Thursday, September 15, 2016

A Little Facebook Conversation

I was once described as being ruthlessly committed to the doctrine of grace. Rather nice I thought and it was meant positively too. Grace trumps everything. Grace means you can look at another person and bless them even when they tear you apart. Grace means you can see in others the struggle to live in a context of faith even when they appear to be messing stuff up. This is neither being delusional about sin nor unwilling to address it and discipline it when appropriate. Grace is not a way of avoid ing conflict.

Some people lack grace, to state the obvious. some express their faith through generating conflict in the name of truth. Convinced of their absolute rightness in all things, the quickly condemn or call out others. I recently had a very short Facebook conversation with someone that illustrates this. Now normally I follow the advice that goes something like: Remember, it's actually possible to read something on Facebook with which you profoundly disagree, ignore and move on with your life. Experience tells us that getting into an online debate is often pointless and people rarely change their minds. But sometimes it's important to engage and express a contrary perspective, even if it's only to keep the conversation honest. Anyway, here's the statement to which I rose the other day:

Standing face to face with these false teachers, Jesus Christ the Son of God, called them "hypocrites", "blind guides, " "blind, " "whited sepulchres, " "serpents, " and "generation of vipers" (Matt. 23:23-34). Yet, we are told today that we are to fellowship with men whose doctrines are just as unscriptural as those of the Pharisees. Some who say they are Bible believing Christians insist on working with Roman Catholics and other assorted heretics. Yet, according to many, we are not supposed to rebuke them for their compromise. We are to MARK them and AVOID them. "Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them " (Rom. 16:17). Those whose conduct and teaching contradicts the Word of God are to be marked and to be avoided. This requires discernment and judgment in the light of the Bible. 
Here's my response:

 I'm not sure I really want to get involved in this petty debate, but a friend of mine posted it and I do feel that there are unanswered questions and issues that need to be thought through. I'm concerned that the original author seems to assume that simply quoting Scripture is equivalent to declaring truth. That's a dangerous stand to take. Think about it for a moment and you will realise that a verse quoted out of context can be a dangerous thing.Secondly, who are all the other assorted heretics? Are charismatics heretics because they accept the use of gifts or are those who are cessasionist heretics because they don't? Are the Seventh Day Adventists heretics because they choose to worship on a Saturday rather than a Sunday? Are Methodists heretics because they practice infant baptism rather than believers baptism? What about those who hold a pre, post or a-millenial view of the end times? Who are the heretics and who are orthodox? How about the role of women in leadership or the practice of ordination? How about Calvinist and Armenians? Once you start down the road of being the only one who tells the truth, everyone else becomes a heretic. Do you think that the primary focus of the Kingdom of God is to dot the i's and cross the t's of orthodox doctrine or to populate heaven? I'm not really expecting a response, in fact I'm not sure I even want one! I'm not going to get into a tit-for-tat debate. I just wanted to suggest that some thinking needs to be done. 
I didn't expect the reaction to be "Oh, gosh, you're right. How could I have been so narrow-minded and arrogant. Thank you for pointing that out, I'll rethink my attitudes." This was their response:

We do not use scripture out of context. We can back up with scripture why the cults we call out are indeed cults. If your preferred cult is among them let us show you the truth according to the word of God in His one true book. 
I'm somewhat intrigued by the idea of a "preferred cult". I wonder what the write would have to say if he actually knew my background and experience, not that that makes me immune to error of course. I might just be an heretical theologian after all! Anyway, I thought a short snappy reply was in order and wondered if the injection of a little humour might help. Okay, so a little sarcasm.

I have a sneaky suspicion that you are going to be terribly disappointed at who God allows into heaven. Perhaps you need to have a quiet word with him just to be sure he's on the right track. I would hate for him to make a mistake! Btw, I've never given the idea of a preferred cult much thought. How does being vegetarian sound?
I got no further response!

Okay, so I probably wasn't as gracious as I could have been. Do you think they spotted the sarcasm in my last response?

I guess the question I struggle with is whether it's actually worth the effort to engage with such theological naivety. Sometimes it is because at least that points another perspective into that comments and one would hope encourages others to engage their brains. One can but hope.

All the time these simplistic pronouncements are made about who is right and who is wrong; who is going to heaven and who is not; who is a cult and who is not, the mission of God is left unattended as we focus our attention on who ewe think should be excluded rather than upon God's great desire for who he wants included.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Friday 9th September. Time to move Parliament and Grammar Schools

Two things have caught my eye this week in the news. The first was the announcement of the cost to restore the Palace of Westminster and the second was the government's plan to re-introduce Grammar Schools.

The Westminster building restoration is an interesting one and I read quite a few comments about it when an online petition popped up suggesting that a new parliament building more fit for purpose should be built elsewhere in the country. I think that's an idea worth considering. Stepping aside for a moment from the high cost of restoring the current building, moving to a new location and a purpose-built facility might not be a bad idea. Of course it might be too radical an idea for MP's to take. But just think about the potential upside of having a parliament centrally located in the country. Accommodation could be purpose-built, no more need for second homes, easier access to the wider constituency and a move away from a perceived Souht-East, London-centric bias. Moving Parliament to somewhere like Leeds or Sheffield might just be the radical kind of thing we need.

I doubt that the institution will go for it. Too many traditions. But what an opportunity to do something different and leave some of the stuff behind that at time seems to hold back progress. A new parliament, a new second chamber, a new democracy? Food for thought.

And then there's the Grammar School debate. Announcements to be made, opportunities to be had. Really? I came through the Grammar School system. It is not the panacea this government appears to want it to be. The problem remains selection. There were without doubt kids in the lowest "set" for maths for example who were easily being out performed by kids at the local Secondary Modern School. Their future would be decided by the old CSE and ours by the old 'O' Level (or GCE). Is that what we want for Secondary Education in the 21st Century?

Theresa May says that school selection happens by house price these day, but is going back to an 11+ the solution? House prices are high in the catchment area of the perceived good schools. What if we invested in making all schools good schools? By that I don't necessarily just mean academically good. I just wonder to whom has Mrs May been talking. It's easy to look at the evidence and presume that Grammar schools are the answer, but surely the question is far more complex than simple charts of GCSE results can provide as an answer. Reintroducing Grammar schools limits the choice of school by exam rather than house price. It simply shifts the goal posts.

If my memory is telling me the truth, then as I recall the last two years of my primary education was all about preparing for the 11+. It was going to be the defining moment of my educational life. Passing would ensure opportunity and success, failure would consign me to a second level life. I even remember the teacher coming after the first set of tests (the old 11+ was spread out over two or maybe even three days) and announcing that none of us was likely to pass given our performance the first day. Looking back I can't see how he would have known that unless he'd marked the papers the previous night and I don't think that is how it worked. Whatever it was, it certainly wasn't the most useful or encouraging approach.

So I'm far from convinced that Grammar Schools are the answer to our educational system's weaknesses. Perhaps a proper evaluation of the Comprehensive system needs to be undertaken to assess how best we can serve every pupil and not just those who are either blessed with academic skills or whose parents can afford to to buy a house in the favoured catchment area. Add to that a greater sense of the value of education across society and not just as a vehicle for social mobility and maybe we can move towards a truly comprehensive form of secondary education.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

The agony of faith

I started writing this post some time ago when yet another picture appeared on Facebook declaring that "religion" was the cause of all the violence in the world perpetrated by terrorists. I find myself wanting to shout back that it's simply not true and that if only people would stop and think for a minute then they wouldn't post such inane and stupid stuff. But I won't do that because I'm caught between personal outrage and the reductionist perspective at work and the desire to be "full of grace". I'm desperate for people to discover the grace of God for themselves and winning arguments over petty mudslinging memes is not the way. Perhaps this commitment to grace and desire to find a way to point people to God is what creates the agony of faith that I seem to experience.

I've been contemplating writing some reflections on the Psalms and calling them The Agony of Faith. It's an idea that has been in my head for a while. Agony because if anyone tells you being a person of faith is easy and comfortable, then I'm either seriously lacking something or their experience is not rooted in the same world as is mine.

I find faith hard. Not necessarily believing, but just making sense of life sometimes. Faith is not easy. I get angry too. Angry at the way faith is often portrayed as a crutch for the weak-minded, or an opt-out for those who are less enlightened.

I find myself angry at the portrayal of faith as the root of the world's problems as if terrorism never had a home in political ideology. I grew up in the 20th century. A time when left and right wing politics resulted in millions of deaths. But no one seems to remember that when someone using their faith as an excuse detonates a bomb in a crowded market. I remember planes being downed, pubs being blown up, hostages taken (and sometimes killed), all in the name of revolution or communism or supporting some right wing dictatorship. Faith does not have a monopoly on fanaticism. If you want an example, think about Stalin's purges or the Khmer Rouge. How about the genocide in Rwanda or the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.

If that is not enough, the triumphalism and selfishness of some expressions of 21st century faith also get me down. Do I really need to "feel" God's presence in order for it to have been a good worship experience? Exactly what does it feel like anyway? I remember preaching a sermon once based around the idea that worship was always an appropriate response irrespective of the circumstances. It is never a case of worship when you feel something.

So faith is hard. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. It's open to misinterpretation as well as misrepresentation. We get things wrong. When I read my Bible I read about struggles as well as triumphs, mistakes as well as successes. When someone tells me they can't believe in God because of all the bad stuff that happens and because of all the unanswered questions or because of things that simply make no sense, I understand. As for me, it can only ever make sense if God exists because that means there is someone to answer for it, some to address the the basic question we have: Why?

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Too many Pastor-Teachers in Leadership?

I've been doing some reflecting recently and some thinking about the future too. In fact we both have. Being busy can get in the way of planning the "what next" stage of life to the point where you suddenly find yourself in your own future without any real idea how you got there. That sound pretentiously profound to me, but the point is that you can just drift into things and it's good to stop every so often and do some reflecting and thinking. So that's what we're doing.

We wouldn't be giving away anything by saying that eventually we will probably move back to Bedford. Ally and David seemed settled there and it was probably the place we felt most at home during the 20 years of moving around the country as manse family. The question is more a when rather than an if. Of course it brings up all sort of other questions, mainly about where exactly we would look to live. But there's more to it than that.

We spent 8 years in Cotton End serving the church there. We learnt so much during that time and explored so many things. I still can't quite get my head around how willing the church family were to experiment and grapple with new ideas and opportunities. Moving away was quite a wrench. The next 2 years would turn out to be both the most difficult and challenging 2 years, and they would also mark the end of full-time ministry for us. What we did learn in that period was the God was challenging us and shaping us in quite a different way and that the legacy model of church was no longer a sustainable model for us. That isn't to say that it can't work, it's just that we could no longer do what was required. Okay, so I never could do what was required, I simply wasn't wired up to fulfil that sort of of role.

Which brings me to the point of this post. I think too many of our churches, yes I still see myself as part of the church, are lead by pastors. Looking at Paul's leadership traits in Ephesians it strikes me that too many pastor-teachers (if you want to combine the roles) lead churches. These good folk have all the skills and gifts to get alongside people, to comfort them, guide them, teach them and encourage them. The church needs them. But does it need them to be the primary leaders?

When you look at Paul's list you have to ask where are the apostles and prophets and evangelists? Church leadership is a multi-faceted process. It needs all of these gifts. Perhaps the problem is that we've elevated pastor-teacher above the rest and in so doing have actually done the church a dis-service. I think we've also excluded many good leaders because they don't have those pastor-teacher skills.

I'm not saying that a pastor-teacher can't have vision or can't be an effective leader. I just think we've missed out on so much by promoting one dimension of leadership to ordained office at the relegation of others. When we only put a pastor-teacher in charge, then we get the same result every time. We get legacy model church because that's what legacy model church looks like. It's pastor-teacher lead. It meets on Sundays and does worship. It produces Bible study notes for house groups. All good things, but not all that the church is called to be. Apostles and prophets and evangelists are are pain in the side of the legacy model of church because they see something different. We need the pain. We need leaders who aren't necessarily gifted pastorally or even as great teachers but who see things differently.

 If the church is ever really to leave the building then it will be because visionaries and pioneers, the apostles and prophets and evangelists, will take us there. The pastor-teachers will still be important, but they won't be leading the charge.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

What can football learn from rugby?

It's easy to compare the England football team and the rugby team and point out the differences. Failure versus success makes for an easy target. But amidst the humour and banter, there's an interesting perspective to be considered. After a remarkably successful tour following a Grand Slam win of the annual European Six Nations, England rugby is setting higher goals.

Okay so far, but this is what Eddie jones said in an interview post beating the team previously ranked 2 in the world (England have taken that spot now):

“I’m going to go on the Tour de France for a bit and watch how Orica GreenEDGE prepare, probably next weekend,” Jones said. “I’m keen to have a look at what they do because I’ve got to get better. If the team’s not consistent, then our coaching’s not good enough. I’ve got to get better and our coaching staff have got to get better. The next two months are about us getting better and then planning our strategy going forward.
Read that again: “I’m keen to have a look at what they do because I’ve got to get better. If the team’s not consistent, then our coaching’s not good enough. I’ve got to get better and our coaching staff have got to get better.

I don't wish to draw a conclusion about the management of English football, after all Eddie Jones is not your typical rugby coach, but his example is interesting. I wonder if the new England football manager will seek out EJ to see what he can learn from someone who, in a few short months, has begun a process of change that has produced some amazing results.

There's talk in the media about how damaged the England players are over their performance and consequent exit form the Euros, perhaps they need to talk to their rugby counterparts who failed abjectly less than 12 months ago and have now done what South Africa were the last to over 40 years ago and that no other England side have ever done as far as I know.

Whatever is wrong with England's football team, players and coaches could do worse than send a bit of time with their Twickenham cousins.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Post Referendum thoughts

If some of what I've seen and read over the last few days is true, then surely the saddest part of the whole EU Referendum vote is hearing people who voted leave say they are now worried about the consequences of that vote. "I didn't think my vote would count" is something of an indictment of the system as much as it might be of the approach some took to voting. With no coherent vision on offer from anyone with regard to the future, we're left in this somewhat bizarre situation of apparently having voted for something most people aren't sure they really wanted. How very strange.

Even stranger is that the petition for a re-run seems to have been started by a leave voter. Not that a second referendum on the same issue is likely, or even welcome. And I say that as a remain voter. The only place for a second vote as far as I can see is when and if a clear vision, post Article 50 negotiations, is laid out and we are then asked whether the is what we truly want. But then again, I'm not sure that's even possible.

In the end we were probably asked the wrong question, in the wrong, at the wrong time. The leave campaign capitalised on years of negative press and comment about the EU. About who made decisions and how, about rules and regulations that were either never actually on the books or were only ever ideas suggested and rejected. We've always had an uneasy relationship with the EU and the silence from MEPs before and during this debate hasn't helped. Where were the positive voices? Too late now I'm afraid.

And what of the "promises" and "threats"? George Osborne tries to settle the markets by suggesting things won't be as bad as he kept telling us they would be, Nigel Farage says that the £350M we could invest in the NHS wasn't true. No wonder people have such a low view of politics and politicians.

There has been quite a lot of comment about the need to simply get on with it. Accept the outcome and figure out the way forward outside of the EU. But I'm not sure the debate ends there quite just yet. After all, the outcome of the referendum is only advisory, it's not legally binding. Parliament could decide to reject it. That would, I assume, be unprecedented, and who would be brave enough to do such a thing?

Maybe there are some good things that will come out of the mess. Perhaps the EU will take seriously the need to do some deep reforming, maybe there will be debates about how the free movement of people works across a range of contras with vastly differing social policies and systems. Perhaps there will be greater clarity and understanding of what it means to be a member state, what responsibilities and opportunities come with being part of a greater community. Sadly we seem to have chosen not be part of that process.

Perhaps we might also see a change in our one political landscape. If we've got our country back, and I'm not sure we have, (or to be more accurate I'm not convinced the country some people think we're getting back is the country I wanted back), then how will the politics of this new era reflect that? Post upheaval and leadership elections, will there be a greater engagement between politicians and people? Who knows? I suspect we'll drift quietly back into the stars quo of hoping of the best, wanting to believe what those seeking election are telling us, and then expressing our inevitable;e disappointment when it turns out that once again things aren't quite what they seemed to be. That might sound cynical, even overly negative, but it takes an enormous amount of effort to seize the opportunity of change and stay with it.

So, to be positive, I think we will survive outside the EU. It's not where I wanted us to be. I hoped we had bigger hearts and greater vision. To leave just seems too narrow and somewhat selfish to me. If we do have a second vote, then I hope it will focus on more positive things than we have endured through this campaign. And I hope that in the future we will see less protest voting because everyone will realise that every vote matters.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Polling Day is coming

So it's polling day in the great referendum tomorrow. Time for some last day thoughts.

If I'm really honest I'm far from convinced that the question of our membership of the EU can be settled by a national referendum. The issue is too complex for a simplistic in/out vote. I'm not saying that the electorate in general is incapable of understanding the nuances and complexities of membership, but the reductionist campaigning has failed completely to debate the issues in anything like the depth needed to inform anyone.

What we have been left with in tomorrow's vote is a choice between our least and worst fears. We've been told all sorts of worrying stuff from both sides that has little substance and have been allowed to continue to believe some ridiculous stuff about the EU that simply isn't true when you look at the wider context of what it means to be part of the community. I've said before that there is much that needs fixing, but that doesn't make it a bad idea in the first place.

My hope is that we vote to remain and then work hard to build a better system of European government and cooperation. I also believe we need to get better at letting people know what it means to be a member state, how to take our membership seriously and to embrace the responsibilities that come with being part of that wider community.

I would have liked to have seen a far more positive campaign to remain rather than the end of the world scenario that has been peddled these last few months. I do not see our future as a nation being under threat by remaining. On the contrary, the false ideas of what it means to be a sovereign nation poses a bigger threat to our identity with it's apparent desire to be isolated and insulated. Where does "controlling our own borders, making our own laws" etc really take us?

My fear is that the lack of a positive edge to the remain campaign has fuelled the leavers argument and people will vote out because they've been sucked into believing the rhetoric about bureaucrats and red tape. Yes there are some annoying regulations, but annoying doesn't equal unnecessary or unhelpful. And just because we think other countries pay no attention to the rules and regulations is no reason to suggest that they get in our way!

If the European Union is going to work we need to be part of the solution. My family, my work, my community are all richer because of life within the EU (and I don't mean financially). We get to travel without too much fuss. Although we're unlikely to adopt the Euro currency, you can't deny it's benefit when you travel through continental Europe. Imagine or remember the days when you had to carry four or five different currencies if you went on a European tour. I know that wouldn't disappear, but my point is that for all the problems, the EU has been a good thing and if we could only stop moaning about it for a while it might become something even better.

Don't say this!

The Christianity Today ( website, in the guise of Leadership Journal, posted a piece about the five dumb things Christians say when evil strikes. It's worth a read. Here are the list of five things to avoid saying:

  • This is an opportunity for the church
  • This is God's wrath for...
  • Did you hear...
  • I don’t agree with their lifestyle, (or politics, or religion, or…) but…
  • Everything happens for a reason
When you take the time to draw breath and consider these things, you begin to realise that such statements are not the words of a faith rooted in the grace and compassion of God. So instead of saying something stupid try weeping with those who weep, mourning with those who mourn.

Read the article here.