Monday, May 14, 2018

I'm still here: Me and the Missional Movement

Making the decision to re-read a book can remind you of things once influential in shaping your thinking but largely forgotten or subsumed in other trains of thought. I ought to re-read far more than I do on that basis! Anyway, I started to re-read something and it reminded of me of why I think the way I do about church, mission and community.

Ever since I wrote a rather lengthy, and somewhat pretentious essay about the commissioning statements of Jesus and the Early Church, I've been asking questions about the kingdom, mission and the church. It finally crystallised with the emergence of the language of the missional community. As I tried to figure why, if it was the heart of the church's reason for existing, evangelism was so hard? Was it just down to the spiritual battle against the forces of darkness, or was it because somehow we'd lost the plot and prioritised the 'winning of souls' in a way that skewed the role of the church.

Suddenly the vocabulary of the missional movement gave me a way to both understand and express what I was feeling. The church wasn't here to lead a movement but to follow one. We weren't on a mission as much as we were in partnership with the God of mission. It was his mission, not ours.

That leads us the question "What does that mission look like in my community?" If the kingdom of God is among the people with whom I spend my time, how do I alert them to that reality? How do I stop trying to turn everything I do into a precursor for evangelistic engagement?

Well, I'm struggling to answer some, if not all of those questions, but I find myself every so often involved in seeing glimpses of what the rule of God means in the everyday interactions of my life. It usually comes as I sit and talk with people and they share their struggles and ask me what I think. One lesson I learned at college from a long serving minister was never give advice. If it works, they become dependent upon you, if it doesn't they blame you. So the best course of action is to explore ideas with them. I've had two or three of these encounters recently.

I don't carry a sign or a card identifying myself as some sort of life coach or counsellor or guru. I'm just me. I listen and more often think 'what am I supposed to say to that?' I try to reflect things back and somehow to allow the kingdom of God to reveal itself. I was once described as being ruthlessly committed to grace, and I think that still stands.

Grace changes everything. The unfolding story of the bible is of God's desire to be with his people. To share daily life with his creation. The tabernacle has long been a wonderful example to me of how far God will go to be at the heart of the community of his people. He does this not by providing an escape route but by making it possible for him to dwell amongst the people he loves. The tents and screens have less to do with keeping people at bay and more to do with God figuring out how to live amongst them without destroying them. Oh, and by the way, that's not the church, it's much, much wider than that. To equate the church with the kingdom is to miss the point almost entirely of the narrative of scripture.

So I try to be 'grace'. I can't think of a verb that does the idea justice. Gracious, graceful, just don't cut it. Perhaps grace-filled is the closest. I try to be the kingdom not just preach the kingdom. It doesn't always work. I'm trying to partner with God by living as best I can in the midst of a community. I guess we'd call that incarnational and I guess it's what Jesus did and what he calls us to continue to do in his name.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Russell Brand and the kingdom of heaven

I read with increasing interest and fascination a recent article (Oct 17) about Russell Brand's encounter with faith and spirituality, born out of journey form addiction to sobriety. As many evangelicals might rush to try and work out if they can now call him a Christian or not, I was much more interested in his journey and the reflections and observations he was making about the teaching of Jesus the role spirituality can have in the rehabilitation process through which every recovering addict must go if they are to get free of their addiction.

Brand is on a spiritual journey, that much is pretty obvious, but it's some of his observations that caught my eye. Asking questions about what the realised kingdom looks like for a world crippled by addiction to superficial fulfilment; that the purpose of religion is "love and connection"; the relationship between forgiveness and being forgiven and the impossibility of redemption until you are willing to forgive and let go. So many fascinating things.

Then I got to thinking about the church and it's preoccupation at times with sound doctrine rather than practical outworking of the gospel. How many times did I hear the cry, "What we want/need in this church is good, sound Biblical teaching." When what was actually needed was a simple attempt to try and live out the values and expectation of the kingdom. Russell Brand picks this up when he comments about Jesus telling the rich young ruler to give up all he has and follow him. 

He references Jesus’ command to the rich young ruler in Matthew 19 who asks, “What good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” Brand says, referencing Christ’s response, “Give away all your possessions and follow me—that’s a pretty radical thing.”
Brand says the reason why this idea is so radical is because it strikes at the core of the values so many people secretly hold: that money and materialism can cure our unhappiness. “I think the reason that the economic arguments Christ offered are not promoted is because they are deeply at odds with the way we live,” he explains.
Instead of focusing on unhealthy patterns centered on self-fulfillment, the message of the Gospel offers an alternative: caring for others and helping those in need.
A difficult passage for many a middle-class, house-owning, financial security seeking, wise-stewardship leaning congregation. It's not that we don't want to be fully devoted followers of Jesus, we just can't afford to go that far! And yes, I understand that there is a specific application in this passage, but let's not allow ourselves to excuse ourselves from the possibility that our discipleship might be more costly that we'd like to think.

There's something wonderfully simple about the kingdom when you boil it down to love and connection. It's not perfect, it's not polished, it's not about excellence. It's not about providing the best, loudest, most technologically clever experience of worship. It's about being something so much more than such superficial thinking. And yes, it is superficial. Going to a worship event doesn't have to be better than a rock concert. 

My relationship with the institution and practice of church is, to be honest, non-existent these days. I don't go, I don't want to go! I'm busy coaching on a Sunday and even if I could move it all to Saturday I'm not I would suddenly feel a deep desire to wander back into the pattern I left behind 6 years ago.

But the kingdom still bothers me. The implications of what Jesus taught still cut through the busyness that surrounds me. I might not be concerned about filling the church, but populating the kingdom still sits on my agenda.

As yet another mega-church leader faces allegations about their behaviour I wonder if the drive to succeed, to be excellent in all we do, is a route to power that ultimately demands a high price from us.  Is the church too corporate, to reflective of the world's values and less expressive of the values of the kingdom?

I'm not sure where the answer lies. Maybe we need to stop, sit at the feet of Jesus and listen.

It's midday and my alarm reminding of that fact has just gone off. It's time to say the Lord's Prayer. That's why the alarm is set, to remind me stop each day. Some days I simply say the prayer, somedays I'm in the middle of trying to drill a forehand winner down the line, some days I take a little more time to reflect on the words. Maybe today is a more reflective day.

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.Your kingdom come; your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory. Forever and ever. Amen

Friday, April 13, 2018

Changing Cars: Going Hybrid

It has to be said that driving a brand new car is an expensive indulgence, but I have to own up to rather liking it! It just so happens that every car I've owned, I've had from new. It's a guilty pleasure.

Anyway, the time has come to change my current car, a Mazda 5, for something new and shiny. Although I like driving new cars I find the process of buying one tedious and stressful. But this time I had a different plan in mind because I wanted to go a little greener and began looking at hybrids. The kind of car I like to drive hasn't been readily available as a hybrid, but with the arrival of the Prius+ a number of years ago, an alternative to the typical MPV became available.
It's not everyone's first choice but it's what we have chosen as our next new car.

Hopefully we'll adapt to the automatic gearbox quickly. It's a bit unnerving to start with when you don't quite know where to put your left foot or what to do with it! But once you get out one the road it's a nice, rather relaxed smooth drive. I actually collected the car just before Easter and immediately drove it to Bedford, Eastbourne and Saffron Walden over the weekend! I think I can safely say I've got used to it now!

The ever increasing complexity of the technology that goes into a modern car continues to dazzle. Even more so with the transition to a hybrid and all the data that is available about when you're running in EV mode, how the power is being generated and distributed, and all sorts of other things. I remember when most new cars came without a radio let alone a satellite navigation system and proximity sensors.

If you're a so-called petrol head then you'll probably find the Prius+ a boring, uninspiring drive. That's fine. I didn't buy it as a performance car, I bought it because it suits our needs, it's a hybrid, and it's comfortable. My first refuel suggested I got around 50mpg, and apparently that's likely to improve over time.

So there we have it. The money is spent, the car is bought and the next 4 or 5 years of driving are sorted out. The Prius is the first step in moving away from simple combustion engines towards something greener. The next change will be Anne's Kia, but quite when and what to, I'm not sure. Perhaps another Toyota in the form of a Yaris hybrid.

In 4 or 5 years time I will probably look at at a PHEV version of something. Technology will have moved on and there may be a much wider choice of such vehicles than there are currently. Maybe we will even go fully electric. I can imagine a day when you pull into a service station and simply swap out the batteries rather than recharge before going on your way. I'm guessing too that battery technology will change and maybe we'll have 1000 mile ranges available by the time ICE's go out of production completely.

In my ideal world we will have a house that has all electricity from renewable energy so that charging our electric vehicles is carbon neutral. Is that so far fetched?

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

After Vegas: After Parkland: After the next time?

I wrote the following after the Las Vegas shootings but in the end decided not to publish it. No particular reason, it just didn't seem appropriate at the time. I don't know why. But history has repeated itself and once again I fid myself looking in form the outside and asking the same questions. Something in me wants to let those within the USA who want to see change that they are not alone in the world. 

It's been a few days since the awful tragedy in Las Vegas unfolded. Along with many of my fellow UK citizens, I remain somewhat dumbfounded by the continuing reluctance of a civilised society to change its attitude and its legal system with regard to the ownership of guns.

We don't challenge the US from the outside with some sense of superiority. We challenge because we don't understand how a nation can continue to be wedded to the idea that guns, and the apparent ease with which they can be acquired, are not a factor in these events. We listen to the arguments that guns don't kill people, people kill people and shake our heads. Why? Because we can't understand how other cannot see the simple logic that if you put a gun in someone's hand you increase the possibility of it being used.

The sad truth of it is that it appears to those of us on the outside that the nation is so entrenched in its defence of an amendment to its constitution that it's forgotten that it is an amendment and could be changed if there was the political will to do so. That's what amendments are. Changes. Alterations to improve or clarify. And surely by now everyone can see the need for clarification and change.

In 1996 Thomas Hamilton walked into a Primary school in Dunblane and killed 16 children and a teacher. As a nation we said, "No more, this has to change." We changed our law. There were some who raised objections, who questioned the knee-jerk response, but we made the change. We understood that he was unstable. We could have described him as 'sick and demented'. We could have called his actions 'pure evil'. We probably did. But then we acted.

From the outside it appears that the US has decided that the death of children is bearable (Sandy Hook) for the sake of retaining a freedom that looks more like an irresponsibility that it does a right. In the aftermath of what has been reported as the worst mass-killing in recent history, will the same attitude prevail?

Steve Turner, a Christian poet, once wrote:

History repeats itself.
Has to.
No one ever listens.

Is anyone listening now?

Monday, February 05, 2018

Going Vegan: The Veganuary Experiment!

I know it wouldn't be first on most people's list of things to try but I explored being vegan in January as part of Veganuary and at the prompting of my daughter Ally. Being principally vegetarian, it wasn't a huge leap to trying vegan, although the thought of giving up a really nice mature cheddar cheese was a bit of a trial!

It would be really easy to approach "going vegan" as being all about what you are giving up rather than what you might be gaining. I know a lot of people for whom moving vegetables from a side dish to a main course is cause for heart palpitations and cries of impending doom as starvation looms. So you need to look at the positives, the things you can explore, remembering of course that it's always a choice. Trying a plant based diet is not a lifetime commitment unless you choose to make it so.

Perhaps I'm fortunate that the reason I don't eat meat is because I don't actually like it. I'm not fond of either the taste or the texture. Having said that, there are plenty of vegetables and fruits that I don't particularly like either. For example, during veganuary I chose a vegan wrap at a chain restaurant. It was okay, but it had avocado in it and I dislike avocado with a passion. Something confirmed by trying the aforementioned wrap.

So how did I/we get on with our vegan experiment? I discovered that I could live quite happily without dairy products. I use almond milk in my smoothies, and because I don't drink tea of coffee there wasn't a problem finding a substitute for dairy milk in hot drinks. A soy based yoghurt was fine with the oat bran I often have for breakfast and Alpro's soy based custard was good too. I did try some vegan cheese. It was okay grated on risottos etc but I don't think I'd have wanted to try it on toast!

We only ate out once and I managed to find a vegan menu at Ask, the restaurant we visited. I had a vegan spaghetti bolognese. Assuming the pasta was vegan, it tasted exactly the same as every other form of pasta I've eaten and the bolognese was made with veg and lentils. All very nice. I can imagine that other places might be as accommodating, but that is changing.

Do I feel different? Honestly, no. I feel just the same. No ups or downs in energy levels. Will I choose to be vegan? I think we'll be rather flexible. The thing about being vegan is not to fret about things too much. Rather like the pasta. If it was egg based, then okay. There's little value in being overly militant about these things. Make a choice, but don't make a song and dance about it.

Since reading The China Study, it would certainly seem that the traditional western diet needs to change. Too much meat is not good for you, especially if the meat outweighs the vegetable content of your plate. Although there are disputes about the conclusions drawn in the book, we all know the important of complex carbohydrates and fibre to good digestion and therefore good health.

You can visit the veganuary website for more information. It's not too late to give it a try!

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Early Days with Nest

 We've had our new boiler and Nest thermostat for just over a week now and I thought I'd write about our early experience. For those who don't know, the Nest thermostat learns your patterns and adjusts your heating accordingly. You can set up a schedule or simply let it learn as you turn the stat up and down. It take about two weeks for it to settle down, but you can programme it as you would do with a standard clock controller. If you're used to an older clock-based system you'll know that at their most sophisticated you only really had the choice of weekday and weekend schedules. Some of the wireless systems that were introduced did have more daily controls, but they were sometimes fiddly to set up. Not so the Nest.

Using either the 'phone app or the web version you set up and alter a schedule very easily. Our current schedule is very simple. Monday to Friday mornings are routine, Weekends are different. Weekday evenings take account of usually coming home at different times rather than having a single set point for the heating to come on and heat an otherwise unoccupied house. The nice thing is that you can turn the heating on remotely, so for those times when we're coming home earlier than expected a quick tap brings on the heating.

You can also use geo-fencing, but given that I'm often driving past the house I suspect this wouldn't be a useful feature for me! The other thing that Nest does is turn the heating off when no one is home. So, if I have to go off to the gym to do an early lesson, Nest will turn itself down.

You can also see your energy usage. It's only been a week, so there's not much to see, but already there have been a couple of occasions when the thermostat has not brought the heating on because nobody was in the house at the time.

Under our old system we had the heating running for around 7 hours a day (5:30-09:00; 17:00-21:30). With the Nest this can drop to around 3.5 hours for some days. That could represent quite a saving over a heating season.

One thing that was hidden away in the features is the pre-heat time. The default setting allows the thermostat to bring the heating system on up to 5 hours before the set temperature. So, if your'e used to having your heating come on at 06:00 to reach your desired temperature by 06:30 you could find that your heating comes on at 01:30 under extreme conditions. Not very likely I know, but you can change this setting. Being a bit old school, I've set ours to a maximum of 1 hour.

At a slight tangent, when you set your temperature you really need to think about where the thermostat is sited and fiddle around with the temperature to get it right for the house. Balancing your heating system can help save money too because overheated rooms wastes energy. When I was working in R&D our design day temperatures were 16 in bedrooms, 22 in bathrooms, 21 in the lounge, and 18 in other living areas. Now without a lot of effort that's pretty difficult to achieve. But doing simple things like adjusting radiators and TRV's to get a more even distribution of heat helps. Our thermostat is in the hall and it's usually set to 19.5. It doesn't matter if it's actually 19.5 in the hall as long as the house is warm.

I suspect the Nest is far more accurate than the old bi-metallic strip thermostat we used to have. That used to be set to 17 because that gave an even distribution of heat. The nice thing about the Nest is that you can tweak the temperature up or down, knowing that in the next cycle it will revert to the previous settings instead of having to remember to reset the stat manually.

Overall I'm pleased we decided to have the Nest installed rather than a programmer and thermostat.

Monday, January 29, 2018

"Did you win?" should never be your first question!

I really enjoy getting people started with a tennis racquet. Tennis is one of the great social games, and seeing people laugh and cheer in equal measure in my adult beginners/improvers class is a regular highlight. Take the other week when one of the players couldn't work out whether to hit a forehand or backhand volley as the ball came at them quite quickly, so they headed it back across the net instead. Rather than roars of disapproval everyone collapsed in laughter. They then followed that up with the most outrageous recovery shot to win the next point.

All fun and games.

But then there's the more competitive side of things, and this is where the question makes it's appearance. Not every person who carries a racquet on court wants to play tournaments, but some do. Some work really hard to be the best they can be and go out and play. But tennis is a brutal, unforgiving sport. Only one person can win a match and only one person can win a tournament. So asking "Did you win?" is not the place to start. "How do you play?" is a better question. You can play you're absolute best, but if you're up against the best player in the tournament your'e probably coming home a loser.

To put that in a context let's look at yesterday's Australian Open men's final. Roger Federer won his 20th Grand Slam, more than anyone else in the open era. He's been in 30 finals and played in 72 Grand Slams. His 20 titles make up 10% of the Grand Slams played in the open era.

So, he's converted 2 out of 3 finals into wins. Is that the best record? Well, in 2016 it wasn't. Djokovic  had a better conversion rate. 20 GS wins out of 72 means that he's won fewer than a third of the GS tournaments he's entered! Even arguably the best male tennis player in the open era has had to work incredibly hard to achieve that return. Many tour players go through a whole career without ever getting close to winning a GS let alone a Tour 1000 or 500 event.

The simple truth for anyone who plays an individual sport like tennis or golf is that it is only in exceptional circumstances that you don't go home a loser most times. A professional tennis player was once asked how he coped with losing. His reply was simple, "It happens every week." 128 seat the main draw of a Grand Slam singles tournament. 127 go home losers. That's the brutality of of an individual sport. That's why, "Did you win?" is the wrong first question.