and sent to a landfill site.

The family called the waste management company that had
taken the ‘trash’ from the hospital. They had not disposed of that particular
consignment yet. They agreed to deposit it at their site, separate from other
rubbish. The family and a hospital official – who refused pay for this – began to
search for the jewellery, while dressed in protective plastic clothing, and
enduring a hot day.

After seven hours, the family members were exhausted, and
were ready to quit. But the hospital official said,

“I prayed to God and pulled one more bag — because we were
about exhausted — and our prayers were answered. There it was.”

The official said it illustrated the principle by which he
lives:

“Don’t give up five minutes before the miracle.”

I found this story via an American Methodist with a healing
ministry
. He
commented
:

How often do we give up 5 minutes before God answers our
prayers?

Time and time again I read of healing that doesn’t come from the first time
that prayer and laying upon of hands is offered. So often it comes after much
prayer, and many healing sessions. How often do we pray for someone or
something, then give up on God? How often do we feel that our prayers are fruitless?
How often do we give up rather than persist in prayer?

There’s a person in my life for whom I pray and get tempted to think God has
not heard my prayers. This person’s situation is getting worse rather than
better. But I persist. I know that God hears my prayers and is responding to
them. Over the course of time my prayers are being honed into more focused and
insightful supplications. I seek a deeper understanding of how God’s mercy and
grace work in those praying and those being prayed for. And when doubt enters,
I hearken back to the words of the [hospital official] … and endeavour not to
give up 5 minutes before the miracle.

One person who read the story offered this response:

This reminds me of a wood festival that I went to this
summer. I paid £5 for the privilege of climbing a 70 foot pole lumberjack style
- wearing spiked boots and using a strap.

It was surprisingly exhausting. I stopped at what I thought was about 3/4 of
the way up, too tired to keep going. When I looked up to see how much farther I
still had to drag myself I discovered all I needed to do to touch the top was
reach up a bit with my hand.

When you feel too tired to keep going, look up. You might be a lot closer to
your destination than you think.

Right at the outset, Luke lays out the reason for Jesus
telling his disciples this parable:

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray
always and not to lose heart. (Verse 1)

Don’t lose heart, says Jesus. The widow didn’t. Don’t you,
either. You’re not coming to an unjust judge, but to a loving Father. Don’t let
hope slip away. God the Father is the God of hope. Keep going.

Where are you losing hope? Where are you being tempted to
give up? Jesus invites us to remember – along with that hospital official –
that we might only be five minutes away from a miracle.

Persistent Prayer Is
A Sign Of Faith

Jesus doesn’t just want gently to encourage us to be persistent. He says something
stronger than that. He wants us to do so as a sign of genuine faith:

‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant
justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in
helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when
the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ (Verses 6-8)

God will help his people. He will be patient with us,
because he is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, as the Psalmist
says. He knows we are weak and sinful, but that will not change his loving and
merciful desire to help us. And if we know God is like that, then we couple
persistent prayer with audacious faith. Because God is good, we persistently and
daringly ask him for good things.

Another
American Methodist
I’ve read this week had collected a series of
secular quotes on this theme of audacity
. They might illuminate the point I
am trying to make:

The fifteenth century priest Erasmus said, ‘Fortune favours
the audacious.’

An unknown source said, ‘Audacity has made kings.’

Publilius
Syrus
, a first century BC Roman author, said, ‘Audacity augments courage;
hesitations, fear.’

Benjamin
Disraeli
said, ‘Success is the child of audacity.’

And finally, von
Goethe
said, ‘In every artist there is a touch of audacity without which no
talent is conceivable.’

Jesus wants us to be bold as well as persistent in prayer. In
the Lord’s Prayer he has us praying for the kingdom of God to come, paralleled
with the request for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven. That’s big! This
is not, ‘Lord, may I have a Mars Bar’ prayer. This is big stuff.

But we can learn from children. Because we are God’s children,
we are encouraged, if not urged to pray, just as a parent would think there
were something strange about their child if it did not bring requests. In my
four and a half years’ experience as a parent, I find that when Rebekah wants
something, one thing I cannot do is pretend she has not asked for it! She will
repeat it, and repeat it. Moreover, the volume of her voice will probably
increase!

Keep going! Be bold! The God and Father of our Lord Jesus
Christ is no unjust judge. He will hear us much more willingly than the unjust
judge entertained the widow. Do not lose hope. Keep praying. And keep praying
for Big Things.

 


[1]
What follows is based on Kenneth
Bailey
, Through
Peasant Eyes
, pp 127-141.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Wineskins

I had a brief, but excellent meeting on Monday with Pete Pillinger
of Fresh Expressions and
co-author of Changing
Church For A Changing World
. This book is a cheap and superb introduction
to Fresh Expressions Of Church from a Methodist
perspective. In it, my old friend Martin Wellings gives an historical
perspective on Fresh Expressions. He points out that the beginnings of
Methodism itself was a ‘fresh expression’ of its day, as were various
developments over the centuries (not least some that led to the movements being
expelled – such as Primitive Methodism and the Salvation Army). Martin points out
wryly that fresh expressions can become stale
expressions
. Is that the problem we face today? I suspect it is. I am glad
the Conference welcomes fresh expressions of church, but there are real
structural issues of our ecclesiology with which to grapple. I hope to look at
some of this during a sabbatical in eighteen months’ time.

There is the whole question of wineskins. Jesus said that
you don’t put new wine in old wineskins, or they will burst. Whether the
current ‘wineskin’ of Methodist ecclesiology (including our structures and
governance) can contain fresh expressions is a moot point. The Past President
of the Conference, Graham Carter, remarked in one Methodist Recorder article
that you probably shouldn’t put a Fresh Expression on the circuit preaching
plan, allocating it Local Preachers and ministers to take services in the way
you would a ‘conventional’ Methodist church. This is both eminently sensible
and also a ticking bomb. It is sensible, because FEs are so diverse within
themselves and compared with traditional Methodism that your average Methodist
preacher doesn’t have the training to lead worship in them.

But it is a ticking bomb, because the circuit system is the
basic structure of Methodism. The circuit is supposed to be the primary focus
of mission. Treating worship in FEs (rightly) like this undermines the system.
Great – but unless we change the wineskin there will be a red or white sticky
mess. Perhaps we need to face head-on the fact that we have turned into an
ecclesiological system something that was never intended by Wesley to be
anything of the sort. The classes, bands and societies he established during
the eighteenth century Evangelical Revival were a good thing in that unlike
George Whitefield, he organised converts and enquirers together. However, they
were established on the assumption that the members would still worship at the
parish church on a Sunday. So (in our terms) a midweek fellowship meeting or a
parachurch organisation evolved into a church congregation after Wesley’s
death, and in the light of Methodism’s ultimate split from the Church of
England. I suggest this fact has never been seriously faced.

But even to suggest this moves us into sacred cow territory
for some Methodists. So let me stress that I also see strengths in the circuit
system and the importance we place on ‘connexionalism’. Methodists see
themselves as connected to one another. In the circuit at its best, the strong
churches help the weaker ones. In the circuit staff meeting, we have an
opportunity for mutual support in the ministry on a regular basis. We are not
congregationalists, and I approve of that ecclesiologically. I do so, because
for me apostolicity is about two things: it is both about continuation in the
apostles’ doctrines (which is by no means guaranteed by the right person laying
hands on you) and it is about our wider fellowship. I see the original apostles
as guaranteeing doctrine, and in doing so having a trans-local ministry. There
is a challenge to maintain that sense of connectedness, without falling into
congregationalism. Other denominations manage to do so – although they often
run the risk of hierarchicalism (which, if we’re honest, can happen in
Methodism, too).

But of course, apostolicity is also about church-planting,
which is one critical aspect of Fresh Expressions. And so within this issue of
ecclesiology comes the question I have raised before on this blog, namely our
understanding of ordination (‘within’ on the grounds that church leadership
arises from the church, rather than a certain form of it being a sign that
guarantees the existence of the ‘true church’). Methodism ordains to two
‘orders’ of ministry. One is that of ‘presbyter’, which is seen to encompass
the New Testament office of the presbyter/bishop (rightly in my opinion we see episkopos and presbuteros as interchangeable terms). The other is that of
‘deacon’. I want to focus on presbyters. The problem comes in determining what
a presbyter does. There are several New Testament passages about Christian
leadership. I want to test whether our descriptions of a presbyter’s rôle
fulfils New Testament expectations.

Perhaps the most wide-ranging description of leadership
functions in the NT is in Ephesians 4, where four or five (depending on how you
interpret the Greek) leadership roles are enunciated. They are apostles,
prophets, evangelists, pastors (and) teachers. In recent years, some
charismatics have talked about the five-fold ministry. Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch have expounded a more
nuanced view: these five ministries are gifts to, and present in the whole
church, not just leaders. However they are crucial for missional leadership.

Against this, the commonest and briefest understanding of a
presbyter’s calling is to a ministry of the word, sacrament and pastoral care.
Mostly, these fall within the boundaries of ‘pastor-teacher’ (notwithstanding
my previous concerns about sacramental presidency). If there is one possible
loophole, it is in the ministry of the word: ministering the word to whom? To
the church – in which case it is pastoral – or to the world – in which case it
is prophetic or evangelistic? I think it fair to say the standard assumption,
especially when one factors in the nature of ministerial training as many of us
have experienced it, is that the word is a pastoral function. We thus end up
purely ordaining pastor-teachers. It is not surprising if we then have a
‘maintenance ministry’, or an inward-looking one. Methodism does authorise
evangelists as well, but it is not explicitly part of the ordination call, with
one possible exception: one part of our ordination service calls on presbyters
to ‘seek the lost’ (Methodist Worship Book, p 308). Those who do not generally
fall within the pastor-teacher models of ministry generally end up being
recognised as laypeople. Where in particular are the apostolic church-planters?
And while I dislike a clergy/laity distinction, I am seeing ordination here as
a call to leadership in the Church. If we persist in purely ordaining
pastor-teachers, we shall inhibit the necessity of mission, which is
fundamental to the nature of the Church.

Some will object that certain ministers do have gifts in the
apostolic, prophetic or evangelistic areas. However, we should not rely on one
minister to be an all-rounder, as some circuits request. We are the Body of
Christ, and we need all members to bring their gifts. I believe the call, then,
is for team leadership, even if one person has to be the overall leader. I see
it as a vital missional task to identify and bless all the Ephesians 4
ministries, and bring them together into a team leadership model. I am not
calling for a neglect of pastoral care, but for a balance, where all the gifts
are recognised and given importance. I believe that will make for a healthy,
missional church. Pete told me that on the recent Fresh Expressions ‘Hard Questions’
tour
, the Bishop of
Horsham
spoke of how he had dealt with a problem of leadership in a fresh
expression. How would they receive the sacraments? Answer: rewrite the ordinal
and ordain the youth leader. If an Anglo-Catholic can do that, can Methodism
start to show some of the flexibility of a new wineskin, too? The need is
pressing.

It’s easier to state the problems than propose the
solutions. And of course, I’ve said similar things on the blog before. I’m
currently working on some positive responses. Hopefully I’ll post them soon,
and you can all improve them, or show me their glaring weaknesses.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

links for 2007-10-19

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,224 other followers