Friday, March 25, 2005

Revealing stories

It's Good Friday. We've been retelling the story of the crucifixion. Yesterday - Maundy Thursday - we retold the story of the final supper and arrest of Jesus. we had a Tanebrae, a service of gathering shadows; as we told the story recorded in Matthew's gospel, we blew out candles and ended our hour together in total darkness. It was simple and sombre. It was also revelatory.

A member of my congregation said afterwards that she hadn't really heard the story before, although she's been a Christian for years. New things struck her through the evening because, in her words, 'it was so different. We've never done that before and I saw things in the story I never realised were there.'

I tell you this because John (from asked about dialectic and revelation (see previous post). It set me thinking about whether dialectic as Christians experience it is only rational. I don't think so. I think it also happens as we share stories. revelation particularly occurs, it seems to me, when familiar stories come at us from fresh angles. Suddenly the familiar assumes strange shapes and forms and we see angles on it that we haven't seen before.

So to directly answer John's question, I guess revelation in the 1 Corinthians 2:10-14 sense doesn't come through reasoning so much as through hearing familiar stories in new ways, ways that enable us to make new connections, gain fresh insights.

I'm sure that's not a full answer - even an adequate one - but I hope it keeps the conversation alive!

I'm off to Skegness for week 1 of Spring Harvest. Linda (my wife) and I are on the pastoral team. Back Thursday evening.

Have a great Easter.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

emerging models

Miz's suggestion that preachers try to take their congregations on the same journey they have had as they prepared their sermons is an interesting one.

At seminary I was always told that 'no one wants to see your workings out'. In other words, we are there to proclaim a pristine finished version that will build up our congregations. But I wonder if people might respond to something more ragged, something that helps them learn how to do the workings out and maybe receive different revelations (as Miz suggests).

Having said that, I was talking to someone recently who doesn't go to home groups. When I asked him why, he said that he couldn't stand the pooling of ignorance that followed the home group leader asking what people thought the verse or passage was about. What he wanted was someone telling him what the passage meant and how it applied to him. Then he would be able to discuss it. I suspect it's a minority view, but it's a view all the same...

All this does raise an interesting question that is relevant to the sermon question. As the emerging church emerges, what does it stand for, what does it believe? we know what it doesn't like and find helpful in the existing church paradigm. But how much is this to do with structure and ways of doing things and how much with what we actually believe?

It's good to see sites like and springing up where issues of belief can be discussed and thrashed out. It's vital that we remain true to the historic Christian faith, vital that we provide faithful witness to the saving acts of God in Jesus Christ. There are right and wrong answers to theological questions. As the emerging church emerges, there are certain shapes it cannot assume and still remain true to its Christian roots.

Is there a dialectic here between open discussion of issues and revealed truth? I think so. All our struggles to emerge - whether into new ways of learning within traditional structures or new shapes of church - need to happen in this framework.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Monday morning blues

A few days ago I posted about how much I loved my job - the opportunity to research and deliver teaching material, the response of the congregation, etc...

On Monday mornings, however, I sometimes feel shattered and beset with self-doubt. Last night I rounded off Habakkuk and this morning feel that I floundered somewhat. The service was dull, there was not much atmosphere, no one seemed to be anticipating reaching the climax of an absorbing series and I was, frankly, laboured, over-long, struggling to master the subject and probably guilty of missing a huge opportunity.

Ah well, Monday morning recriminations...

It does raise an issue about the minister's role as a teacher or, to use the more fashionable jargon, congregational formation - how believers are shaped in and by their faith. Our teaching model is the sermon. All the research suggests sermons are appalling vehicles for conveying anything. So why do we persist?

Last week we had a church meeting at which the subject of sermons came up as an aside. Some arguing there were too many, others suggesting they were the best part of church, some saying they were too long, others that they were fine as they were.

There has always been a difference opinion over sermons. Keith Thomas in his majestic study Religion and the Decline of Magic has a wonderful passage where Tudor and Stuart churchmen and preachers lament the fact that no one listens to or appreciates sermons like they used to. Plus ca change, hey?!

I think we're at the stage now where we need to be asking fundamental questions about how we form Christian disciples in the 21st century. Put that way, this conversation is about more than sermons, about more than how I can avoid the Monday morning, post-sermon blues. It's a conversation about how people living and working in an increasingly post-Christian culture appropriate Christian discipline so as to be socialised into a Christian way of responding to the world.

We'll start small. My team will muse on it for a while this morning - and probably go on doing the same things! But I hope that we might delve deeper and think about what people need so that they hear and respond to Christian truth, how that truth creates in them genuine Christian character.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

A secular society?

Pretty much every month I read an article in the Sunday papers containing a sheepish admission. The usually middle class, thirty-something reporter is confessing that he goes to church. He doesn't want to make a song and dance about it, rarely tells his mates what he gets up to a Sunday and doesn't want to be classified as a 'Jesus freak'.

This week's Sunday Times contains a affectingly written piece by such a reporter informing us that he started going because he wanted his children christened.

Now he realises how the Christian faith and being British - or English as he prefers - are bound up with each other, the latter being largely incomprehensible without the former. Furthermore, he suggests that English faith is a muddle of believing and scepticism and so he doesn't want to spell out in too much detail what he actually believes.

I found his piece thought-provoking and moving. In particular, I found his references to churches where the liturgy and music are familiar - that is to say, traditional or even old fashioned - truly challenging.

As we think about how we do church services to attract the broadest range of people, the assumption is that the elderly want traditional and the young - especially the educated and professional young - want the informal, exploratory and unfamiliar.

Perhaps it's only the slightly disaffected church goer - the stalwart of twenty years who's been involved in running things - who wants significant change in the way we do things because they are bored.

The trouble is, of course, none of this answers the question why 1500 people are leaving our churches every week and not coming back. Is it the rapid pace of change in our liturgy that's driving them away or the fact that we appear rooted to the spot, still singing the songs we were a generation ago? Is it that we've overly defined the faith or left people wondering who God is and where he can be found?

Answers on a postcard....

Friday, March 11, 2005

Mr Wright?

Tom wright is brilliant on Living Faith. But he is the English filling in a rather American sandwich - clearly the pack was made for the US market.

Those of you familiar with the wonderful White Stripes Elephant album will know that the track Little Acorns opens with a narration about a woman inspired to face her problems by watching a squirrel in winter. Sadly the narrator on Tom's DVD sounds just like this guy...

However, get past that and Tom is homely, wise, amusing and full of insights about the how to approach the Bible. The series appears to be aimed at Christians who don't know that much about their faith. And that's no bad thing.

I'll road test it on some of my people and see how it goes down.

Living faith

I took delivery yesterday of Living Faith a ten session DVD-based introduction to the Chrisian faith by Tom Wright. I haven't watched any of it yet but I'm sure it'll be brilliant. Tom has one of those amazingly listenable voices - like Morgan Freeman. I'd happily listen to him reading the phone book! Fortunately, he is also the most wonderful theologian and biblical scholar and hence what he has to say is always worth hearing.

But I do wonder about the proliferation of courses exploring the essence of Christianity - Alpha, Christianity Explored, Essence, etc

I've just finished a Tyndale Bulletin article by J R Harrison (pity they don't go in for Christian names!) on Paul's use of Roman imperial language in Romans to describe what Jesus has achieved. This is Christianity explained. Yet it is explained in very political terms, a true alternative to the imperial ideology that dominated the world of Paul's day.

Tom Wright would say a hearty amen to this emphasis (he has written a lot about Paul and Caesar). But I wonder if his course will pick this theme up.

It seems to me that we are still offering the Christian faith as a religious option in a supermarket of faiths. We do this, we say, because that's what the early Christians did. In a world of Judaism, paganism and mystery cults, Christianity was another (albeit better) spirituality.

But this is to assume the separation of politics and religion in the ancient world. And that was not the case. Wright and others have shown that the world of the early Christians was dominated by the cult of the emperor, a religious and spiritual movement that underpinned Roman imperial power.

So Harrison demonstrates the extravagent language used to praise the age of Augustus, the Caesar who brought an end to Rome's civil strife and ushered in an age of peace, prosperity and hope. He then shows that Paul uses the same words in Romans to describe what God had done in Christ.

So, is Paul making a religious or a political point. It strikes me that the obvious answer - both - is a bit of a cop-out, because it enables us to pay lip service to the political import of Paul's statements but to stress that the spiritual meaning takes precedence over the political. What matters is that I sort out my relationship with God. My relation with the political power structures of the world I live in can be sorted out later. I wonder if Paul would be happy with that.

I'd love to see a course introducing Christianity that stresses Jesus as the leader of a movement of radical social and political change based on the ethic peace and reconciliation and founded on his defeat on the cross of all the forces that undermine peace and keep people fighting.

Perhaps Tom's done that on Living faith. You tell me. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Are we there yet?

All parents have been on car journeys constantly interrupted by a tiny voice in the back of the car asking 'are we there yet?'

It's one of the ultimate faith questions. The tiny voice, belonging to a being that trusts its parents implicitly and absolutely, believes that 'there' is worth seeing; but more than that, 'there' has to be better than the interminable boredom of getting there.

Lots of Christians want to be 'there' - however they define that - because the getting there is sometimes hard, painful, sorrowful, often dull and only rarely, it seems, any fun at all.

We ought to read Habakkuk more often. This startlingly contemporary OT prophet about whom we know next to nothing, wrote soon after 605BC and yet could be speaking about our world. His portrait of the arrogance of Babylon is as compelling a portrait of the 21st century western world as you could hope to find. It certainly provides more prescient analysis of our condition than the broadsheets manage.

But while his social critique is salutary, his portrait of the life of faith is stunning. In many ways it contains the high watermarks of OT faith - 2:14, 3:17-19 (go on look them up at - and a startling throw-away line about the just living by faith (2:4) that is picked up three times in the New testament (Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11 and Hebrews 10:37-38).

In fact the apparently throw-away line is a picture of the person of faith embedded in a world of cynicism and unbelief and not just clinging on by her finger nails, but living a radiant, god-reflective life, buoyed up by her trust in God's eternal faithfulness. What a picture!

So, whatever you're going through at the moment, read Habakkuk - it's hard going in places, shockingly violent in others, but ultimately faith-affirming in the complex and troubling world in which we live. And if you want more details check out the sermon download section of my church website ( - the fourth in the series will be there on 13 March