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Making A Good Move

Some months ago, another Methodist minister who is soon to move circuits said he was reading a book to help him prepare for that change. It was entitled ‘Making A Good Move‘ by Michael J Coyner, an American Methodist bishop. I set out to track it down.

First stop, Waterstone’s online.  A friend had given me a gift voucher for them at Christmas, and so I ordered from them. Unfortunately, this is not the first time I have found that Waterstone’s gaily advertises books, only to have a problem sourcing and supplying them. They seem to have a particular talent in this respect for American Christian titles. If you can’t sell it, don’t plug it, is what I say.

So off to trusty Amazon, who had no problem getting something published by Abingdon Press. These last few days I have had the pleasure of reading it. Not often would I say, “I wish I had read this years ago,” but this is one of the few books I would put into that category. I wish it had been published when I began in ministry (it wasn’t), and I certainly wish I had known about it before I moved to my current appointment.

The book is short (117 pages), which makes it pricey on the British market, at a list price of £11.99, but every single one of those pennies is well spent. Coyner has an easy writing style, which makes it quci reading. Almost too fast, in fact: it’s important to stop and reflect on his advice before diving into the next chapter. He covers everything from farewells in the place from which you are departing to your first year in the new appointment and your spiritual survival kit. In between, he looks at your first impressions, your early priorities, what style of leadership you might adopt and why, along with many other vital areas.

There are certain minor areas of difference between Coyner’s context and mine that can safely be reinterpreted. Few Methodist ministers in the UK will inherit a church with other paid staff. His examples of outreach are all grounded in the ‘attractional’ rather than the ‘missional’ model that I favour. (However, in fairness to him, that conversation had hardly started overtly ten years ago when the book was published.)

The one area I felt the book lacked was in the opening chapter, ‘Leaving Well and Letting Go’. Coyner only writes about situations where departing pastors have had a happy experience of the churches they are leaving. If he ever writes a second edition, then a section for those who are going because it had been an unhappy experience would be invaluable to many.

Having said that, I agree with Brian Bauknight who says in his blurb on the back cover, ‘Making A Good Move should be in the library of every pastor.’ If you are about to change appointments, you might well find this title a brilliant piece of last-minute reading.

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Sermon: Making Adversity Work

This will be my first sermon back after the sabbatical. I wrote this at the end of January (hence some of the references!). It will appear on the blog Monday 4th May, to be preached on Sunday 10th, the latter being the date I start back.

Text: John 15:1-8

One of my favourite stories is the one about the little girl who asked her mum whether all fairy stories end with the words, ‘And they all lived happily ever after.’ “No,” replies her mother, “Some end with, ‘When I became a Christian, all my troubles disappeared’.”

Jesus’ teaching in John 15 explicitly refutes the idea that the Christian life may be lived without suffering or difficulty. In the image here from a vineyard, each branch is either cut off or pruned. I am no gardener, but neither procedure sounds painless!

Whatever the joys and pleasures of our ultimate destiny when we are raised from the dead to life in God’s new creation, life now unavoidably includes uncomfortable and painful seasons. Some of those times, says Jesus, are actually brought by God for our good.

As Adrian Plass has put it, “Each day is a choice between what you don’t want to do and what you really don’t want to do.” The challenge for Christians is to make those hard circumstances count positively for the kingdom of God.

To do that involves grasping two things mentioned in these verses: what God is doing (pruning) and what we need to do (abiding in Christ).

Pruning 
I am no gardener. I can think of few things that bore me more than gardening. So metaphors in the Bible like this one of God pruning the branches of a vine don’t sit easily with me. Give me a pair of secateurs and I’m more likely to injure myself than accomplish anything worthwhile.

But I do realise that an image of pruning has something to do with cutting away in order to promote health. And on that simple level, I can understand the notion of God pruning us in a spiritual sense. Much as we might prefer God not to, I believe it’s often God’s way either to cut something out of our lives in order for us to grow in the life of the Spirit, or to allow something to be removed from us, so that we are challenged to focus on those things which are truly important.

We may protest about the difficult seasons of our lives – well, I do – but they may sometimes be seasons of the Spirit. Sometimes a bad experience is something to resist and protest against, but not always. God works for good in all things with those who love him, who are called according to his purposes, as Paul says in Romans 8:28.

Whenever an adversity comes into our lives, we have a choice as to whether we will seek the purposes of God in it. Endurance and perseverance are character-building qualities. I do not mean that we should embrace injustice or seek out bad times – that would be perverse – but I do think there is a call not just to look for easy ways out but seek what God is saying and doing in that environment.

So a pruning experience can be a stripping away of things that get in the way of our faith. It can be the removal of hindrances, or of accretions that are weighing us down.

I said in a sermon elsewhere just before my sabbatical that the atheist bus campaign with its slogan, ‘There’s Probably No God. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life’ looks a bit sick at a time of economic recession. To tell people whose jobs and homes are under threat or even disappearing just to ‘stop worrying and enjoy [their lives]’ is unbearably smug. We Christians are not exempt from the economic downturn, despite what the odd prosperity gospel idiot might say. And without in any wanting to minimise the pain for those who are feeling its effects, the differences for Christians are these: our sense of worth is not in our job, but in being loved by God. Our security is in God, not our ability to generate wealth.

Back in January, Debbie spent a weekend away at the annual Children’s Ministry conference in Eastbourne. I juggled preparing and conducting services with childcare that weekend. We fitted in various fun things, including visits the children wanted to their favourite shops – Claire’s Accessories in Rebekah’s case, Waterstone’s bookshop in Mark’s, and Millie’s Cookies for both of them.  But nothing really made up for the absence of Mum, even though she rang each day to speak to them and say goodnight to them. On the Saturday tea-time when Debbie phoned, she told Rebekah that she had bought some presents for them. Rebekah’s reply was devastating and moving:

“Mummy, I love presents, but I’d rather have you.”

When God prunes us, not only is it a time of removing sin from our lives, it’s a time when he pins us back to that question: would we rather have him than all the goodies?  The writer to the Hebrews calls us to ‘lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely’ (Hebrews 12:1), and sometimes the ‘weights’ are not sin. Good things can weigh us down. When God prunes us to make us more holy, he is sometimes asking us whether we want him more than the goodies.

It isn’t that God is a killjoy. The same passage in 1 Timothy where he tells the wealthy not to put their hope on the uncertainty of riches, he tells them to trust in God ‘who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment’ (1 Timothy 5:18). God not only understands we may enjoy certain things, he made them for our enjoyment. But he will not permit these created things to be his love-rivals for our affections. And for that reason he will sometimes prune us of good things.

So when we enter a season of our lives when the good life seems to be disappearing, we need to seek God in prayer about it. Is this something evil that should be opposed, or is God pruning us so that ‘we may perfectly love [him]’?

Abiding 
Just as ‘pruning’ was a difficult image for a non-gardener like me, so ‘abiding’ is an awkward one for somebody who was never good at Biology or Botany at school! For Jesus is using an image here of the branch remaining on the vine. He’s talking botany.

One one level, it’s absurd: how can you tell a branch to remain or abide in the vine? It just happens. Well – it happens, provided the flow of sap to the branch remains. In the physical world, neither the branch nor the vine are conscious beings, and so cannot be given commands or expected to choose certain actions. The idea of a branch choosing not to remain connected to the vine is ridiculous.

And it’s similarly ridiculous for the Christian disciple to contemplate not being vitally connected to Christ. Yet Jesus urges his followers to remain, to abide. Of course, the analogy is limited, but maybe that’s the point: we humans are foolish, and easily detach ourselves from the source of spiritual vitality and health. When the flow of sap stops, the branch falls off, or needs cutting off.

As I said near the beginning, the choice is being cut off or being pruned. Each is painful. But assuming we have chosen pruning and are willing to endure that for the sake of greater spiritual fruitfulness, then how do we ‘abide’ while God ‘prunes’?

Not surprisingly, this comes down to a disciplined approach to the spiritual life. Regular habits of prayer and meditation on the Scriptures are essential parts of this. Yes, it can be difficult to find time, but we make time for food even when we have to eat on the run, and it’s critical that we make time for these habits, without which we shall starve. We don’t all need to do them first thing in the morning, as some books tell us, but we do need a time.

The disciplines are not merely personal and private, though. Even prayer and biblical meditation need not be solo practices. Often they are helpful done in fellowship with others. The ‘sap’ doesn’t always come to us directly; sometimes it arrives through others.

Then, there are those practices which we are used to conceiving of in a corporate form: worship and the sacraments. We don’t sit in private cubicles at worship and Holy Communion; we are deliberately together to encounter God within us and among us, and to build each other up.

But we can’t even stop there. Abiding in Christ involves not only receiving the sap, it means allowing it to work. So prayer, Bible reading, worship and taking the sacraments are not simply passive practices. They are meant to lead to action. Spiritual nourishment is designed by God in such a way that it is health-giving when put into practice. It decays without use. We need to respond to what we are given. This means there are both public and secret disciplines.

The public practices are by nature fairly obvious. They involve every way we demonstrate the love of God in Christ to others. So pastoral care within the church, when done in response to God’s love, is a spiritual discipline. So is care for the poor, praying and campaigning for justice. Evangelism, too.

Then there are the secret responses we make, the ones where Jesus condemned those who did them for show as having already received their reward in public adulation. Giving to someone in need. Or fasting as a sign that something was so important it was worth going without the basics of food in order to underline prayer. And some forms of prayer itself are best done secretly rather than showily.

Abiding in Christ is everything we do to keep in tune with him and sustained by him. Sustenance involves taking something into us, and some of the disciplines I’ve mentioned are blatantly ones where we put ourselves in a position to receive from Christ. 

Others, though, are about the outworking of what we have received. Jesus expects much of those to whom much is given. Some Christians emphasise prayer, others action, but both are priorities. Abiding in Christ is a matter of both receiving from Christ and giving back to him and others.

Both the receiving and the giving are practised in easy times and hard times, when life and faith are going well, and when we are facing opposition and even undergoing pruning. They are, after all, disciplines, not just activities we engage in because we feel like it.

Many are the ordinary routine actions of life that we maintain regardless of whether we feel like doing them, but we continue with them for the sake of our well-being and the flourishing of others. So are the spiritual disciplines of abiding in Christ, too.

I’ve heard some people speak about marriages as if marriage ‘didn’t work’ – implying that marriage was something that happened to them. But relationships take work and effort, and our spiritual relationship with Christ doesn’t just happen, either. It does happen to us in the sense that God makes the first move towards us. Furthermore, his approaches are sometimes of a ‘pruning’ nature.

But it then requires faithful response from us, through good times and bad. And that’s what abiding in Christ is all about.

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 72: Easter Is A Time For Spending

Bank Holidays can be full of energy, frustration or inertia in my experience. Today has fallen into the last of those three categories. Eschewing the idea of going somewhere big after a bad experience trying to get to Colchester Zoo one previous BH, the children suggested a return visit to Wat Tyler Country Park. However, this morning’s rain put paid to such plans and we ended up taking our picnic into Chelmsford town centre – not quite so picturesque. Some of that same picnic ended up with the pigeons and ducks courtesy of the children. OK, only the bread – nothing else.

Becky got a chance to spend some more birthday money. Like her mum, she adores that well-known craft shop, Poundland. She picked up some arty things there. She also bought an adaptation of Heidi in Waterstone’s. She loves that story. Meanwhile, Mark and I had boys’ time, heading for Camera World. I bought some camera cleaning gear and began a conversation about a first camera for His Nibs’ fifth birthday in August. Sounds like we’re heading for a Praktica.

Other than that, it’s time for things to break at present in our home. Over the weekend we had to buy a replacement DVD player and today it was the turn of our inkjet printer. The local Tesco Home Plus had a great deal on end of line stock and I picked up a Canon Pixma iP4600 for £44. No box or other packaging, with mains lead, ink cartridges, CD of software and manual all stuffed in a scruffy broken envelope. But who cares? That’s half price.

Everything goes in threes, Debbie says. The third item after the high-tech of the DVD player and the printer was, the, er, pepper mill. However much I like gadgets, I resisted the idea of a battery-powered model. Having been let down quickly by one from a supposedly reliable make, Cole and Mason, bought from Debenham’s in a sale, we went down market for a Tesco own brand.

So we seem to have spent the Easter weekend spending money. It doesn’t quite feel like an appropriate way to mark the death and resurrection of the Lord of life whose kingdom is countercultural, but we haven’t gone looking to do any of it and will have to balance the bank account later. Or seek divine assistance to that end!

Sabbatical, Day 30: Victorian Children, Books Books Books, Personality Type Survey And New Blog Theme

Mark stayed home today as a precaution. We don’t want the symptoms of his ear infection to disappear while the bug remains around and then recurs. So he came on the school run to take Rebekah in, then we went to see her board a coach with her friends to visit a museum in Braintree for a Victorian-themed outing. 

All Rebekah’s year had to dress like Victorians (as did the staff and parent helpers). There were additional restrictions on what they could take in their lunch boxes. Becky was nervous, knowing that part of the day would include a simulation of a Victorian school, complete with strict teacher! However, she survived, and although her own real-life teacher has a reputation at the school for keeping rather firm boundaries, Becky came back believing her teacher isn’t strict at all in comparison!

Those of you who are my Facebook friends can see on my profile a photo I took of her this morning in her £10 bargain eBay costume. You’ll also see there (and here on the blog) a changed profile picture. All the children on the trip were given a slateboard and stylus. Rebekah drew a picture of me, I photographed it and cropped it. So if you’re wondering what happened, that’s the story. Besides, she took the previous photo that appeared here and on Facebook on her own digital camera. I like to think she’s a very artistic little five-year-old.

Keeping Mark at home gave us the opportunity to stretch him. Academically he coasts at school, and the reading books sent home for him are well beneath his literacy powers. He devours books like a shark eating human flesh, and so we keep ourselves stocked up with titles at or just above his ability level. Not only do we find Internet bargains, his favourite shop is Waterstone’s and he is well known to the staff at the local library. This morning, he read me ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker‘, stumbling only on the words ‘midnight’, ‘sewed’ and ‘hammered’.

Even with all this going on, I actually managed to do some sabbatical work today. Having done the work on ministry and personality type last Thursday and Friday at Trinity with Jerry Gilpin, I began devising a questionnaire today. I want to survey ministers and members of congregations about the personality types of ministers, and what level of tension might exist between actual personality types and the aspirations of churches. It won’t be the most scientific survey ever constructed, because I won’t have the facility to question an accurate cross-section. Respondents will inevitably be self-selecting to a certain extent, and that may well mean I attract answers from people who have stronger than average views. However, within those constraints, I hope I can learn to some extent whether the tensions I feel are substantially replicated elsewhere or not. 

As to distribution of the survey, I plan to host it on Survey Monkey, and possibly distribute it using Mail Chimp. Both these services have free options for those working small scale. I’ll find other ways of distributing the link to the survey through Methodist sources, Facebook and, naturally, here on the blog.

Finally, I was fiddling around in WordPress earlier and noticed that two weeks ago they had launched another new blog theme, Vigilance. It looks quite clean and is apparently customisable, so I think I might change over to that and then see what modifications I fancy making over the coming weeks. Let me know what you think of it. 

OK, time for bed, said Zebedee.

Wanting Mummy

This afternoon, Debbie got back from a weekend at the annual Children’s Ministry conference in Eastbourne. Managing the children and preparing for this morning’s service has been quite a stretch since she left around 5:30 am on Friday. (She had another call to make in Sussex first.)

It hasn’t been the juggling of responsibilities so much, although that has been a factor. Anyone who spotted that today’s sermon only appeared on the blog in the early hours of this morning rather than yesterday evening as usual will get a hint of that.

This morning, we loaded up my car with all sorts of distractions to occupy them during the service, since it was one of the alternatve weeks when Sunday School doesn’t happen. Scrap paper, pens, cuddly toys and games all made their way to church – where we were told that two current Sunday School teachers and one former teacher had arranged a session especially for our kids, knowing I would be coping on my own with them while trying to lead a communion service. How kind is that?

No, the real issue has been dealing with the children’s emotions while mummy has been away. They are used to her being away for a day or two here and there, normally dealing with something to do with her house that we retained when we married and which we let through an agent. However, familiarity with Debbie’s short term absences never makes these times emotionally easier for them.

They coped better this time – there is a pragmatic virtue in keeping busy, maybe in the short term. So after school on Friday we went to the supermarket and bought some treats. (Bribery is good, too.) Yesterday, after Rebekah’s regular Saturday morning ballet lesson, we headed into town. Mark wanted to check one of our two Waterstone’s branches to see whether the one book he doesn’t have in the latest Thomas the Tank Engine series was in stock. It wasn’t. Rebekah wanted a visit to her favourite place of worship, Claire’s Accessories, a place of torture for males, and so Mark played up something rotten while we were in there. On the way back to the car, a detour to Millie’s Cookies  at least gave us the chance to sample their raspberry and white chocolate flavour.

It all broke down yesterday tea-time. Debbie phoned for a chat with the little monkeys before they headed for the bath and bed. Rebekah told her how much she was missing her, and Debbie replied that she would be back with some presents for them, something I knew from a text message she had sent me in the afternoon.

“Mummy, I like presents but I want you more than the presents,” was Rebekah’s devastating reply from the heart.

And I thought, if only more of us could reply like that – to one another, and especially to God.