Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Present Future

Although an examination of the North American church, this book has much to say to UK church culture too. I've managed a first pass through the book in three sittings, which I reckon to be about 4.5 hours. 

The style of the book makes for fairly easy reading but the content is far from easy to read. I found myself recognising many aspects of church culture with which I've always struggled and whispering a quiet "that's right" like a punctuation mark throughout the text.

For some time now I've been convinced that the church must change and move away from it's inward looking, club mentality towards a more outwardly focused mission orientation. The tough questions (six of them) that McNeal asks in the context of six new realities he identifies are a helpful but far from comfortable framework for this shift.

Written in 2003, this book reads as relevant today as it was then, if not more so.

I'm looking forward to reading the second book, Missional Renaissance to see where that takes me.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

What's wrong with the church?

Amazon delivered another brace of books this morning via Royal Mail. The two books in question are The Present Future and Missional Renaissance by Reggie McNeal. I've got a presentation to do and I thought these two books might help crystallise my thinking a little.

I like the following as a working definition of the problem we face as the church:

Church leaders seem unable to grasp this simple implication of the new world–people outside the church think church is for church people, not for them.

In other words, whatever it is that people are looking for, they are not looking for it from the institutionalised church. So, all the energy we pour into making the institution of church more attractive might just be an enormous waste of energy, and a resource better spent elsewhere. People don't necessarily want to be part of  church, but they might be interested in a movement.

Fortunately, although Jesus did say he would build his church, I think he had something more in mind than a self-perpetuating institution and more like a mass movement of people experiencing the transforming power of the gospel.

That's my guess.

Defining Church

Something Reggie McNeal wrote in the forward to Neil Cole's Organic Leadership struck me as a helpful definition of the church:

engaged in the world as partners with God in his redemptive mission that targets all of human experience, not just church life.

Worth pondering I thought.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Toolbox project

Being a Bank Holiday, and being a rather nice day too, I decided to get the woodworking bench out and do a bit of work on a toolbox project I started last summer.

I got the idea from a magazine article. Th original was made from oak, but I've been using leftover 12mm hardwood ply for my version. It was really just to see if I could make something a little more complicated than the things I'd already made.

Anyway, I set to work today to add the rear top rail and the 6mm ply bases to the tool tray and the toolbox. Having done that little job using my homemade router table to run the rebates for the panels, I turned my attention to the 5 drawers I need to make. 

Running the groove for the ply bottom was no problem, having cut all the section to length for the fronts and sides, I ran them through the router. The backs would be cut to size after making a rebate for them which needs to be set in from the end of the sides. This is because of a clever little locking system that will make sense when I post some pictures of a finished drawer.

To create these rebates I needed a mitre gauge and a simple, repeatable set-up to get them all in the same place for each side so that the drawers are nice and square. This is what I came up with for the job.

The mitre fence is made of two pieces of 12mm ply glued together at right angles. One rides on the surface of the router table and it is attached to a piece of timber that runs against the edge of the table. You can see it on the second picture.

The stop-block allows me to set the distance from the end of the rail to the rebate, and the two-piece fence keeps the fingers neatly tucked away and also away form the cutter-head. 

I guess I could make it even safer by incorporating the hold-down clamps and sled from my sled.

With the router bit set to the correct depth and a few test runs completed, I was able to make all the rebates for all the drawers quickly and easily. 

As it turned out, I was able to use the same set-up to make the rebates for the half-lap joints where the sides meet the front face of the drawers. Simply moving the stop-block to the edge of the groove that was cut in my mitre fence gave me the correct position for this.

So, another creative solution that will be quite useful in the future. 

I managed to complete one drawer before it was time for tea, so the others will have to wait until another day-off comes around. Hopefully I might even get them all done in the next couple of weeks. Provided the rain keeps off of course!  

Friday, May 22, 2009

Local Wildlife

So, what is a young lamb to do when someone points a camera at you?

Ribblehead Viaduct

It was raining and we just pulled off the road to take a quick photograph of this famous viaduct. I'd like to go back with my Sony Alpha and get closer, but this picture gives you a small sense of the bleakness of the landscape and the wonders of Victorian Civil Engineering (at least I'm assuming it was the Victorians who built this thing!)

The Old Mill?

Looks like and old mill to me!

Aysgarth Falls

They may not be big, they may not be spectacular, but they are a beautiful sight. 

These falls are fairly typical on many in the area. There are some taller ones, not far away I think there is the tallest waterfall in England at Gaping Hill, but these will do for a place to rest and listen to the sound of water falling over rocks.

Down the valley

A couple of pictures of the rolling countryside along the valley. It really was this green.

We walked about 10 miles this first day and saw very few people at all along the way. Mostly sheep and birds!

From time to time it rained a little, but nothing too heavy. 

At the halfway point we stopped at the George and Dragon in Aysgarth for lunch. Wonderful sandwiches presented in an unusual way.

River view

The view along the river on our first day's walk from Askrigg to Aysgarth

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Visiting The Dales

We’ve come to the end of our short expedition into the Yorkshire Dales, and what an interesting visit it has been! We managed to get out for a couple of walks, the longer of which was just over 10 miles from Askrigg to Aysgarth and back, taking in the falls at Aysgarth.
Our second walk took us up through the village of Clapham to Ingleborough Caves. The climb was fairly steep, and the advisory notice to “allow yourself at least 20 minutes” to make the ascent was rather over-optimistic for all but the fittest of walkers. But the path was good, and you can take you time.

The climb takes you up through woods, alongside a lake and within earshot of the water falls but in not sight of them. The best view comes before you enter the trail. Eventually you emerge from the woods into open skies alongside the river and you are within 300-400 metres of the cave entrance.

The tour takes you about 1.5Km underground into the cave. There are some 15-20Km of explored caves and more unexplored pathways hidden from access at the moment. The cave was first explored in the 1830’s by Victorians using candle-light. You just can’t imagine how difficult that must have been!

Anyway, we left the cave after about a 50 minute tour and set off back to the village to have some lunch. On our first day’s walking we had lunch in Aysgarth at the George and Dragon (at least I think that’s the name of the pub). They do the most amazing sandwiches! On the second day we found a small tea sop and had another good sandwich before setting of for a drive around the valley.

We took in the Ribblehead viaduct in the morning and passed it a second time as we made our way to Hawes to have a look around. It was probably the busiest settlement we’d seen. From there we made our way back to Askrigg but decide to drive over to the next valley via what turned out to be a narrow, twisty road, with a 24% gradient in places. We came back a different way!

The prize for the most amusing sign has to go the one that simply read “Crackpot 1”. I’m just surprised he stood still long enough for them to point a sign at him!

Overall we’ve enjoyed our short visit and Anne is looking out for a large house to rent for the wider family next year!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Wensleydale: It's not just a cheese!

I'm resting my weary old bones and feet after just completing a nice 10 mile walk in this wonderful part of Northern England. We arrived yesterday for a short break and, apart from a few small showers, we've had a great day walking. 

We've met a lot of sheep and very few people as we roamed our way from Askrigg to Aysgarth and back again.

I've taken a few pictures with my trusty compact but I didn't bring any cables to connect to the MacBook, so the gallery will have to wait until I get home.

Anyway, at least I've done my 10,000 steps for today, and for tomorrow too!

Is this what it's come to?

I find myself wondering about the sorry state of affairs at Westminster. It seems that we have apparently been guilty of electing a significant number of MP's who are incapable of taking responsibility for their actions.

As I read in the paper this morning about the need for Gordon Brown to "sack this 'dead speaker'" I wondered to myself  if this wasn't an exercise in shifting the blame. It looks to me like a group of kids caught with their hands in the proverbial cookie jar passing the buck down the line. 

And now we have calls for a general election, as if an election is going to fix the problem.

I know some good MP's. I trust them to act ethically and morally and have no doubt that they do. But I despair at those who are looking to blame someone else for not stopping them doing what any thinking person might have suspected to be unjustifiable even if it fell within the famous rules.

I wish Michael Martin well in the future (I've just heard he's announced he's stepping down), and I hope MP's will not think this is the end of a very sorry tale of greed and abuse.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Continuing ruminations on a new systematic theology

I was wondering what the basis for this "new" systematic theology might be. Where would you begin to develop a new approach or at the very least an alternative structure for it? 

Perhaps a missional systematic theology is what is needed.  Something that takes seriously the missionary nature of God and builds around that as a core concept. Then I got to thinking about a sermon I preached last year about mission and remembered the little mantra that arose from it: Christ, mission, church. 

In other words, our Christology drives our missiology which in turn drives our ecclessiology. The problem with this is where do you fit some of the important issues like the doctrine of Scripture or of man.

Maybe Alan Hirsch's Forgotten Ways, or Michael Frost's Exiles or even Brian McLaren's Everything must change, are all more systematic that you might think at first glance. Maybe our job is to think them through in a systematic way.

Oh dear, I think I'm falling under the influence of organised thought. It may be too late for me, but save yourselves!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Reading a systematic theology

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned and idea about the need for a new systematic theology. As I said then, I'm' not a big fan of them, but then again we actually all do systematic theology whether we call it that or not. We make statements of faith and about our faith that amount to a core set of beliefs. We all think they are Biblical, whether they stand the test of scrutiny or not. This is systematic theology.

Perhaps what we actually need is a more systematic scrutiny of our existing systematic theologies that we carry around with us. In other words, do your core beliefs and practices actually stand the test of biblical reflection?

Anyway, I decided to take the plunge and to set about reading at least one comparatively recent systematic theology text to start getting my head around how my idea could work in the context of the local church.

I chose Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology, which runs to around 1200 larger than typical pages. Helpfully subtitled "An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine" (Yes, I too wonder how long the full treatment would be if the introduction is 1200 pages), it's actually a very accessible book to read. Okay, so you might need a dictionary occasionally if you're not familiar with some of the theological terms used, but overall, this is not a hard book to read. The chapters are quite short, and of course you don't actually have to read it from start to finish, you can pick the topics in which you are most interested and read those first.

What I really like about the book is the approach Grudem has taken. This is a book written from an evangelical perspective and in a disciple-making context. The goal of the book is not to fill your head with all sorts of theological information but to help you grow in your understanding of your faith.

There's a good bibliography, and each chapter ends with a passage of Scripture to learn and a hymn or song that reflects the topic just discussed. You may not agree with every conclusion that he draws, but I don't think you can claim that you're going to be uninformed by the time you've worked your way through this weighty tome.

So why would you want to read a book of this length? 

First of all I should tell you that there are two edited versions of the book also available. Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith is still 400 pages long, but even at that, only a third the size of the original. And if 400 pages is too much to get your enthusiasm racing, then the very concise Christian Beliefs: Twenty Basics Every Christian Should Know, is only 160 pages long and not a bad place to begin at all.

And the reason you should at least one of them or something similar? Well I think the answer lies in a verse from James that we all know but probably don't think it applies to us.

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.
If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Their loyalty is divided between God and the world, and they are unstable in everything they do.

I doubt we consider ourselves unstable, or double-minded, or with divided loyalties, but I often wonder if some of our struggles are rooted in an incomplete theology at work in our minds.  Take for example a person who becomes unsure if God still loves them. Our modern experiential framework means that they tend to look for some kind of feeling to solve their sense of being unloved. Sensing God's love is a good thing, but knowing we are loved is, I suggest, of far greater importance. 

The latter is a matter of understanding, the former is incredibly fickle because our feeling can be fickle. 

I don't want to set myself up for a fall, but I have come to the conclusion that the thing that keeps me going when things get me down and things get tough is my theology. It is what I know and believe about God that provides the foundation for my perseverance. And that's why I am beginning to see the need for a new systematic theology in the church today. Not so that we can argue the finer points of doctrine, or debate the order events in the end times or even test our orthodoxy with respect to the five points of Calvinism, but that we might grow, that we might become mature in our faith, for the glory of God and for sake of his purposes.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Is Church Family?

Here's an interesting piece with a rather long title and a lot of content about church, the nature of the Sunday gathering and what to do about visitors. The essence of the post is a reflection on community and accessibility to that community. The author points out that:

In post Christendom, as I have often argued, the Sunday morning gathering is essential, buts its very character changes from the ways we met in Christendom. It is no longer structured to attract seekers or non-Christians and evangelize them. It is no longer put together to attract Christians wandering away from other churches. It is instead formational, it brings us corporately into the practice of encountering God and being transformed by that encounter for life and Mission in Christ.

Such a gathering does, by its very nature, becomes somewhat inaccessible to visitors because it's a community that knows itself and knows its struggles and its mission, something a stranger to that particular community will not know. 

Now this doesn't give us a licence to be inhospitable to visitors, but it does challenge the concept of over-working the need to be so welcoming that people feel "at home" straight away.

The article goes on to suggest that we view our Sunday gatherings in the context of being a family, and guests to a family event always come by invitation. In other words, there is always someone they have got to know outside the family context and who is there to help them navigate their way within the family.

If you have time, it's a post worth reading through and reflecting upon.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

My first lathe project

Today I have to say a big thank you to David's grandfather for letting me try my hand at wood turning on his lathe. (David is Ally's fiance... did I mention they got engaged a few weeks ago).

Anyway, back to the important stuff, my wood turning. The bowl would have been a bit bigger, but I managed to tear a lump out of the edge, so it shrank! The wood is cherry and the finish is wax.

It is quite an intense experience for a beginner. Learning to control the various shaping tools needs concentration but relaxed hands and wrists. I'm certainly game for another go!

Mind you, I think I'm probably not quite ready for mass production, and maybe a hand turned wedding present for Ally is a long way off. And anyway, I suspect David's grandfather will have first dibs on that project!

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The busyness of life and ministry

I've been busy. Nothing newsworthy there. I'm guessing that there are precious few people out there who would actually describe their lives as particularly "not busy". If you are not busy for some reason, then please enjoy it if you can!

Anyway, my busyness stems from the convergence of two days away Waverley Abbey House, a funeral in between and a wedding on Saturday. In fact, had the wedding been two days earlier it would have meant that, for the first time ever in twenty years of ministry, I would have done a dedication, a funeral and a wedding in the same month!

I'd not thought about before Saturday, but things don't tend to come together quite like that for me. 

It does mean that there's a pile of post to deal with and much work to be done preparing for the next series as well as for the coming Sunday. But I don't get quite as worked up over this as I used to do. I think that although I'm not as well organised as I'd like to be, being more organised than I was certainly helps. For example, I know that the post can wait a day because I know there's nothing earth-shatteringly important in there and I know where it all is (it's all in one place in my famous tickler file). In fact I don't expect it to take me more than 10 minutes to deal with, even if it's a growing pile come tomorrow's delivery. And that's tomorrow's job.

So, if you're feeling stressed out by the busyness of everything, my prescription would be to take a long hard look at your organising system and honestly ask yourself if it's working. If it isn't, then begin to write a list of what you need to do to regain control and don't assume because all you papers are hidden away in a file that you've got it sorted. I've done that before and all it ever meant was that my disorganisation was hidden. Once written, tackle things one at a time. Pick the thing that will bring either most benefit or most joy as a starting point, then work systematically through the list. You might even be surprised how quickly you recover control. I've certainly discovered that by having a system, control is regained far more quickly that it was without one.

Friday, May 01, 2009

The humble presence of Jesus

As I was scanning the book shelves for some resources to help me shape the next series for Sunday mornings, I cam across a booked called Christianity 101 by Gilbert Bilezikian. If you've ever listened to Bill Hybels talk about the inspirational teacher who challenged him, then you will recognise the name.

Scanning quickly through the book, I came across this opening paragraph in the chapter "The Doctrine of Christ":

The humble presence of Jesus Christ towers over the jagged skyline of human history. Through the ages, visionaries have come and gone, strong men and heroes have immortalized themselves into the memory of the race, sages and seers have lifted the human spirit toward its Maker, thinkers have plumbed the depths of the mysteries of existence, crusaders and conquerors have created kingdoms and destroyed them, saints and martyrs have sacrificed their lives for noble causes, but no other man has ever accomplished so much in so little time to affect the course of the world as Jesus of Nazareth. He is at the center of human history.