Monthly Archives: September 2008

Commandments

Ten Blogging Commandments from the Evangelical Alliance.

Thoughts?

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Quote

“He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would fully suffice.”

 - Albert Einstein 

From the weekly Word Magazine email.

Quote

It’s extraordinary to me that the United States can find $700 billion to save Wall Street and the entire G8 can’t find $25 billion dollars to saved 25,000 children who die every day from preventable diseases.

- Bono, from yesterday’s Sojourners weekly email, via The American Prospect.

Mum

On Monday, a consultant told my Mum she almost certainly has cancer. It could just be something else, and it’s subject to a test in a fortnight. As you can imagine, I haven’t concentrated too well on work. My mind keeps drifting, and all sorts of feelings wash over my from out of nowhere. The unfeeling logical side of me reminds me that Mum is a good age. I have known for a long time that she and Dad are in that age range where my sister and I can reasonably expect something to come along and potentially take them from us. Logic, however, doesn’t comfort. It’s the lesson Job’s friends never learned. It’s the lesson too many Christians don’t learn, with their instant lectures on how God must have a purpose, or even offering hotline-to-God explanations. It’s been instructive to have the book of Job as my daily Bible reading lately. 

As a minister, this is parallel to the times when I enter into similar experiences  my congregation. As a family, we now face the issues for which I offer comfort to them. I feel like the way I cope may be a matter of public display. That isn’t all negative. It’s true of all Christians in the world. It tests the depths of my faith.

I won’t be able to get away from certain reminders – like yesterday, when I buried someone’s ashes. But even then, I’m not unique. My sister is an Occupational Therapist working in a hospice – she will be reminded every working day.

Blogging, of course, will be less frequent. I have one or two posts planned, but when they get written – well, naturally they’re not too important right now.

Please pray for us. Thanks.

Poverty

Please sign this petition from Avaaz:

Dear friends,

Canada, France and Italy are threatening to break their poverty promises by slashing aid budgets. Sign the petition to stop them — and poverty expert Jeff Sachs will deliver our messages to world leaders gathered at the UN this week!

Click to Sign Now!

World leaders gather this Thursday at the United Nations to renew the fight against extreme poverty. But three countries — France, Canada, and Italy — are threatening to undermine the world’s anti poverty efforts, by slashing their development aid budgets and breaking their international promises.

Sarkozy, Harper, and Berlusconi promised to contribute 0.7% of their national income to fighting poverty — aid money that would save millions of lives, and still leave these donor countries with 99.3% of their money. But apparently, they think 99.3% is not enough.

Our best chance to keep these rich countries to their word on aid delivery is to raise the alarm in New York this week. Sign our petition now, spread it to friends and family — and our friend, world famous economist and top UN official on poverty, Jeffrey Sachs will deliver it in speeches to the assembled heads of state at the UN summit this Thursday. The more names on the petition, the stronger the message that promises on poverty must be kept. Click below to sign now:

http://www.avaaz.org/en/poverty_promise_breakers

We know that public outcries like this one can work — because massive people-powered movements have transformed the fight against poverty over the last decade. The Jubilee movement cancelled hundreds of billions in dictator debt in 2000, and pushed world leaders to adopt the Millennium Development Goals to cut world poverty in half by 2015. In 2005, poverty campaigners the world over won commitments from G8 leaders to double aid to Africa. Because of these efforts millions of poverty related deaths have been stopped and millions more children are attending school, sleeping under anti-Malaria bed nets, and drinking clean water. Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden have all exceeded the 0.7% target and in this year aid rose in real terms in nine EU countries. If all countries stick to their promises, programmes fighting disease and alleviating extreme poverty could be scaled up across the world.

But this year, some rich-country leaders apparently think that the public no longer cares about poverty. In Canada, which kept 99.7% of its income last year, Stephen Harper seems more interested in winning his election than in upholding Canada’s tradition of moral leadership. France’s Sarkozy, for all of his diplomatic efforts, appears to think that his people don’t care about lives and deaths beyond his borders. And in Italy — already one of the stingiest donors in the world — Berlusconi appears happy to slash crucial funding, even though, as host of next year’s G8 summit, his actions set an example for the other richest countries.

French and Italian Avaaz members are already flooding their governments with thousands of messages about aid. But those of us in the rest of the world can play a crucial role as well–sending Harper, Sarkozy, and Berlusconi a clear signal that we expect them to keep to their word — so please help us raise an outcry that can’t be ignored at the UN summit:

http://www.avaaz.org/en/poverty_promise_breakers

In recent years, millions have been galvanized by a vision: that ours can be the generation that ends extreme poverty. With other crises vying for our attention, the strength of this vision is now being tested. Let’s join together and ensure that leaders keep their promises — so that the promise of human potential in even the poorest communities can be unleashed.

With hope,

Ben, Alice, Ricken, Graziela, Paul, Milena, Iain, Veronique, Brett — the entire Avaaz team

PS: For a report on Avaaz’s campaigning so far, see: https://secure.avaaz.org/en/report_back_2

Sources:

Fact sheet on Official Development Assistance from rich countries:
http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/27/55/40381862.pdf

More on the Millennium Development Goals:
http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/

Bono and Jeffrey Sachs’ blog on the poverty debate this week in New York:
http://blogs.ft.com/mdg/

To learn more about the international campaigning that has moved governments in recent years, see:
http://www.whiteband.org and http://www.inmyname.com/ and http://www.one.org/international/

More on concern about France’s meeting 0.7% targets see:
http://www.oecd.org/document/45/0,,en_2649_201185_40948205_1_1_1_1,00

More on Canada’s backtracking on 0.7% commitment:
http://www.canada.com/ottawacitizen/news/story.html?id=9c489487-aab9-477c-babf-5d109566df2f&p=2

To see the 2008 report on governmental aid to Africa see:
http://www.one.org/report/en/press.html

To learn about Jeffrey Sachs’ work on UN Millennium Development Goals see:
http://www.unmillenniumproject.org

To see examples of how aid is working see:
http://www.millenniumpromise.org and http://www.mdgmonitor.org/factsheets.cfm

——————————–

ABOUT AVAAZ
Avaaz.org is an independent, not-for-profit global campaigning organization that works to ensure that the views and values of the world’s people inform global decision-making. (Avaaz means “voice” in many languages.) Avaaz receives no money from governments or corporations, and is staffed by a global team based in London, Rio de Janeiro, New York, Paris, Washington DC, and Geneva.

Click here to learn more about our largest campaigns.

Don’t forget to check out our Facebook and Myspace and Bebo pages!

 


Sermon: Missional God

Matthew 20:1-16

Introduction
What kind of book is the Bible? Some see it is a book as rules. Others say it is God’s love letter to us. 

Me, I see it increasingly as the story of God’s mission. (Which means that any rules tell us what pleases the God who loves us and has saved us. And which means that if it is a love letter, it is addressed to the world, not just God’s favoured ones.)

No, right from the beginning, God is on mission. And he is on mission in a particular way. God does not shout from a distance, expecting us to come where he is. From the start, he comes onto our territory. He is the first missionary, coming walking in the Garden of Eden, calling out, ‘Where are you, Adam?’ In the Incarnation, Jesus is ‘the Word … made flesh [who] dwelt among us’. In this parable, the landowner keeps going to where the workers are, rather than expecting them to turn up at his vineyard.

So God is a missional God, and this sermon attempts to explore some characteristics of our missional God.

1. Sovereign
The missional God is the sovereign God. ‘Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?’ he says to those who complain (verse 15a).

What do we mean when we talk about God being sovereign? Some of us get nervous, because we know how this has been used in history. In the Calvinist tradition, affirming the sovereign God has been used to advance the idea that God chooses some people to be saved and others to be damned. That’s not what I mean.

The sovereign God can do what he chooses, but what does he choose to do? It will be consistent with his character. The sovereign God wants his reign to be accepted everywhere, and so he reaches out to all. If he is truly sovereign, then he wants that reign to be embraced universally. Not all will accept the summons to his kingdom. Some will resist and face eternity without him. But it is his will that none should perish. And so, just as the landowner in the parable keeps going back to hire more labourers, so God keeps searching for more people who will turn from their former ways to follow his Son.

What does this mean for us? We are called to share in God’s mission. If God wants his reign to be embraced by all people in all places, then this is fundamental to the nature of the Church. Christianity is a missionary faith. Mission is not something we leave to those who are keen. It is something for all of us.

Yesterday, I was at Synod. The President and Vice-President of the Methodist Conference were with us. Our current President, Stephen Poxon, is Chair of the North Lancashire District. His District has twinned with three overseas Methodist Conferences. One of them is the Methodist Church in Uruguay. There are only six hundred Methodists in Uruguay, spread across twenty-five congregations. A Uruguayan Methodist visiting the UK said to Stephen Poxon, ‘There’s something I don’t understand about British Methodism. Back home, every single Methodist church has a community project. Why isn’t that so in British Methodist churches?’

I think that Uruguayan Methodist had a point. If the missional God wants to see his sovereignty acknowledged everywhere, then mission has to be our top priority, even our defining characteristic as the church. 

Some of the famous quotes from the last century really come into their own here – like when William Temple said the church was the only organisation that existed for the benefit of those who weren’t its members. Or when the theologian Emil Brunner said that the church exists by mission as fire exists by burning. We are a missionary church, or we are no church at all. That much is certain if the missional God is sovereign.

2. Generous
The missional God is generous. ‘Or are you envious because I am generous?’ he says to the moaners (verse 15b). 

What does it mean for the missional God to be generous? In the parable, it’s quite clear. He has promised a day’s wages to everyone who comes and works for him. The surprise comes at the end when he gives just as much to those who have worked for less than a day. He doesn’t give them what they’ve earned – which wouldn’t be enough to live on – but what they need – namely the rate for a whole day.

On the surface, this makes it sound like God is a socialist: ‘From each according to their means, to each according to their needs.’ But capitalists like this parable too, because the landowner is free to do what he likes with his wealth. Jesus didn’t tell this parable in order for people to fit it into the political philosophies that would come two thousand years after his hearers.

No, the Gospel is a message of divine generosity. All we need for salvation has been provided for us in Christ. In his Incarnation, he lived our life. In his death, he took away the sins of the world. In his Resurrection, he began God’s New Creation. We have everything we need in Christ. It has been generously provided in Christ, at immense personal cost.

God is on a mission to share his generous love. We are called to share the message of divine generosity to all people. But here’s the issue: the spirit of the message needs to fit the content of the message. So a message of God’s generosity needs to be couched in a generous spirit.

However, is that how we are perceived by non-Christians? One thing the Vice-President of Conference said at yesterday’s Synod was this. He talked about having visited the Greenbelt Festival for the first time. While he was there, he encountered a seminar led by a cross-party group of Christian MPs. Together, they explained to their sorrow that in Parliament the Christian Church is generally assumed to be a critical organisation. We are known far more for what we are against than for what we favour.

Might it be that if we want to encourage people to embrace the generous love of God, we need to adopt a generous attitude towards them? Debbie and I try to get involved in the community that centres around our children’s primary school. We have tried to befriend two or three single mums, who have each had two children by different fathers, and they have not married the fathers. Then there are two families where the husband and wife have recently split up. In one case, we can understand why the wife kicked the husband out. In the other case, we can’t. But we have tried to be available and demonstrate Christian love to them.

There are some Christians who think the first thing we should have done was condemn sex outside marriage and divorce in these cases. I want to make clear that Debbie and I believe very strongly in the sanctity of marriage. There is a time and a place for talking about right and wrong. But how will people have a chance of believing in a generous God if we do not offer a generous spirit towards them? Believing that our missional God is generous calls all Christians to undertake acts of selfless, sacrificial and unconditional love in the name of Christ for those yet to discover his love.

3. Merciful
Our missional God is merciful: ‘So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’ (verse 16)

Mercy is at the heart of the Gospel message. It is a message of God’s loving mercy for sinners. In Christ and Christ alone we have the forgiveness of sins and new life. Such is the mercy of God that he sends his Church everywhere in his Name to proclaim and demonstrate the mercy he longs to extend to all. 

I expect we’re all used to speaking about the mercy of God like that. But when Jesus has the landowner say that the last will be first and the first will be last, the culture of mercy is extended further. That mercy is so fundamental to God’s kingdom that notions of order and rank are outlawed. One commentator on the parables puts it this way:

‘Earlier Jesus taught that there are degrees of punishment in hell (Lk 12:47-48); now he makes plain that there are no degrees of reward in heaven. The perfection of the life to come, by definition, does not allow for them.’

No superiority, no rank in the kingdom: we all need the mercy of God in Christ to enter the kingdom of heaven. The idea that because I am a minister I am more important is anathema to the Gospel. I should not expect to sit at the front of church like some worldly dignitary.

The early Church recognised this radical application of the Gospel: they even elevated slaves to the rank of bishop. They did not care for the world’s way of status. The Good News changed all that. Sometimes I see it in today’s Church, other times I don’t.

What does this have to do with mission? When we are obsessed with title or power, we start valuing some people less than others. While there may be certain ways in which the older approaches to rank and status are passing away today – such as the decline in respect for the Royal Family – other forms of the problem rise up to take its place. So we have an obsession with celebrity that seems to be about the kind of people our culture claims to be more important than others.

Now giving people differing value undermines the Gospel. God’s love in Christ is every bit as much for the least and the lowest as it is for the most and the highest. A true proclamation and living-out of the Gospel will have nothing to do with mimicking the world’s love of status. Nor will it fall into that contemporary trap, the making of Christian celebrities.

Rather, it will be counter-cultural. God loves all people, and that means he loves the poor and the obscure every bit as much as the rich and the famous. The Gospel is for our neighbours and the poor of the world.

One last example from yesterday’s Synod. Stephanie and I attended a workshop about mission opportunities in schools. It was led by a young woman from the Luton Churches’ Education Trust. Forty churches in Luton support this trust. It employs over twenty staff to work in secondary schools and with local teenagers. They don’t just do the normal schools work of RE lessons and assemblies. They also work with the sort of young people who are shunned or despised – those with ADHD, or who self-harm. As far as they were concerned, these children were as valuable as the gifted ones with the A* grades. That makes Gospel sense.

Conclusion
This parable leaves us in no doubt that God’s heart beats a missionary rhythm. If we are truly to be the Church of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, then mission will define what we are about. We shall have a passion to take the Gospel everywhere. We shall proclaim God’s generous love in Christ with a generous spirit. And God’s mercy for all will mean we are as interested in sharing that love with the broken as with the headline-makers.

I nearly included today’s Old Testament lesson from Jonah in the service. It’s the part of Jonah’s story where he complains to God that the sinners of Nineveh have repented at the sound of his preaching, and received the grace of God. If we have the heart of Christ, then may we not be moaners like Jonah. May we be people who rejoice when the missing find their way back to God. And may we press on with the Gospel, that there may be many more occasions for such rejoicing.

Outsider

I had been asked to join a new group. Oh all right then, committee. Yesterday afternoon was my first meeting. I had the address. It wasn’t in a part of town I knew well, but I looked it up and planned my route. I’m a big boy, after all.

It took ages to find a parking space that wasn’t in a residents-only zone. Then I had trouble finding the house: it was hidden away behind others on the road. By this time, I was five minutes late. I knocked on the door. No answer. I banged more loudly. Still nothing. Yet there were cars parked at the house. It was also a house with a name as well as a number, so I was doubly sure I was at the right address. Nothing.

I came home and sent an email to the chair of the committee. He rang later, profusely apologetic. He’s a decent guy, and I expect the other committee members are, too. I didn’t harangue him in the phone conversation or the email. Nobody had thought to give me the additional instructions I needed. It turned out they were meeting in an outhouse at the address. I would never have guessed.

It gave me a little bit of ‘outsider’ experience – something we could do with encountering as regular church people. In the evening, we had our Circuit Meeting and discussed a Circuit Review of us that had been written by a District officer. We noted how many churches generally think they are good at welcoming, although a few observe that they can’t get people to stay or to integrate after the warm welcome. Have we lost the sense of what it feels like to be an outsider or newcomer, because we’ve all been involved in church for so long?

Various suggestions came at the Circuit Meeting. We facetiously thought of the Ship Of Fools Mystery Worshipper. We thought that people who would not be widely recognised in the circuit might go from one church to another and see what kind of reception they had. I’m sure there are other good ideas, too. Maybe you have some that you’d like to post in the comments.

But it struck me all the more how many of us have lost the sense of just how unfamiliar, alien, even dangerous and scary it feels to non-Christians to cross the threshold of a church building. If you talk to visitors at one of those declining events, a church wedding or baptism, notice their discomfort and fear.

There are things we can do in order to be more hospitable, and they are good. But even that is not enough. That still assumes an ‘attractional’ model where our initial goal in mission is to get ‘them’ to come to ‘us’. I believe there is all the more argument here for the missional approach as well, where we Christians are the ones who take the risk of going onto unfamiliar territory where those with whom we wish to share God’s love are comfortable.

Of course, that levers up the fear factor higher than it already is among many churchgoers, who are so nervous of talking about their faith that they only place they might remotely do it is on church premises. But this is the cost we must pay for the sake of God’s mission. How much does God love the world? How much does God love us? How much will we love?

Snapshots

Our hairdresser is a family friend. We go together to her house for haircuts. Earlier this year, we were at Gemma’s and we noticed some fabulous new photos of her daughter.

‘Where did you get those done?’

She replied that she had used a new photographer in town. We had a 20″ x 16″ portrait of the children in the dining room, but it was two years old. At the age of our small children, that’s a long time in which they had changed.

So we booked a session with Melanie, who was wonderful, and Debbie asked that one of the shots be a new 20″ x 16″ as a birthday present for her. Mark was impeccable during the shoot, and Rebekah started out well before switching into full drama queen mode.

A little while later, Melanie gave us a CD of the best shots, and we spent an evening narrowing down our choices. Eventually, we placed the order and last week I collected them. They are fabulous. The new big portrait is up. Mark’s cheeky smile radiates across the room, and in Rebekah’s case you can see glimpses of the beautiful young woman she will become. It’s stunning.

So the first purpose of this post is an unsolicited plug for Melanie’s work. I’m not posting copies of the photos here for two reasons: firstly, I would be breaching her copyright, and secondly I don’t in any case put photos of our children in the most public parts of the web. I only use parts of my Facebook profile and Flickr that friends can see.

But the extended purpose of this post is to meditate on change and continuity. It’s there in the different photos of our children, separated by two years. It’s even more obvious when you go to the church social and the ice-breaker game is stuck on the walls: ‘Guess which church member this is as a baby.’

This struck me even more on Friday night, when Debbie and I sat down to watch Friday Night With Jonathan Ross. The main guest was one of my musical heroes from the 1970s, Stevie Wonder. His run of albums from ‘Music Of My Mind’ to ‘Hotter Than July’ (excepting ‘Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants’!) has to be one of the most sustained streaks of brilliance in popular music. I don’t care for much of his music since – indeed if ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’ could be permanently deleted from the world’s memory, I’d be happy.

But I love his Seventies music as much today in my forties as in my teens. ‘Living For The City’ still has to be one of the great social justice songs. So am I behaving as an overgrown teenager when I put his music on, or am I still genuinely appreciating his music, despite the fact that I have grown – and hopefully matured?

One thing I did was ponder the roots of my musical taste. My love of some black music clearly comes from growing up in multi-racial north London. My best friend’s brother introduced me to Otis Redding and Stax.

But my taste is – well, the polite word is ‘eclectic’. Singer-songwriters feature prominently. Some of that comes from being a child in church during the Sixties when folk and protest music was acceptable in the mainline denominations. It was more respectable than that pop racket. Also, I’m quite an introspective person, so the Seventies singer-songwriters were an obvious touchstone for me – Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell and so on.

And I’ve always had a thing about lyrics. I’m keen on meaning, so those people who say that lyrics don’t matter have little sympathy from me. Not only that, I tried writing songs with my best friend. Given that he was and is a musician and I never have been, the words were my department. Don’t worry, none of them has ever been released. You are safe. But it gave me a deeper appreciation of lyrics.

The serious side of me also went for prog rock – notably Genesis and Yes. (Genesis went down the pan when they became a pop band.) My love of the serious and the complex kept my loyalty to this kind of music in the punk wars. The late Alan Freeman once held a vote on his Saturday afternoon Radio 1 show. Punk yes or no? No won 51% to 49%. I was in the 51.

You can still trace a lot of these influences in music I enjoy thirty years later. Boo Hewerdine, John Hiatt and Aimee Mann are all currently trapped in my car CD player, strongly representing the singer-songwriter camp. I recently bought Stomu Yamashta‘s Complete Go Sessions on eBay on the prog front. And Stevie Wonder on the TV probably has me digging out some of those classic albums.

At the same time, however, there are aspects of my teenage record buying habits that I wouldn’t want people to know about. There are some singles I was glad disappeared when I finally and reluctantly said goodbye to vinyl. I’m too embarrassed to name them here, so I’ll just leave you to guess. Some of them should only have been bought by teenage girls, that’s all I’m saying. It’s change and continuity again.

All this is an extended introduction to say that holding together continuity and change is an important spiritual and theological issue. I’m not even referring to the management of change in a congregation, although there is plenty that could be said about that. At this point, I’m confining myself to the personal aspects.

The Reformation enshrined this when it said that people were simul justus et peccator, both justified and yet still sinners. Justification brings redemption and leads to sanctification, that is, change, yet we are still what we always were: sinners.

Or to put it another way: our past and our present go a long way to explaining us, and hope draws us on into God’s New Creation.

And in that respect, Tom Wright’s great sign of the New Creation to come is the Resurrection of Jesus, itself am expression of continuity and change in the nature of Christ’s resurrection body. There was continuity: once the disciples had got past their considerable intellectual barriers to resurrection happening in the middle of history, Jesus was recognisable. He was ‘known by the scars’, to take Michael Card‘s old phrase. But there was also change: whatever miracles Jesus did before the crucifixion, he never suddenly appeared in the middle of a locked room, as is recorded twice in John 20. In the Resurrection, Jesus is endowed with the ‘spiritual body’ of which Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 15, and which my MPhil mentor Richard Bauckham used to say means, ‘a body animated by the Holy Spirit’.

So it isn’t necessarily a mark of immaturity if certain things remain from my youth. They may be part of an acceptable continuity that will travel with and in me throughout life in this age and the age to come.

Indeed, if the theory behind the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is correct that we have the same personality type for life, then that is an expression of this. You’ll see from the description I gave about the roots of some of my musical taste that a fair bit has to do with personality. No personality type is perfect: all have weaknesses. However, this is not necessarily about moral failure or weakness. God made humans to be interdependent, and in the Church God made us to be the Body of Christ, with complementary gifts.

But other things will fall away and be replaced or renewed. And that’s OK, too. That’s where the issues of holiness come in. So for example years ago I read an article in Third Way magazine about one of my musical heroes, Van Morrison. The author (Martin Wroe?) acknowledged that Morrison was not so much a practitioner of faith as a student of religions. He also acknowledged the commonly known fact about Morrison’s personality, namely that he is a notorious curmudgeon. Rock’s Mister Grumpy, indeed. However, he expressed a hope that there would be a place for him in the kingdom of God.

If there is, then it will be by the grace of God, just as it is for all of us. However, the question will arise for him, as it does for everyone, of change. How will he and we be made ‘fit for heaven’ (or the New Creation)? Transformation begins in this life by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, but is it complete at death?

The classical Catholic answer to this has been in terms of Purgatory. Tom Wright makes a good response to this in ‘Surprised By Hope‘. He describes it as a medieval metaphor and myth, without biblical support, having more to do with Aquinas and Dante. He quotes the current Pope, who appeals to 1 Corinthians 3, where the Lord himself is the fire in judgment who purifies us. Purgatory is unnecessary. God will see to it that we are fit for heaven and the New Creation.

And when he does, in that favourite verse of babysitters, ‘We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed.’ By the grace of God, he will make us worthy of his presence. And there will be a degree of recognition due to continuity, although exactly what that is becomes another difficult question. Suffice to say it must be about more than physical likeness.

Who knows, maybe even some of my music collection will survive!

links for 2008-09-14

links for 2008-09-13

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