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Sabbatical, Day 25: Ash Wednesday Soup

I’m going to be nice about Iona today. Specifically about one of their confession prayers.

Yes, you read both of those sentences correctly. The confession in chapel this morning was more refreshing – and challenging – to my mind. It was modelled on the verse in Isaiah 55 where God says ‘My ways are not your ways’. It thus consisted of a series of stark contrasts between the ways of God and of humans. So we got a clearer focus on God in the confession as a result, in my opinion.

Wednesday is not a normal lecture day here. After morning chapel, students keep silence until 10 am when they meet in their pastoral groups, then at 11 they all meet together with the Principal for Community Coffee. I’m not sure what happens in the afternoons – I think it must be free for study. I decided I would observe silence with the students before taking another walk into town to buy presents for Debbie and the children.

Trinity was the first place I ever observed any extended silence, on college Quiet Days. At first it frightened me. There is something terrifyingly loud about the way one’s own thoughts invade and clamour for attention. Yet silence, with the accompanying discipline of solitude, is a sign of health and vitality in the life of the Spirit. On one of those Quiet Days, I remember deciding I would read Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s ‘Life Together‘. Figuring it was only ninety or a hundred pages, I was sure I could get through it easily in one day. I couldn’t. Bonhoeffer packed such a punch with every sentence, the book kept stopping me like brakes on a car. What I most remember is him saying that no-one is fit for community life who cannot also embrace solitude. This morning, the silence was not a ringing in my ears but a recharging of my batteries.

Then I went off present-hunting. I found an art shop and bought some little models for the children to paint. I won’t say what I bought Debbie, because she occasionally reads this blog. I just hope she likes my purchase.

Lunch was suitably spartan for Ash Wednesday: soup and bread. But it wasn’t gruel. There was a choice between carrot and coriander soup (which I normally consume by the gallon) and a fish and cream soup. Both were accompanied by two types of bread: one was a tomato bread, the other I’m not sure, but it was good. I got through two bowlfuls of the fish and cream soup. Debbie dislikes both fish and mushrooms, and they are two things I love, so if I’m not at home to eat and I get the chance, I take advantage. This one had vague similiarities with the most wonderful soup I have ever tasted: cullen skink at Sheena’s Backpackers’ Lodge cafe in Mallaig, the fishing port at the northern end of the Road to the Isles in Scotland.

At the end of lunchtime, I had the joy of spending twenty minutes or so catching up with my old tutor John Bimson.

What to do this afternoon? Still feeling very disciplined after the morning silence, I read more of Goldsmith and Wharton’s book ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You‘, especially the chapters on personality type in the church. I concentrated on those sections specific to my own personality type of INTP. Time and again, I read paragraphs and thought the authors had met me. Yes, I am someone who likes to bring new vision to a church, because I’m more about the future than the present, more big picture than fine detail.

And – apparently, my personality type often gets frustrated with regular local church ministry and ends up in sector ministry. In particular, my type often likes to engage in research. I felt another underlining of the sense I’d had at Cliff College a fortnight ago about doing a PhD. Well, no, more than that: I felt like the research idea came up and mugged me again.

So to the weekly college communion service at 5 pm. Trinity is an evangelical college, but very much what is called an ‘open evangelical‘ college. It is not hardline Calvinist/fundamentalist. Secure in a commitment to biblical authority, it believes there is value to be found in other Christian traditions, too. Today that meant the Lord’s Supper conducted in a more Anglo-Catholic style, complete with incense, processing and the like, and of course an ashing ceremony. I don’t think a real Anglo-Catholic would have recognised it as a complete facsimile, not least because the music was mainly from evangelical and charismatic sources. But it was a genuine attempt to be sympathetic. And I find the imposition of ashes to be a powerful symbolic act. It sends a tremor through me every time. I’m glad we have it in the Methodist Worship Book, too. I haven’t washed mine off yet. The only pity was that just the first half of the words were used with the imposition of the ashes: ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return’, but they forgot to say, ‘Turn from your sin and follow Christ.’

On to dinner and another great conversation with the other former lecturer of mine who is still on the staff here, John Nolland, along with his wife Lisa. John has ‘a brain the size of a planet’ and authored the three volumes on Luke’s Gospel in the Word Biblical Commentary. More recently, he has written a highly acclaimed commentary on Matthew for the New International Greek Text Commentary on the New Testament. We learned from some top-class scholars here, and so do the current students, with staff such as Gordon and David Wenham here, to name but two of many.

During the Peace in the communion service, the Principal, George Kovoor, shared the Peace with me and then continued the conversation. He invited me to book an appointment with him to chat over coffee for half an hour. The only problem is, I shall only be able to offer tomorrow afternoon, and I’ll be pleasantly surprised if he has space in his diary for then at such short notice. I’ll let you know tomorrow whether it comes off. I hope it will. He is a genial man, and if you click the link I gave to him above you’ll be exhausted just reading about him. I spoke to him on Monday, explained who I was and he told me he was a Methodist minister, too. It’s true. He is Indian, and was ordained in the Church of North India, which is a united denomination. Yesterday, he gave a notice to the community, saying that he was going to play a student at table tennis. He wouldn’t ask for prayer, because last time he played someone and asked for prayer he won, and he didn’t want an unfair advantage this time. Turns out he won anyway.

See you tomorrow.

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The Starfish And The Spider, Part 8: There Are New Rules To The Game

Here is the final part of the series. You will see a number of recurring themes here, in what virtually amounts to the book’s own summary of itself.

1. Diseconomies of Scale – small outfits with minimal overheads can bring revolutions. How the church needs to hear that, in place of megachurches, buildings, stipends and so on. I seem to be doing myself out of a job!

2. The Network Effect – adding one more person to the network costs little but adds value to them and the existing network. Assumes greater sharing by new network members – this won’t work if we treat people as pew fodder.

3. The Power of Chaos – standardisation squelches creativity. In a starfish, anyone can have a go. Churches think of newcomers as those who can be fitted into the currently vacant jobs. We don’t start with people and see what they can do and then shape church around that.

4. Knowledge at the Edge – not just from on high but the margins too. (Typically postmodern!) Body of Christ metaphor. God works from the fringes, too.

5. Everyone Wants to Contribute – people join a starfish for this reason. This requires reconceiving received models of church if we are to operate as starfish. Many wouldn’t join us for this reason.

6. Beware the Hydra Response – attacking a starfish organisation conventionally generates a many-headed response. Again, I think of persecution in the early church. As they were attacked in one town, they fled to another and more churches began.

7. Catalysts Rule – they inspire people to action rather than running the show, and they know when to let go. However, if one becomes a CEO, the starfish is in jeopardy. This is a radically different vision for leadership. How easy it is to default to CEO.

8. The Values Are the Organisation – ideology is the fuel of the starfish. In the church we have too easily defaulted to ‘institution’ as the definition of organisation, whether it’s seeing episcopacy as the esse of the church (as in Anglo-Catholic theology), or in seeing recruitment of new members as a matter of maintaining the institution rather than sharing the Gospel.

9. Measure, Monitor and Manage – measurement still happens despite ambiguity, but in different ways. It looks at the activity of the circles, how distributed the network is, the health of a circle, continued participation of members, etc. They are more dynamic measurements than static numbers and harder to quantify. Puts a new light on the October Count for Methodists. How would we go about assessing the spiritual health of our groups? How would we handle the inevitable subjectivity? It would also require sensitive handling when the assessment is negative.

10. Flatten or Be Flattened – the power of decentralisation is causing more companies to flatten or at least become hybrids. Decentralisation looks chaotic, even like entropy, but it is powerful. This sounds like an argument of the ‘You must move with the times’ variety. The real question is whether decentralisation is consistent with Scripture. In many ways it is. We have to be wary of where particular applications contradict Christian theology, whether it is eBay‘s ‘people are basically good’ creed (which they couldn’t completely live with, hence the hybrid with PayPal) or the use of the theory in support of violence (al Qaeda, Animal Liberation Front).