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Sabbatical, Day 75: Re-Imagining Persecution; Funeral Music

Two different blog posts today show how two different communities wrongly thought they were victims of persecution. Firstly, Michael Spencer shows convincingly that evangelicals were not killed for their faith by the two teenage gunmen at Columbine. Nor was it about video game nasties, atheism or the occult. The information has been seeping out for years, he says, but a major piece in USA Today has put it all together. Yet because many of the victims were related to local churches, a quick assumption was made. A mythology grew up, books were published, songs were recorded.

Secondly, there has been outrage in recent days over the removal of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender books from Amazon’s best-seller list. Search for #amazonfail on Twitter and you’ll find thousands of upset tweeters. But today comes the news that it wasn’t the consequence of anti-gay policies. It was a technological error. Clay Shirky, himself strongly in favour of gay rights, reports the truth in detail.

Here, then, is an issue where the evangelical community and the gay community (if both are truly communities, but that’s another issue) have something in common. Both have reasons for presupposing that opposition is persecution. Evangelicals are fuelled by church history and parts of the Bible; gay people have very recent history that predisposes them to the assumption.

To speak personally about this, I remember a few weeks after the Columbine shootings seeing a report on BBC television’s Newsnight which cast doubt on the martyrdom theory. At the time, I just assumed it was simply the BBC’s liberal bias against conservative Christians and dismissed it. I found the testimony of Cassie Bernall‘s family to her faith as a reason for her killing as more persuasive. I am not remotely suggesting they were insincere or dishonest at all, but now it seems I have to admit the BBC was right. They were modelling good reporting rather than showing bias. 

Isn’t it true, though, that Christians – even in the West – are facing more opposition? Yes, it is, and I have argued frequently that our best posture for shaping our witness today is that of exile. It is a view eloquently given biblical and historical precedent in Patrick Whitworth‘s book ‘Prepare for Exile‘. However, there is a vast difference between that posture and that adopted by the wider Christian community in the wake of Columbine. Exile requires humility. It embraces the fact of being a minority in a ‘Babylonian’ culture. In contrast, according to Spencer, American evangelicals interpreted Columbine as part of the disastrous ‘culture war’. That meant taking a stance from a position of power, not of weakness. Ordinary people in society often have little sympathy for those in power.

And power seems to have been one of the mistakes in the pro-gay protests against the Amazon error, according to Shirky. Amazon is now seen as a large corporation and thus not worthy of sympathy. 

Of course, it’s ironic to suggest evangelical Christians and gay people are or have been in similar positions. There is mutual suspicion, if not worse, between the groups, although Tony Blair thinks that situation is softening with younger evangelicals. It may even be the traditional Christian position on sexuality that helps send the church into exile, given recent trends in legislation. I’m thinking about laws that prevent discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and the way they have affected organisations such as Catholic adoption agencies. Not that all Christians are agreed on this matter, as we know so painfully. I still hold the traditional conviction, much as I would sometimes like to believe differently, because it would ease my tensions with today’s society. However, quite a few friends who read this blog disagree with me. That is just a microcosm of the bigger picture. 

What, then, if there is opposition? One thing’s for sure: a ‘culture war’ power play is just not the way to react. Whitworth suggests new attitudes, spirituality and approaches to mission in his book that I cited above. With regard to attitudes, he cites the Beatitudes and Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon as decisive for Christians. That means humility, the acceptance of persecution and a willingness to hunker down for the long haul (contrary to certain prophecies of revival, I wonder?).

Might we have a more Christlike witness if we took this approach?

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Co-Operative Funeralcare have done another survey on popular music and hymn choices at  – er, funerals. Church Mouse has the chart rundowns and some commentary. This would be the excuse opportunity for me to re-run my favourite funeral music story.

About ten years ago, a woman asked to have Celine Dion’s (hideous) ‘My heart will go on’ played as we brought her mother’s coffin into the crematorium chapel. When the undertaker, pallbearers and I were ready outside the chapel doors, I gave the nod to the crematorium attendant.

The music began. It was Celine Dion. It was ‘My heart will go on.’ Only trouble was, it was the dance remix.

As drums thumped all over the melodramatic Canadian warbling, one pallbearer looked at me and said, “Do we have to take the coffin in at that tempo?”

“No,” said another, “It’s the deceased knocking, wanting to get out!”

How I remained calm and dignified to take the service, I’ll never know. It was all I could do to suppress laughter.

The next day the bereaved woman kindly phoned me to thank me for the service. I thought I ought to raise the issue of the music delicately. “Did you notice it wasn’t the normal version of the song but the dance remix?”

“No.”

“I just thought I ought to mention it in case anybody was upset by what happened.”

“Oh no,” she said, “it wasn’t a problem. Besides, my mum was a bit of a goer, and she’d have loved it!”

Sabbatical, Day 74: Father And Son

Today, Rebekah headed off for a two-day sleepover with her old childminder, ‘Aunt’ Pat. She will be spoiled rotten have some belated birthday treats, including her first ever ice skating trip and her first visit to the cinema. Debbie took her down to Kent today, leaving Mark and me to have ‘boys’ time’ together. I never want Mark to feel he has a distant father – I’ve seen the damage that causes – so this was a great opportunity.

Our time was constrained by having to wait in for a Tesco delivery, but after that arrived and I had put it all away (no help from Monkey Boy, who was too busy reading and writing), we decided upon an early lunch and a trip to town. 

One snag: Debbie had driven off with both the children’s car seats in her car, leaving me unable to drive Mark safely and legally into town. However, we made a virtue of that. I researched bus times, and we walked to the nearest stop to catch one into the bus station. 

(In passing, Chelmsford’s bus station was infamous when it was first opened two years ago. Someone had the splendid idea of locating it almost opposite the train station. Someone else made the mistake of designing it so that buses couldn’t turn properly. A blame game between the Borough Council and the County Council proceeded. Fortunately, it’s fine now.) 

In readiness for our trip to town, I had printed off a map of the town centre from Streetmap. Mark wanted to indulge his current favourite pastime: spotting CCTV cameras. My task as his humble assistant was to mark every single one he saw on the map. He also likes to spot burglar alarms and satellite dishes, but thankfully he didn’t look for them as well today. As it was, every few seconds, he would point, jump and squeak in a frequency more congenial to canine ears, “CCTV!”

The height of the obsession was when we passed a jeweller’s in the High Street. Mark recognises the yellow sign warning burglars that cameras are fitted at a premises. He saw the sticker on the door of the jeweller’s, and dragged me in to find the cameras. I don’t know what the staff thought: was a four-year-old casing their joint? Or was he a stooge for the strange man with him? 

Eventually, after a roundabout ride, visits to both branches of Waterstone’s and a bag of doughnuts, he tired and wanted to head home for some milk. 

So what do we make of his behaviour, and how can I use it as a sermon illustration? Is he: 

(1) showing early signs of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder? If so, does this reflect the things we obsess on in churches?

(2) majoring on minors? Again, think about the subject of church disputes.

(3) providing a prophetic critique of a troubling phenomenon in our society that shows how little we trust each other?

Oh, by the way. I’m not serious.

…………

More personal news briefly: first of all, two of the key books I wanted for researching views of ordained ministry finally came today from Amazon. Will Willimon‘s ‘Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry‘ and Ritva Williams’ ‘Stewards, Prophets, Keepers of the Word: Leadership in the Early Church‘.

Secondly, my life on Twitter has exploded since last night. It all started when Maggi Dawn began following my feed. (Heaven knows why she wants to, let alone how she’d come across me, but I’m grateful.) I started looking at who followed her and whom she followed, adding quite a few as I went. All sorts of other followers then started appearing. I’m keeping an eye to make sure they’re not the Twitter version of stalkers. Hopefully not. A number of the people I’ve found provide genuinely useful information. For example, Religious Intelligence has all sorts of interesting news story about religious issues from around the world.

And with that I’ll bid you goodnight as I check the last few tweets that have come in before logging off for the night.

Sabbatical, Day 46: Bozos In The High Street, Hope In The Papers

If yesterday was St Patrick’s Day, I hereby declare today Bozos In The High Street Day. Two visits to major stores convinced me of that. In both cases, centrally decided policies or actions crippled the ability of those ‘on the ground’ to help. 

First, I visited W H Smith to pick up the copy of Mission-Shaped Questions I had ordered from them with a gift token. Having also received vouchers for £5 off books costing £10 or more, I wanted to order one or two more titles. However, there had been a power cut in the centre of town. Smith’s had lost electricity twice. As a result, their barcode scanners still weren’t working, even though power had been restored to the shop. This meant that if I ordered a book, they wouldn’t be able to give me the £5 discount. For gone are the days when you could order something and leave a deposit: now they insist on full payment upfront. As a result, ordering the book without the discount meant they were no longer competitive and they lost my business. I have no quibble with the young woman who served me: she spoke to her supervisor to see if there might be a way around it, but there wasn’t. At a time when they have lost so much to online stores like Amazon and when the recession is making life even harder, their inflexibility lost another sale.

Second candidate for Bozo status: Staples. I make occasional visits to this overpriced store that claims to price-match its rivals. Usually, it’s when I desperately need an inkjet cartridge, I’ve forgotten to order online and I am humiliated into paying their prices. Other times, it’s to get craft resources for Sunday School. 

Well – one day last summer, I was in there on one of my desperate inkjet missions and I couldn’t find my Staples Reward Card. (Not that it had rewarded me then, nor has it since.) A helpful assistant said, “Don’t worry, I’ll issue you with a new one. Ring the number on the accompanying leaflet and head office will combine your two accounts into one.”

That made sense. Except head office refused to do anything. Today, I finally remembered to take all the paperwork back when I called to buy some coloured card for an Easter party. The local people are bemused by their head office. Rightly so, in my opinion. I can’t see how a local shop would have the resources to amalgamate accounts. All they can do is scan the cards and issue new ones. Someone somewhere else just can’t be bothered. If they can’t be bothered … 

…………

From today’s Guardian: why the World War Two poster ‘Keep Calm And Carry On‘ has become popular again. Two quotes from the article:

Alain Samson, a social psychologist at the London School of Economics, says that in times of difficulty, “people are brought together by looking for common values or purposes, symbolised by the crown and the message of resilience. The words are also particularly positive, reassuring, in a period of uncertainty, anxiety, even perhaps of cynicism.”

Dr Lesley Prince, who lectures in social psychology at Birmingham University, is blunter still. “It is a quiet, calm, authoritative, no-b*llsh*t voice of reason,” he says. “It’s not about British stiff upper lip, really. The point is that people have been sold a lie since the 1970s. They were promised the earth and now they’re worried about everything – their jobs, their homes, their bank, their money, their pension. This is saying, look, somebody out there knows what’s going on, and it’ll be all right”.

These seem reasons worth pondering from a Christian perspective. People want to hear a message that – in the words of Bob Marley – is “Everything is gonna be all right”, but there needs to be substance and reason behind such claims. Otherwise it’s wishful thinking. The Christian claim is that we do have substance behind our hope, and it comes in the Resurrection of Jesus. However, with such claims ruled out on principle, our society is left without substance at a time when hope is needed.

The common values and purposes our culture cherishes still remain those of economic idolatry. It seems to be taking someone of simple intellect like poor dying Jade Goody to be putting spiritual issues in the centre of the news. And yes, some of what she is reported to say or long for does sound like folk religion, but she knows she has such little time left and spiritual claims are clearly featuring highly in her concerns.

Sabbatical, Day 33: Books, Music. And Decisions. Oh No!

What was I going to do with the Amazon vouchers and money given me for my birthday? I soon had some ideas. It doesn’t take me long, the problem is shortening the long list.

There are some books I still need to purchase for sabbatical reading. Not only do I have to pare down this list for financial reasons, I have to recognise the limits of what I shall actually get through during the remaining two months. Some have been recommended or are obvious picks, but if anyone has any thoughts on these books or others in the same field, please leave a comment.

Ministry and Leadership, Ancient and Modern 
Ritva H Williams, Stewards, Prophets, Keepers of the Word: Leadership in the Early Church

Steven Croft (editor), Mission-Shaped Questions

William H Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry

Neil Cole, Organic Church and Organic Leadership

Ministry, Spirituality and Personality Type
Leslie J Francis, Faith and Psychology

Julia McGuinness, Growing Spiritually with the Myers-Briggs® Model

(Both of these were among the books recommended to me last week by Jerry Gilpin.)

Faith and Technology  
Quentin J Schultze, Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age

Shane Hipps, The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture and Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith 

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And if boks feature large in my ideal spending, so too do CDs. Yes, I’m old enough still to want CDs, not simply MP3s. Actually, it’s the old hi-fii snob in me. I’m waiting for the day when the children are old enough for me to risk replacing the loudspeakers they damaged a few years ago. MP3s are great for convenience and flexibility, but the fidelity of sound is poor.

I’m eyeing up replacing some of the Little Feat vinyl I used to have, regretting the fact that the 4 CD compilation Hotcakes And Outtakes was less than £20 on Amazon recently, but when I went back to buy it, back it went to £43.

There are some new or imminent releases that catch my eye, too. I’m a fan of the UK-based American singer Jeb Loy Nichols, who combines country, funk and reggae amongst other influences. He has a new release called Parish Bar and Andy Gill in The Independent said it was his best release ever.

Or there are the ever-wonderful Buddy and Julie Miller, whose new recording Written In Chalk comes out on Monday. Julie Miller had the distinction of somehow continuing to write painfully honest songs in the CCM world, touching on child abuse and all sorts of things. Buddy is an extraordinary guitarist, singer and songwriter, famous for playing with Emmylou Harris and others. I was recently playing his 2004 release Universal United House Of Prayer to bits. 

Also out on Monday is Quiet Please … The New Best Of Nick Lowe, a songwriter I have admired for years, but I’ve never bought anything of his. Might this be the time?

I only know I can’t buy everything I want! I’ve been totting up prices on Amazon, Amazon Marketplace, eBay, HMV, Play and PlayTrade. Then, in the case of books, I’ve conducted a further comparison at Bookbrain. Once I’ve totted up the cheapest prices, I then have to make the hard decisions. But being a ‘P‘ type in Myers Briggs, I like to keep my options open as long as possible!

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Tomorrow holds the CT scan on my sinuses, following the investigation I reported on 19th January. I’ll tell you more about that tomorrow, although I won’t know the results and likely treatment (surgery?) until an appointment on the 30th. 

The Starfish And The Spider, Part 7: The Hybrid Organisation

Part seven below – a bit shorter today.

Not everything about centralisation is bad. It is sometimes possible to hybridise spider and starfish philosophies in an organisation. There are two main types of hybrid:

1. A Centralised Company that Decentralises the Customer Experience – eBay is built on mutual trust between buyers and sellers – ‘people are basically good’ – but  PayPal operates on ‘no trust’. Amazon is centralised, but user reviews are read avidly. Some Christians are understandably nervous about the eBay creed that ‘people are basically good’, and rightly so, but a church will not function without trust. It also needs accountability.

2. A Centralised Company that Decentralises Internal Parts of the Business – e.g., make each section of the company independent and accountable on a profit-and-loss basis or use ‘appreciative inquiry’ to pair people from different parts of the company who share their ideas non-hierarchically. Methodist churches are not independent in this way, except for the schedules. Non-hierarchical sharing is probably something many would like, though, but may generally be resisted by some ministers.

The decentralised sweet spot is the point along the centralised-decentralised continuum that yields the best competitive position. It may change over time. This is a problem of agility for the church, an especially tricky issue for older churches.

Sabbatical, Day 5

Having finished my summaries of The Starfish And The Spider yesterday, I spent much of this morning dividing them into natural sections. It turned out that meant eight. I uploaded the first one, and to my surprise got a comment from none other than the Tall Skinny Kiwi himself, Andrew Jones. Many will know Andrew as the doyen of Christian blogging and an engaging, irenic voice in the missional world. He is a scholar and a gent to take the trouble to pass by this obscure backwater blog and leave a comment. I’m sure he doesn’t see it that way, but I felt honoured.

By the way, numbers two to eight in the Starfish series will appear over the next week, one a day, scheduled to appear at 9:00 am each day.

There’s not much reading I can do to prepare for my week at Cliff College next week. Over the years, I’ve read several titles on the reading list for the unit and am going along for stimulation and edification. The weather forecast remains a concern, especially with heavy snow still predicted for the Peak District on Sunday, when I am due to travel. Conditions have eased around here now, but major roads in this region and others on the way that I would be using still look ominous. The M1 for a start. Since I’m auditing this course at Cliff courtesy of a kind anonymous bursary, I have it in mind to ask if I can switch to another course if I can’t make next week. Right now it doesn’t look promising, but there speaks one with the spiritual gift of pessimism.

I have, however, been gathering material ready for my trip later in the month to Trinity College, Bristol, where I shall be spending a week with Anglican ordinands and other students looking at personality type and ministry. Down from the shelf has come ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You‘ (no, not by Alan Partridge) by Malcolm Goldsmith and Martin Wharton. The subtitle is, ‘Exploring Personality Type and Temperament’. It’s based on the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, which is being used on the course. I’m armed with the knowledge that I’m INTP.

I also dug out a birthday present from about three years ago. My sister, who is an Occupational Therapist at a hospice, had been on an Enneagram course with the hospice chaplain. She bought me Richard Rohr‘s book ‘The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective‘. Once I knew I wanted to explore this theme during a sabbatical, it seemed right to put it aside until then.

While hunting for something else, I found the Grove booklet ‘Personality and Renewal‘ by William Kay. I’m flicking through that.

The something else was another Grove booklet I’ve been trying to find ever since we moved here three and a half years ago. Something always goes missing. It’s ‘Personality and the Practice of Ministry‘ by Leslie Francis and Mandy Robbins. Based not on Myers Briggs, Enneagram or anything else, Francis and Robbins use Hans Eysenck‘s personality test based on extraversion, neuroticism and psychoticism. I ended up paying to download the e-book version in PDF format, which seemed less wasteful, in the vain hope my original hard copy might turn up one day.

Meanwhile, I found an online version of Eysenck’s test, and here are my results. They tell you a lot about why I want to explore the relationship between personality type and the practice of ministry, because on the surface I just don’t fit the typical stereotypes and expectations:

Eysenck’s Test Results
Extraversion (27%) low which suggests you are very reclusive, quiet, unassertive, and private.
Neuroticism (77%) high which suggests you are very worrying, insecure, emotional, and anxious.
Psychoticism (33%) moderately low which suggests you are, at times, overly kind natured, trusting, and helpful at the expense of your own individual development (martyr complex).

Take Eysenck Personality Test (similar to EPQ-R)
personality tests by similarminds.com

One other good thing today. The post is returning to normal here (shame about the refuse collections). That meant the arrival of Mike Frost and Alan Hirsch‘s new book ‘ReJesus: A Wild Messiah for a Missional Church‘. I put it on pre-order with Amazon the moment I knew about it. Today is a good day. Except for the fact that I paid £10.44 and it’s now £8.53.

Reading

It’s half term, and I’m taking this week on leave. Daytime, I shall be having time with the kids, of course. We’ve been exchanging Tesco Clubcard vouchers for money off ten pin bowling and a meal at Café Rouge.

But in the evening, I’m beginning to delve into some newly arrived books. Yes, they are all Theology, and that might seem a strange choice when I’m away from ‘work’, but few things restore me like a dose of good reading. (Yes, I am an introvert, if you hadn’t guessed.) Here is what those nice people at Amazon and The Book Depository have sent me lately:

Eugene Peterson, The Word Made Flesh: Peterson explores the issue of language as a spiritual concern by examining the parables of Jesus in Luke’s so-called ‘Travel Narrative’ and in some of his prayers.

Klyne R Snodgrass, Stories With Intent: I love the parables of Jesus, and this looks like being the standard work for the next several years. A few months ago, Scot McKnight was raving about it. Then Paul Beasley-Murray did the same in Ministry Today. Already, I’m hooked. He has a subtle, multivalent treatment of the parables. For years I’ve loved Craig Blomberg‘s book Interpreting The Parables, because he so thoroughly took to pieces the anti-allegory school and gave a brilliant history of schools of biblical interpretation. However, it was beginning to feel a bit simplistic in some of its expositions. I think Snodgrass will bring the subtlety.

Colin Greene and Martin Robinson, Metavista: What do we do, mission-wise, after postmodernity? Greene and Robinson are sketching a vision. I met Greene five years ago on a Bible Society course at Lee Abbey, but I’ve never previously read his books. I was pondering buying this one when I saw him interviewed by Alan Roxburgh on the Allelon website. That convinced me.

Christopher J H Wright, The Mission Of God: another Scot McKnight rave. Eleven or twelve years ago, I bought Wright’s commentary on Deuteronomy, in which he interprets the book missiologically. Later, I bought his exposition of Ezekiel, which attempts something similar. This is his magnum opus, bringing together his skills as a biblical scholar and his past experience as the Principal of a missionary training college. Wright argues that the whole Bible is a missionary document. I believe this will be required reading for all of us concerned with the ‘missional’ approach. It promises to be the most important work of missiology since the late David Bosch‘s Transforming Mission.

Ben Witherington III, The Letters To Philemon, The Colossians, And The Ephesians – A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles: I’ve bought several of BW3’s commentaries in the last year or so. I’ve been looking for something to complement and contrast Andrew Lincoln‘s majestic Word Biblical Commentary on Ephesians. Witherington is a prolific, eloquent and brilliant writer. 

Richard Burridge, Imitating Jesus – An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics: For someone whose calling involves helping people with ethical decisions, I don’t read as much as I should on ethics, although I’m indebted to Changing Values by David Attwood and The Moral Quest by the late Stanley Grenz. Burridge is flavour of the month in some circles I know, not least in Chelmsford, where he gave a Holy Week lecture earlier this year. Not long ago I reviewed his commentary on John’s Gospel, which was superb. This too has been well reviewed, again not least by my friend Paul Beasley-Murray. I had a quick dip into his section on Paul and homosexuality, and while not everything Burridge said convinced me, he said enough to shed new light for me on this painful debate.

I won’t read all these books cover to cover. Some will just go straight on the shelf for reference. In the case of others (e.g., Snodgrass) I shall read the introductory chapters before squeezing them into my statutory thirty yards of bookshelving in this study.

Have any of you read any of these titles? What did you think of them?

What are you reading, or have you read recently, that you would recommend?

I would be fascinated to know.