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Sabbatical, Day 16

We thought Mark was getting better. He wasn’t. A persistent tummyache, followed by spectacular vomiting this afternoon has proved he still has a long way to go. So much for a twenty-four-hour bug.

Rebekah has also been struggling on and off with a headache over the weekend and today. Thankfully, it had disappeared by bedtime. Hopefully she is on the way up, and Mark will be before too long. It isn’t how they’d want to spend half term.

All of which means I haven’t done that much today. However, one theme of my sabbatical is meant to be about faith and technology. Really it’s bottom of the list, ‘do something on this if I have time’. Yet I’ve found more than one blogger (Brother Maynard was one of the most recent) point to an interesting article by Kevin Kelly called Amish Hackers. This is fascinating. Kelly debunks the popular image of the Amish as hostile to technology. The Old Order Amish may fit that image to a large degree, but it isn’t true of all Amish streams, he says. What does he say? Here are some important themes.

Firstly, the Amish tend to use technology without owning it. Someone who is part of the Amish community but who works outside (there isn’t enough work on all the farms for them all) may well hire a car or a taxi to get to and from work. There are even Amish websites, often put together in local libraries.

When I first read this, I thought it was a hypocritical stance: we don’t want to own something, but we want to get all the benefits. However, on reflection, I think they are trying to enshrine an important point. It’s the problem of possessions and idolatry. That which we possess often ends up possessing us. Have they found a way to guard against temptations to idolatry? Someone somewhere still has to own the car or computer, but they do seem to be onto something important. 

Secondly, their attitude to technology is not so much negative as cautious. They do not assume that new inventions are automatically bad. Instead, some Amish who are excited by an invention will go to their bishops and ask for permission to trial it. The bishops will often let them in order that the technology may be evaluated to see whether it would benefit the community. They have been trialling mobile phones since 1999, and the bishops could still say ‘no’. If the bishops do decide something would be harmful, the early adopters have to relinquish it.

What’s important about this? It’s the emphasis upon community, that much-overused-yet-sucked-of-its-meaning word in other Christian circles. The well-being (shalom?) of the community is paramount. Individual preferenes have to be subsumed to the church. The initial objection to cars a hundred years ago was about the danger of unbridled mobility in taking people away from enriching the local community: they would not shop locally or visit the sick on Sunday. I don’t think this is the way Marxism despises the individual in favour of the society to the point that people are but cogs in the machine, but it is a profound sense that we are not merely redeemed individuals, we are called into a redeemed community. 

As Kelly observes, we haven’t seen any evidence of widespread social relinquishment in broader society. He realises it isn’t simply about a mass boycott (we’ve seen them, albeit not generally permanent), but also mutual support. The Amish have a closeness of relationship in order to provide that, too. Social relinquishment is very difficult in a technological-consumerist society as ours, even in a recession. 

Not only that, there is a process of discernment going on here that goes beyond the wooden application of texts by some fundamentalists. You can query how long the bishops take to evaluate not only the usefulness but also the goodness of an invention, and it does – according to Kelly – put the Amish about fifty years behind the rest of society. However, this is a serious attempt to find the mind of Christ.

Have a look at the article for yourself. Do offer your comments here. I think it’s intriguing. Naturally, as a lover of technology, I think the Amish are too cautious, but my image of them has changed radically and I have to admire their profoundly Christian values that they bring to the subject. 

One last thing before signing off. Next week is my second trip as part of the sabbatical, when I shall be visiting Trinity College, Bristol to study ministry and personality type. I began dipping into one book I already have that touches on the subject, Knowing Me Knowing You by Malcolm Goldsmith and Martin Wharton. At the end of the introduction, they mention two books that have shaped their thinking: Prayer and Temperament by Chester P Michael and Marie C Norrisey and Personality Type And Religious Leadership by Roy M Oswald and Otto Kroeger. Goldsmith and Wharton’s book was published in 1993, so these other two titles will be older. Does anybody know them and are they any good? Michael and Norrisey’s book has two good reviews on Amazon, and seems to be written from a Catholic perspective. Likewise, Oswald and Kroeger get one five-star review. 

Does anyone know any other decent works in this field? Searching on Amazon uncovered Who We are is How We Pray: Matching Personality and Spirituality by Charles J Keating. It also found Prayer Life: How Your Personality Affects the Way You Pray by Pablo Martinez. However, while personality type and prayer is helpful and interesting, my primary focus is about ministry and leadership issues in relation to personality type. 

The course at Trinity uses the Myers Briggs Type Indicator as its basis, so work connected to that approach would be especially helpful. However, if you know material that comes from other approaches, particularly that of Hans Eysenck, I’d be quite interested, too.

I mentioned this theme before on Day 5 of the sabbatical, but didn’t make any particular appeal regarding literature, and it provoked some helpful comments, and Tess Giles recommended some reading on the Enneagram. However, this time I want to appeal a little more specifically regarding literature on the ministry and personality issue, especially looking at Myers Briggs, whether favourable or critical. Thanks for any help you can offer.

Eugene Peterson Interview

Read this interview with Eugene Peterson – the focus is his most recent book, but he covers the general issue of pastors and language. So there is stuff on the importance of silence, of being conversational and not controlling, yet scepticism towards dialogical preaching and retaining a place for proclamation in the pulpit.

Osteopath

When I was eighteen, my life changed unexpectedly. Since the age of five, I had been identified as a university prospect. I had a place (subject to A-Level grades) to read Computer Science at Imperial College, London. One month before the A-Levels, though, a sudden searing pain in my neck put paid to them. Although a consultant rheumatologist prescribed some physiotherapy that regained the movement in my neck and the pain reduced, it never completely subsided. I took a clerical job in the Civil Service and decided to review my long-term future. Ultimately that led to theological colleges and the ministry, but that’s another story.

Fast-forward to six years ago. My wife was pregnant with our first child, but I was still suffering from neck pain and frequent headaches. I didn’t want to be regularly out of action when a baby was around. My GP recommended the osteopath attached to the practice, and I began seeing Jamie regularly. One of the first things he explained to me was that my neck problems began with my feet. I could begin to teach my body a healthier posture if I based my sitting positions on how I placed my feet. Then the spine would start to move into a better position.

When we moved here three years ago, Jamie recommended a practice, and I now see Tom every six weeks. This morning I saw him. He is always full of helpful advice. I explained today that on my daily power walk that I take for fitness and blood pressure reduction, I regularly end up with a stiff neck. I had noticed that I tighten up my shoulders involuntarily. He showed me how I could help that by tightening my abdominal muscles in order to take some strain off my spine.

Afterwards, I went to a local Christian bookshop. There I bumped into a vicar friend. In exchanging the usual pleasantries, he said of his parish, ‘I’ve been here three years and I’ve only just learned the questions I need to ask. I don’t know the answers, but I do at last know the questions.’

Later, it struck me that metaphorically there was a connection with osteopathy. What I have learned from osteopathy is the general life lesson that the presenting problem is not necessarily the source of the problem, nor is it necessarily the place where the solution must begin. Healing my neck involves my feet and abdominal muscles, amongst other places. Likewise, it has taken my friend three years to get to the roots of parish issues. Clearly, the questions weren’t what he first conceived them to be. A good proportion of ministry is about people wanting us to ‘take the pain away’, but the best ways of doing so may not be what people want.

Richard Foster famously said that superficiality is the curse of our age. We go for surface solutions, for style over substance. It is especially tempting in the ministry if your long-term future in an appointment is not secure. In order to make an impact, you may find yourself leaning in the direction of doing something spectacular that does not have roots, in the hope that you might be able to stay longer. However, if you knew you were staying longer, you might take the healthier course of action – of exploring what the real questions and issues were, rather than leaping on the obvious.

While I am not sure I like the Anglican system where the incumbent is granted the ‘freehold’ of the parish and can stay as long as they like, provided they are not naughty, I do wonder whether the Methodist system should have further longevity built into it. Our present system allows for an initial invitation of five years. This is reviewed just under four years in – that is the real length of time in which a minister has to have an impact in order to win the vote. It used to be worse: the initial appointment when I was younger was three years. We do seem to have learned from other traditions that longer ministries are generally better, but I wonder whether we should increase that initial five to, say, seven.

We need to resist the crash-bang-wallop nature of our culture, where everything has to be instant. (Blogging and twenty-four-hour news channels only exacerbate the instant coffee and microwave food society.) Might it be counter-cultural to be slow, so that we might trace the root causes of problems and begin to apply treatment?

UPDATE: When I wrote this post yesterday, there was another aspect of osteopathy I meant to include. As I understand it, osteopathy is a therapy that doesn’t so much heal the body itself as put the body into a place where it self-heals. That, it seems to me, makes for an interesting pastoral analogy. Pastors don’t heal people, they equip them to find healing. In Psalm 23, the Lord as shepherd leads the sheep to green pastures and still waters – but there they presumably feed and water themselves. A pastor’s ministry includes showing people how they may access spiritual food and water, rather than simply putting it on a plate for them all the time.

Todd Bentley

I wrote several posts a few months ago about Todd Bentley. We arrived home from holiday to discover he was leaving the Lakeland ‘Revival’ and separating from his wife. Three days later his ministry admitted he was in an unhealthy relationship with another woman. Many bloggers have waded in. Dan Edelen has a lot of wisdom borne of pain in several posts. Bill Kinnon is more fiery, especially on the backtracking by C Peter Wagner. There are numerous others.

Whatever my criticisms of Bentley, I take no pleasure in these events. Here are some thoughts.

Losers According to Bill Kinnon, C Peter Wagner has described Todd Bentley as a loser. Crudely, that seems to mean Wagner didn’t back a winner, so he inflicts this description on Bentley. Whatever I think of Bentley’s ministry, especially the violence, if you write people off as losers you dismiss the Gospel. In the words of an old Steve Taylor song, ‘Jesus is for losers’. Watch the video for the song here:

No, if Wagner talks like this, what Gospel does he believe and preach? Where does the Cross fit in? Dan Edelen talks much about charismatics needing to recover the Cross: here is a prime reason why.

This isn’t a time for casting stones, it’s a time for prayer and grace as well as church discipline (which after all according to Jesus was meant to be restorative).

Accountability Bill Kinnon links to Phoenix Preacher, who said on August 26th,

Scott and I knew about Bentley’s immorality two months ago, but couldn’t find anyone willing to go on the record.

It’s in the nature of wrongly relating to someone other than yourself that there will be deceit, but this implies that appropriate accountability structures were abused. Yes, it’s good that Bentley stepped down, but that seems to have been for the sin of having been found out. Why were others culpable in the cover-up? Was it conspiracy or fear? We may never know.

But there is not only the accountability to his organisation Fresh Fire and the wider church, there is also the question of accountability in marriage. In what I am about to write I am aware that ‘there but for the grace of God go I’, but – it seems one of the problems seemed to be Bentley’s protracted absence in Lakeland. Like many ministry marriages, Debbie and I have it built into our relationship that if a question arises of my being absent overnight or longer, we discuss it before agreeing. We have done so with respect to my forthcoming sabbatical early next year.

It must have been very tempting (and yes, I probably do mean ‘tempting’) for Bentley to stay in Florida rather than Canada, given what was happening. It must have been exciting for him. The emotional pressure on Shonnah to agree must have been huge. But the fatal flaw in the logic is the idea that the revival depended on him. I suspect that when I take my sabbatical next year, my churches (which have never had a minister on study leave before) will discover just how unnecessary I am! It is a salutary lesson.

Prophecy Clearly, Wagner’s ‘prophecy’ in June that Bentley would increase in this, that and everything looks pretty sorry now. While I am not one of those who believes modern-day prophecies have to be 100% accurate (as per Old Testament standards) because they’re not adding to Scripture, it does strike me that the prophecy concerned is just altogether too typical of the prophetic drivel that sometimes infects charismatic Christianity. It is the sort once characterised by a friend of mine as ‘Thus says the Lord, I love you O my children’. It’s all about how wonderful the recipient is. While I’m neither for the sort of word that reduces everyone to worm status, I thought the only person we were meant to big up like this was Christ. This stuff needs serious questioning. It’s linked to my next observation.

Personality Whatever happened to all those prophecies around the 1990s that ‘the coming revival’ would be ‘a nameless, faceless’ one? Rather than that, we still promote our personalities, and then (like the secular press) exclaim with horror when they fall. The personality cult is one of the most insidiously worldly aspects of evangelical and charismatic Christianity. Bentley often said on the stage at Lakeland that it wasn’t about him but Jesus. Nevertheless, others promoted him and he allowed it. He could have stepped out of the way more for his associates or others. He rarely did. This may have been a tactical error rather than malicious, but any of us called to a public rôle in Christianity need to learn and accept the hard lesson that it’s not about us, it’s about Christ, and our actions need to match up. That’s not easy, and it requires some holy ruthlessness on our part. Often we’re not willing. The attention or acclaim is too attractive.

So may God have mercy on Todd and Shonnah Bentley and the anonymous female staff member. May God have mercy on C Peter Wagner. May God have mercy on us all. We who are without exception sinners need grace – the kindness of God that leads us to repentance.

The Subversion Of Coronation Street

I am no Coronation Street fan. In fact, I’d say I was allergic to soaps. But this story in the Mail On Sunday heartened this Tottenham Hotspur supporter: apparently the current producer is a Spurs fan and has included all sorts of references to the Lillywhites in the Manchester-based soap.

Well, as someone who trained for the ministry in Manchester and endured all sorts of prejudice there because he was a Londoner, it’s nice to see this happening.

Oh, whoops, sorry, I’m a Christian. I remember: I should forgive.

A Ministry Scrapbook

Regular blogging is quite difficult at present, as we get ready for our move next month. Last night I had my big circuit farewell service. Some had questioned my choice of venue, one of the ecumenical churches I have served. Why not the main church I had served, a small ordinary Methodist church? I didn’t mean to sound arrogant, but I thought that after eight years here and building up all sorts of networks there might be a lot of people who wanted to say goodbye. I thought we needed a larger venue.

I was right: I arrived twenty minutes before the service was due to start and I couldn’t get in the large car park. The whole service went brilliantly well. My sermon, which could have caused a few ruffled feathers, had an amazing response. I would estimate that about a quarter of the congregation came forward at the end to be anointed with oil.

There was a bunfight afterwards, except I never made it to the church hall even to get a cup of tea, due to the number of people wanting to speak to me. By the time I arrived home, around 9:15 pm, I was emotionally shattered. I felt the same when I woke up this morning: legs like jelly, plus a headache. (And no, it was the usual non-alcoholic Methodist communion wine.)

Some of these emotions made a bit more sense when I read the following wonderful words this morning from Nancy Beach’s beautiful book An Hour On Sunday:

‘Take a moment to mentally scroll through names and faces of people in your church. Think of someone who came to faith through your community. Now call to mind a few more people – someone who discovered spiritual gifts, someone else who found healing for family relationships, another who learned how to manage money, care for her body, or worship his Creator in new ways. Can you think of specific names? Those people, those eternal souls, are the fruit of your labor. And people are what matter most to God …

‘Every ministry is a scrapbook of faces, with new pages added every year. As we turn the pages of the scrapbook and look at each person’s eyes, we’re reminded of his or her story, of the impact of our church on that individual’s one and only life. Life change. There’s nothing more rewarding.’ (pp 254, 255)

So after eight years when I had really wondered whether what I had done here had been worth anything, when I had become painfully aware of my own failings (either true failings or those imposed by the unrealistic expectations of others) I think I’ve finally come to see that the jelly in my legs and the headache are about a realisation that I actually do have a ministry scrapbook I can take away from this place.