Tuesday, February 16, 2010

My Spiritual Journey (2)

So I got to 1976 and my discovering that all the time I’d been chasing after God, he’d been chasing me and now I was caught. Some people have dramatic conversion stories, mine almost passed me by. I didn’t realise what I’d done until I was talking with some other guys at college and they could see that I was changed.

Very quickly I became a challenging member of my Christian subculture. I wasn’t about to conform to some imposed pattern that made me just like every other well-behaved member of the small group. I was, and still am, a little bit of a maverick. So I asked awkward questions and sought out deeper conversations.

In 1977, six months after coming to faith, I found myself in Germany at the European Congress on Disciple-making, run by the Navigators. I still have great admiration for this interdenominational organisation. I soaked up a lot of ideas over the few days we were there and it was at that conference that I first felt the gentle nudge of God’s Spirit to enter the bigger picture of God’s plan and purposes in the world. I didn’t know what it would mean, but I wanted to be part of whatever he was doing.

The following year I found myself in a 17-seat minibus travelling through North Africa with 15 other people. It was a trip organised by British Mission, later to become World Horizons. Two significant things happened on that trip. One, I got nudged more clearly by the Spirit to think about full-time ministry in the context of the UK church. Second, I finally connected meaningfully with the woman I would marry! Anne never could tell right from left and that left her at a disadvantage when trying to cross the road in Casablanca. I seized the opportunity and took her hand. We married two years later, which makes this year our 30th wedding anniversary.

Coming back from Africa we wrote to a number of colleges to enquire about possible training. BBI (Birmingham Bible Institute) very wisely encouraged us to find jobs, settle into being married and learn about life outside of the cloistered world of university and education. So we did. For seven years I worked for British Gas in R&D until I finally entered college to study theology.

During those years the call grew and I grew in fits and starts as I struggled to work out my faith amidst the questions and challenges of a church that generally wasn’t working. That’s not a criticism of any of the churches with whom we connected, but just a general feeling of unease that things were not as they should be and that all was not well among God’s people. Neither is it a precursor to my prescription for fixing anything. Even after 20 years of ministry I still haven’t worked that out.

In college I found out that my paternal grandfather had spent some of his life as a missionary in Gambia, and I began to wonder if I was part of a bigger story even within my own family.
College was great and it gave me the chance to explore things in new ways. One of those things was the place of the church in God’s mission. Something I tried to wrestle with in an essay.

More of that next time.

A Contrast Society

In Roxburgh and Boren’s Introducing the Missional Church, they talk about the need for the church to become a contrast society. The church is called to be a sign, witness, and foretaste of God’s dream (p103) for the redemption of all creation. To be this foretaste we must become a people shaped by an alternative story, living by a set of distinctly Christian practices. (103) How each individual church does this will reflect its local community. In other words there is no one size fits all plan, but a pattern of principles that Roxburgh and Boren divide into three sets of missional practices–presence, love and engaging the neighbourhood.

It’s interesting to me that one of the things they pick up on is the practice of hospitality, something that’s recently caught my attention because I was asked to preach about it!
One of the interesting questions then is to ask ourselves what would a contrast society or community look like in my neighbourhood. Before Christmas, sometime in October now I think about it, we did a little experiment in hospitality. We invited our neighbours three either side and five or six opposite to come and meet us. We’d only been in the house for a month or so, and just wanted to get to know them.

Some came, more didn’t. Why was that? Maybe they thought we were the religious nuts that had just moved in and it wasn’t worth the risk of not being able to escape. Maybe they were actually as busy as they said they were. Bt at least we asked, and we will ask again. This is part of being a contrast society in our neck of the woods.

The more I think about being a contrast society, the more it seems to call me to live faith out in full view of others. Not preaching at every opportunity, but of sharing a different life, shaped by a different story, the story of God’s redemptive plan at work in my life.

In the warmer weather I hope we can begin to extend our hospitality through being outside more often than we’re inside. Spending time in the park simply doing life with others, playing games, sharing picnics, hearing stories.

There’s bound to be more to being a contrast society than this, but at least it’s a place to start.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

My Spiritual Journey (1)

I thought I might write about my spiritual journey, not because it's particularly exciting or even inspiring. It's just my story and it might help me understand me a bit more.

To find a starting point for one's spiritual journey is always difficult. How far back do you go? For me I suppose I'd have to start with the day I decided not to go to Sunday School. My parents were not church goers, but we were sent to Sunday School. After two weeks I declared it to be boring and that it wasn't for me. Little did I know at the tender age of 4 that I would spend the larger part of my life serving the very institution I appeared to be rejecting that day. Perhaps even then the established church was not a great fit for me!

I also remember asking, at one family meal, why I had to believe in God. Because the adults told me so simply didn't satisfy my young mind, and so at 4 years of age I was already asking deep questions that were getting me into trouble.

I don't remember much about the next 10 years or so. I know that by the time I was 15 or so my questions had become more focused on life's meaning. More specifically about who could give meaning to my life, who had the authority to do that. Existential philosophy appeared to suggest that you do the truth thing for yourself, but that didn't satisfy me.

As I travelled to and from school one thing always caught my eye, an illuminate cross on a church. At the time I didn't understand why or what it represented. It wasn't until I arrived at University that I found someone who helped me understand how to begin a relationship with God.

So there I was, sitting in my room on the last Sunday of the first term in 1976 asking God to do for me what I needed. To forgive me and to give meaning to my life.

Questions, then, have always been a major part of my mental tapestry. Sometimes I ask too many questions, and that paralyses action. Sometimes the questions are a launching point for deeper study and learning. I still ask questions, and for some people I still ask too many as I try to understand what it means to know God and make him known.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

In conversation, in the pub

I had my first outing to a local pub the other evening. It was very quiet and I'd arranged to meet someone there for a chat. This is pastoral care, this is conversation, this is just being church, this is just being. For those who might be worrying, I had fruit juice. Actually, as I told my conversation partner, I decided when I was 18 that it was okay not to like beer and to tell other people I didn't like it! So I drink what I like and I like fruit juice.

Back to the story.

The place we went was not busy. Maybe because it was Monday night, maybe because it as cold, or maybe it just isn't busy on Mondays! So we met and we sat and we talked. We talked about all sorts of things. Nothing we talked about was a secret, it didn't need to be said behind the closed doors of an office or study. It was just two people doing life together.

I'm not about to suggest that we convene a small group and all turn up with Bibles next week, but why don't we meet and have conversations more often than we do? Why is it that we find it so hard to spend time together when one of the hallmarks of community is time spent together?

We had a great meal with friends from church the other Friday. I laughed so much at one particular story that I thought I was going to turn inside out! Isn't it time we invited our neighbours and friends into our lives more often? To share our stories with them and hear their stories from them. No evangelistic agenda, just doing life. Could we possibly reimagine church more in the contexts of these relationship than in the context of filling a building once a week?

A few weeks ago someone said to me that they thought the problem with our building is that it was designed to be closed most of the time! Reimagining it to be open most of the time might be a good place to start, but it's not the only shift in imagination we need. More needs to change. Stud walls and paint, extensions and new buildings won't make us more engaged with our community.

If we can't see what God is doing in the space we share with the missing, it's unlikely that we'll fix that without a new imagination. I wonder if there's room for a housegroup for people who don't like housegroups and that doesn't meet in a house?

I think I'm rambling again!

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Dealing with confusion

Life can be confusing to say the very least. Just when you think it's going really well, something pops up and send you into a tailspin and just when you think the world is about to crash in on your head, God steps in and does something quite remarkable. It is all very confusing at times.

At the moment it has to be said that life is a little disorienting. nothing that can't be handled if approached properly, and by that I mean with bags of grace and prayer and by keeping jerking knees under strict control!

And so it is that I turn to by daily reading and Blackaby's devotional guide. Here's an extract from today's reflection from Luke's gospel:

God reads the heart and knows the honest pursuit of His will by His children. Jesus drew near to these men [the two on the Emmaus road], walked with them, and opened their minds to what the Scriptures said about Him and about the events of their day. As Jesus was speaking, their hearts burned within them! As they listened to Jesus relate the Scriptures to what they were experiencing, they knew in their hearts that they were hearing God’s truth. Their doubts vanished, excitement overcame them, and they raced back to share the truth with their friends!

If you become bewildered by circumstances in your life, Jesus can reorient you to Himself through the Scriptures just as He did for these two men. From your human perspective, the situation may be confusing and discouraging. It takes the presence of Christ to open your eyes to the truth of the Scriptures. Have your circumstances confused you? You need Jesus to give you His perspective. Once you’ve heard from Him, you’ll be like these two men, excited to join God in what He is doing around you and eager to include others in the experience.

So, if life is a little confusing you know where to turn. Don't turn to the self-help guides, turn to the Bible and walk in the ways of God. It will do wonders for your soul. Trust me, I'm a pastor!

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Monday, February 01, 2010

Thinking about Church

A couple of things I've read recently are helping me think about church. The first is from Bill Hybels book Axiom. It's about DNA, but the point that stirred my thoughts was the need to discover a church's DNA and plot the course to a new DNA carefully. As we face the challenge of change, we need to be careful about identifying the DNA of what is ahead of us and about how we become DNA carriers amongst the leadership team and the wider church.

And then I was reading Ed Stetzer's blog and was reminded that fundamental to the church is the call to conversion. This is part of our DNA. The gospel changes lives. It doesn't replace one set of principles with another, it doesn't overlay an extra set of faith values or offer an alternative lifestyle.

The gospel calls for a radical loss of self in order to discover our truest identity. We die to live. We take up our cross every day, we lose our lives to find them. This is not a gospel of self-realisation but a gospel of self-denial. I am not the centre of the universe.

Putting the two together means that if the transforming power of the gospel and a strong expectation of seeing lives transformed, souls saved or won, however you want to phrase it, is not part of the DNa then whatever is formed by that DNA will not be the church. This is not at odds with a desire to see a new expression of biblical community.

Preface it with what you like: attractional, missional, traditional, contemporary, emergent, it doesn't matter, it won't be the church. The church is God's chosen vehicle for his missionary activity in the world. Take that away and you've taken the heart out of the church.

Pastoral Care Training Day

On Saturday I had the great pleasure of spending the day with some great folk from ARC. You can find out more about the church from their website. I met Peter, the senior pastor, at a one-day seminar last March. We began to talk and from there we developed a relationship that led to me leading a training day for them. We talked about pastoral care.

The day broke down into four sessions: An overview; the health-check; how we listen; and developing good practice. The health-check is a simple questionnaire used to identify areas of personal spiritual growth and ministry. We covered a lot of ground, but it was a lot of fun. The group was wonderfully responsive and made me feel wonderfully welcome. And the food was brilliant!

I ended the day shattered but having been inspired and challenged. Surely that's not a bad outcome, to be challenged by your own seminar!

Having not done anything quite like this before, it was a opportunity for me to explore how to plan and deliver something that would stimulate and keep people engaged through a whole day. We did some group activities, but we probably needed more process time. To do that would mean either cutting down the content or lengthening the day. I think we probably got the balance about right.

Missional Church Video

This came via one of the regular feeds I check.