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Epiphany And The Recession

Today is Epiphany, the day millions of Christians have traditionally celebrated as the appearing of the Christ. It is particularly associated with the visit of the Magi.

Yet in the UK today marks less an appearing than a disappearing. The last Woolworths shops have closed their doors tonight. That is especially poignant in our house. They were my wife’s first employer, initially when she did a ‘Saturday job’ while at school. Then, when she left school, they took her on full time.

A couple of weeks ago, we walked through the Chelmsford store and tried to explain to our small children that it would be closing forever. This place where they had enjoyed getting a tub of ‘Pick and Mix’ sweets,and  where we had bought toys and cheap Ladybird clothes for them, would be no more. Rebekah cried inconsolable tears. How do you explain ‘recession’ to a five-year-old? I’m no economist (which is partly why I’ve been loath to say too much on the subject), and I find it hard to understand.

Looking on as an adult consumer, it’s easy to see where Woolies fell down. They fell betwixt and between, a Jack of all trades, master of none, with no clear vision. What kind of a shop was it? Something of a hotch-potch in recent years, doing several things reasonably but none of them well.

And that makes them sound like many churches. They try to do this, that and everything, because X, Y and Z are all things that a church should supposedly do, but they overstretch themselves and do few of them well. I received a good piece of advice early on from a minister friend called Paul Ashby. He said, “No church is the complete Body of Christ.” We don’t need to do it all. I don’t see anything wrong in an individual congregation specialising. It happens to an extent, even when we don’t acknowledge it, simply through the kind of people in a said church and its location.

Yes, there are shops that want to do a bit of everything, notably the major supermarkets, which have gone way beyond groceries. However, they have done so from positions of economic strength and market dominance, much in the way a large church can cover a lot of bases. But we aren’t all large supermarkets or megachurches.

Likewise, we’ve had the news in the last twenty-four hours that Waterford Wedgwood has gone into administration. Who’s buying bone china tea services any more? Not us. When we moved from our six-bedroom manse in the last circuit to our small three-bedroom house here, we had to downsize considerably. Not without cause did we call ourselves Mr and Mrs eBay. Among the possessions to go were our cups and saucers. We decided to rely entirely on mugs. They are far more acceptable today than the day when it seemed like only builders drank from one. Moreover, when we hear about the need to take in sufficient fluid, who wants a small cup? Even some churches are dispensing with the hideous green crockery! Besides, I need a pint mug of tea to get me going first thing in the morning.

All of which implies for me that a company like Wedgwood has had too narrow a vision. I can best illustrate what I mean by reproducing a story I found in the December 1990 edition of the now defunct MARC Newsletter. It came from an article entitled ‘Doing research with eyes to see’ by Bryant Myers:

There is a story of a company that manufactured drill bits for over forty years. It had been very successful, but the industry was maturing and profit margins were getting thin.

The son of the founder attended his first senior staff meeting after his father died.

“What business are we in?” he asked the older men, who had served alongside his father for many years.

“We make drill bits!” came the exasperated answer. “Our customers need drill bits.”

“No. Our customers need holes,” the young man quietly replied. Today the company is again successful. In addition to drill bits, it manufactures lasers that make very precise holes.

And maybe that too has been a problem in many churches. We have made drill bits instead of holes. I’m not arguing for some corporate-style approach to vision and mission statements, but I am saying that a time of crisis is one that should make us remember the basics of why we exist.

That’s where I get into my usual points about the fundamental orientation of the church being missional. Too often, if you ask church members what the purpose of the church is, they will answer ‘worship’. And while if you push them they will accept that worship is more than the Sunday service, it is everyday lifestyle, really the heart of the answer betrays an assumption that the Sunday morning gathering is the main event.

I don’t wish to disparage Sunday worship at all. But defining ourselves by worship has ironically turned us in on ourselves instead of focussing on God, who is the object of our worship. When the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit at the first Pentecost in Acts 2, it is hard to know where you draw the line between worship and mission that day.

What I’m saying, then, is that the pressure of the recession has exposed problems of confused vision in companies. The confused vision on its own hasn’t taken them under, but it has left them vulnerable at a time when the economy stopped swinging. Sadly too it is often only a crisis that makes us notice the confused vision in our churches.

There is much more to be said about the moral dimension of the recession itself. I particularly commend a blog post from Sunday by Dave Perry, in which he notes the remarks of a secular journalist who wonders whether the recession will make us a better country. ‘Can we spend our way out of emptiness?’ asks Dave, implying of course a ‘no’.

Similarly, I commend a podcast of a sermon by Ken Costa entitled ‘Surviving The Financial Tsunami‘. Costa is a church warden at Holy Trinity Brompton and chair of Lazard International. As well as some gentle pastoral advice for those facing financial woes at present, he identifies the current crisis as a ‘shaking’ from God, yet eschewing any easy claims to it being divine judgment. Having said that, the sermon carries a clear call to a fundamental change of the values by which we live – as individuals, as commerce and as nations. There is a useful comparison with the downfall of Tyre in Ezekiel 27.

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Podcasts

Most mornings I go for a walk after the school run. As I stride out, I gaze upon the architectural wonder of our 1980s housing estate.

No, that isn’t the reason. It’s blood pressure. Longstanding friends will know how I used to have a dog. While he was still vigorous, he used to take me for a daily walk. He was a lively, if obscure breed in this country – a Finnish Spitz. When he died three years ago, I started putting on weight. Eventually, a medical paid for by the church nearly two years ago raised concerns. To cut a long story (largely filled with my procrastination) short, my prescription is mild medication and regular brisk walks.

But how to make the walks interesting? I decided that an MP3 player would make it worthwhile. Not being able to stretch to an iPod (or at least, not to the 160GB model I would have wanted for my CD collection), I bought a phone with an MP3 player.

Unfortunately, the Sony Ericsson W810i is a pain in the neck, despite outstanding reviews. The software on the PC always crashes, and SE technical support tried to blame other software I had installed (not that they could say which). When you transfer CDs to it, the tracklisting is scrambled. The first track may be put at the end, they may be put in reverse or even random order.

But it’s OK with podcasts. You only have one ‘track’ there. Even the W810i can’t foul that up.

So I’ve started to entertain and edify myself by listening to podcasts while I walk. For music, the weekly production from The Word magazine is entertaining and informative, as is their occasional ‘Backstage’ interview. On the latter, I’ve heard conversations with folkie Pete Atkin and his famoust lyricist Clive James, and a sci-fi author whose name escapes me, but who believes in ‘mathematical Platonism’, jsut at the time when Platonism is long discredited in theology.

Christian-wise, I’ve subscribed to the Sunday talks from HTB and heard the odd decent sermon. Godpod from HTB’s St Paul’s Theological Centre has so far been a little worthy but dull. Less intellectual on the surface but LOL-funny has been the podcast from the American show Steve Brown Etc. Other pleasures await from the Internet Monk, including his coffee cup apologetics show.

These are just my early explorations. What do you listen to? Any recommendations? Anything to avoid?

Delighted

I do not get excited about church business meetings. I’ve even arranged my next sabbatical, rather like my last one, so that I miss two Synods. God so loved the world that he didn’t send a committee, etc. – that’s my feeling.

But last night I had an encouraging Church Council. We’ve recently had a review of our circuit and all its churches by a small team from our District. I hadn’t expected much from the process. Oh me of little faith, as it turned out.

So our main business yesterday evening was to discuss five recommendations the District team had made for this particular church. They weren’t all appropriate to us, because in some cases the team didn’t have exhaustive information on the church, and their Maths became the ‘two plus two is five’ variety. In other areas, their recommendations needed filing away until a later date.

But … what excited me was the way we riffed on one theme and created something new. We began from talking about how we might have more contact with those who hire our premises, but we got onto the question of children. We have several different ways of connecting with children – Sunday School, Messy Church, Craft Club, Holiday Club, Boys’ Brigade, school assemblies. But we realised that just putting on something for children is aiming at a soft target. (Sorry, that’s a lousy metaphor, but it’s the best I can think of.) However, if we are to be truly family friendly we need to offer resources and outreach for all generations.

So the Council grabbed an idea I’d first floated rather quickly a couple of years ago. We need to operate things like parenting courses to the local community, and do so on neutral territory such as the community centre or a pub function room. In fact, they developed the idea further: not just parenting, but marriage courses and bereavement sessions. We thought we might be able to offer one of these courses a year. It doesn’t matter that we’re a small church: we can work with those whom God has given us, as opposed to pining for those we don’t have.

Hence, I’d be interested if anyone reading this blog has positive or negative experience of particular resources or courses. A quick surf has found the following:

Parenting The Parentalk Parenting course; 21st Century Parent from CARE for the Family; a course from the Family Caring Trust.

Marriage The Marriage Course and The Marriage Preparation Course from Holy Trinity Brompton; 21st Century Marriage from CARE for the Family.

Bereavement Harder to track down Christian courses. The only one I found with a Christian basis was one run at Holy Trinity Brompton, The Bereavement Course, but it isn’t a package you can buy and run yourself. It’s just something they run at HTB.

These are just my initial quick trawl. I’d be delighted to hear whatever comments you have about positive or negative experiences or impressions of different courses

UPDATE, SUNDAY 19TH OCTOBER: I also put this request on the Family Friendly Churches’ Trust email discussion group. Two people have spoken highly of the CARE for the Family courses, and mentioned one or two others of theirs about which I didn’t know. One person has suggested debt counselling or money management courses. I have heard good things about Christians Against Poverty’s CAP Money Course.