Tuesday, 18 October 2016

To what are we called?

Reading Tod Bolsinger's "Canoeing the Mountains", I was arrested by the question: "To what are we called?" Reflecting on that question takes us a long way along the road to discovery of a way forward in being church today.
I know that that might seem like a really obvious and basic question - but I wonder how often we revisit the source and purpose of our calling?
In the midst of huge cultural shifts that take us into sometimes hostile terrain, reflecting on our purpose in our context gives us, not just an inkling of how we might navigate or negotiate a way through, but also the resolve that arises from fully comprehending why we want to do so.
The Falkirk Wheel is an amazing feat of engineering, built to link the Forth and Clyde and Union Canals. It saves boaters having to navigate a series of locks. Indeed, the 19th Century locks, 11 locks, navigating a 35m incline, had been demolished and the land reclaimed and given over to a housing development after years of disuse. When engineers and waterway enthusiasts wanted to link the canals again, in effect linking Glasgow and Edinburgh by canal, their practical solution, based on 21st century engineering, also created a Scottish landmark and tourist attraction. But at the heart of those spin offs is a very practical solution to recovering a navigable waterway, the initial and driving purpose of the endeavour.
In the last few years, the Church of Scotland affirmed its commitment to "Providing the ordinances of religion in every part of Scotland" a tenet that once meant there would be church buildings in communities large and small, the length and breadth of the land. That commitment has often been mistaken as our "raisond'ĂȘtre". And so, our focus, particularly under stress, defaults to the preservation and conservation of buildings, signs of the church's presence in communities, and the maintenance of systems and structures that support that.
But is our purpose to provide the ordinances of religion, or is it to be involved in the Mission of God? These are, of course, not mutually exclusive but what if the mission God calls on us to be engaged in reduces our capacity to fulfil ordinances or maintain buildings? What if, today, amidst the vastly changed landscape in which we find ourselves we have to leave our buildings and "the ordinances of religion" in order to be alongside those  with whom God calls us to be?
How do we resource and equip those whose calling is to leave the building alongside those whose faithfulness and gifting is in maintenance? And how do we ensure that, in stress, we do not seek comfort in what we have always done and in what we know?
New structures, imaginative permission giving, prayer and blessing are just a few of the terrains to be negotiated as we work out how to be church today, involved in the Mission of God. Finding our 21st century purpose with the trappings of earlier foci is no easy feat. All the more vital that our purpose is secure and found in the Mission of God in the world where we are called to serve today.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

The dance of love

John 1:9-10
The Life-Light was the real thing:
Every person entering Life
he brings into Light.
He was in the world,
the world was there through him,
and yet the world didn't even notice.
This week, as I was pondering God as a dance partner in mission, I'm grateful to colleagues who pointed me to the Perichoresis - the dance of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
That set me off on a whole new image fest- Rather than the sedate ballroom style dance, like that portrayed in Jack Vettriano's 'Dance me to the end of love', my imagination whirled off to a Ceilidh - and I imagined a Strip the Willow or an Eightsome Reel or even a Progressive Canadian Barn Dance with God in the midst of the action. The sound track accompanying my sedate waltz with God,  played by a tux wearing pianist, morphed into a jig with crazy Scottish snaps in the music and fiddle bows flying over strings in a blur. 
Mission imagined at a slow, dignified pace became Mission in the melee - Perhaps a much more realistic image of partnering God in mission.
I'm not sure who it was who said: "Show me your gods and I will show you your people" but a God of the ceilidh is perhaps a more arresting image than the God of the ballroom. And now I am picturing God weaving in and out of the reel or sedately joining in a two step to a melancholy air. God, who takes time to learn the basic steps but who is comfortable with improvisations, often instigating a change of pace. But, above all, God who continues to invite us all into the action, to risk looking foolish alongside God, taking two steps forward and one step back, to dare to make it up as we go along, experimenting and learning from failure, all the while dancing in the dance of the Trinity of love, Father, Son and Holy Spirit who call us to be partners in mission in God's world 

Monday, 3 October 2016

Changing the Narrative

Matthew 11:7-9
Jesus Praises John the Baptist
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.

These wonderful sculptures - The Kelpies -  attract lots of visitors who can enjoy, as well as a tour recounting their engineering, lovely walks around the Forth and Clyde Canal. They have enhanced a beautiful area of the Scottish countryside and encouraged many visitors to explore and enjoy that beauty.
But Kelpies were scary characters in Scottish mythology and folk tales - malevolent water horses who lured the innocent to watery deaths! The creation of this wonderful tourist attraction has somewhat redeemed the Kelpies!
It has long been acknowledged that often prophecies can be self fulfilling. If we are pessimistic about something for long enough, our pessimism is often rewarded! Expecting the worst, we often fail to notice when our expectations are confounded.
Of course we cannot merely wish good news into being. But, expecting a good outcome opens us up to the possibility of seeing the positive things that are around us.
When the disciples of John the Baptist went to find out if Jesus was the promised Messiah, Jesus asked them "What do you see?"
The work of renewal in the church involves changing the narrative. Operating, not out of a place of fear fuelled by stories of decline and death but from a position of belief in the transforming mission of God that is ongoing in the world. Renewal involves telling a different story- one of excitement and risk and faith and of a God who loves and invites us into mission today. We cannot wish renewal into being but we can be involved in changing the narrative by sharing the stories of love and faith against the odds that are all around us today, seeking out the places we see God at work and working alongside God in the places we inhabit, transforming the darkness,bringing good news stories to life.
It's time to change the narrative.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Living a questionable life

1 Peter 3:15
Through thick and thin, keep your hearts at attention, in adoration before Christ, your Master. Be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you're living the way you are, and always with the utmost courtesy.

As we prepare to embark on a new season in Path of Renewal, our hope will be to persuade congregations at large that they have a crucial part to play in evangelism today.
That will require lots to affirmation and assurance. It will require winning over those who, in the past, have felt inadequate or turned off by the stereotype of the evangelist who stands on the street corner or in the back courts haranguing folk to follow Jesus. It will require the reclaiming of the term "questionable lives" so that those who hold office in our congregations and those who don't will see themselves as evangelists - those who are always prepared to "explain the hope they have in them ... with gentleness and respect." - confidently sharing why church is important to them, why they choose to spend Sundays in worship or week nights involved in church activities, being open about how they spend their time so that folk will want to question why they spend their time engaged in the work of the church.
As well as dismantling stereotypes, we also want to encourage people to recall those who faithfully and gently mentored and nurtured them in faith - those who cared when they didn't show up at Bible Class or Youth Fellowship or some other church activity, those who inspired and influenced them, and those who walked quietly alongside them. There are many stories residing in memories, perhaps not visited for some time. By recalling those, the hope is that otherwise diffident folk will embrace the possibility that, today, they have all that it takes to walk with others, to encourage others into and through faith.
Changing a mindset is no easy task but perhaps a first step is tapping into shared stories and memories, demythologising the task of evangelism, and restoring it to a normative place in our culture today.
Matthew 10:10
You don't need a lot of equipment. You are the equipment...

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Making the old new

Winston Churchill said 
"One of the signs of a great society is the diligence with which it passes culture from one generation to the next. This culture is the embodiment of everything the people of that society hold dear: its religious faith, its heroes.....when one generation no longer esteems it's own heritage and fails to pass the torch to its children, it is saying in essence that the very foundational principles and experiences that make the society what it is are no longer valid. This leaves that generation without any sense of definition or direction, making them the fulfillment of Karl Marx's dictum, 'A people without a heritage are easily persuaded.' What is required when this happens and the society has lost its way, is for leaders to arise, who have not forgotten the discarded legacy and who love it with all their hearts. They can then become the voice of that lost generation, wooing an errant generation back to the faith of their fathers, back to the ancient foundations and bedrock values...
(Never Give In, The Extraordinary Character of Winston Churchill, Page 190)

I've been pondering the above quote since I came across the statue of Sir Winston Churchill in Paris - and I'm conflicted by its sentiment.
On the one hand, I want to claim its veracity as an encouragement to recover the roots of our Celtic spirituality, to mine the riches of that particular seam of Christian heritage, to return to a faith rooted in the earth and in social justice, particularly in response to the world today.
But, on the other hand, history (and heritage) is always composed and contextualised by one generation to make sense of the past for the next and thus given a perspective that may only be true in the eyes of the narrator.
In our heritage of faith, what is truth and what is relevant for this generation? Surely it is more helpful, not to bequeath a culture but to pass on tools with which to engage fully with the intricacies and peculiarities of life today. Tools that build resilience, that foster hope, that allow discovery of meaning. Those tools don't come neatly packaged but emerge out of careful consideration and discernment alongside those with whom they are fashioned. We don't indiscriminately hand on or plunder our heritage but, rather, sift and weigh what is of use for each generation.
Our task is not to woo a lost generation back to irrelevant practices but to create opportunity to see how those ancient rhythms connect with life today, to create space for contemplation, to create opportunity for action, to build community and accountability.
The heritage of faith is not an entity that one generation bequeaths to another but a feast from which one selects courses that appeal. And lest that suggests a lack of depth, there is the assurance of the prayers of the saints through the ages harnessing and releasing the power of the spirit, enabling wisdom and insight and revealing the presence of God at work in the world.
People of faith are the connectors, discerning God at work, creating sign posts and offering practices that create supportive communities in which individuals can find belonging and, together, create new stories.
Ours is not to woo but, rather, out of respect for our shared heritage of faith, to wade in to the melee, offering our vulnerability and love for our world today, forging new meaning from ancient ways.

Sunday, 24 July 2016


Genesis 18:32
Then Abraham said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.

Luke 11:1
Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

From Wikipedia:
Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) is a strategic business statement similar to a vision statement which is created to focus an organization on a single medium-long term organization-wide goal which is audacious, likely to be externally questionable, but not internally regarded as impossible.

Google's BHAG is: To organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.
Facebook's BHAG is: To make the world more open and connected.

It was audacity that saw Abraham asking God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if even 10 righteous souls could be found (having worked his way down from 50).
It was audacity that led the disciples to ask Jesus: Teach us to pray.
What part does Audacity play in our Missional strategies today?
In our medium - long term goals, is there a place for audacity?
The audacity that causes those who look on with suspicion to question our sanity?
The audacity that is possible because we trust in God who specialises in the impossible?
The audacity that dares the Kingdom of God to break out in the midst of a world where people are subjected to prejudice, violence, injustice and abuse of power, a world that breaks God's heart, 

BHAGs create a sense of unity in teams working together toward a common vision as well as offering a stretch beyond what is, perhaps, considered realistic.
The very audacity, however, motivates those involved to reach that bit further to achieve what others consider beyond reach.
Changing the mindset and culture of the church might well be a BHAG, one that might take more than a generation to achieve but the audacity must begin somewhere. 
In discovering ways to be church in our cultures today, we continue to practice audacity, sharing stories along the way that speak of breakthroughs and of set backs. We hold on for the long term, doing all that we can, always asking boldly for the force of God's Holy Spirit to show us the way, for the breath of God to breathe in us and for the life of God to flow through us, changing hearts, changing minds, starting from where we are.
That's a BHAG for sure!

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Bathed in prayer

Matthew 9:37 - 10:1
"What a huge harvest!" he said to his disciples. "How few workers! On your knees and pray for harvest hands!"
The Twelve Harvest Hands
The prayer was no sooner prayed than it was answered. Jesus called twelve of his followers and sent them into the ripe fields. He gave them power to kick out the evil spirits and to tenderly care for the bruised and hurt lives.
I've always been grateful for the Prayer Warriors who have surrounded me with prayer through life - praying for me to explore faith, to find faith, to commit, to discern and then follow a vocation, to have courage, to step up, to remain and to relax in God and to find adventure in following the unpredictable Spirit as she leads in escapades that could never have been planned or anticipated.
Often, when people have been apologetic about not being "actively" involved in ministry, I have offered consolation by assuring them that they might engage in prayer.
And yet, prayer is not a consolation, but the energy in every venture.
Prayer is not an optional extra or an add on but the grounding of faith in action.
Praying for - as well as stepping up to be - harvest hands demands that we are bathed in prayer as surely as we scrub our faces in the morning.
Entering the harvest demands that we pay as much attention to our prayer life as we do to recruiting and energising and building relationships and being "out there doing ministry", and yet it is one of the most difficult routines to cultivate and one of the first we let slip under pressure.
And, while most of us are prepared to admit our weaknesses in some areas of ministry, we rarely admit to how much we struggle with the disciplines of prayer - that seems a step too far in our vulnerability.
In some ways, with the variety of apps available to us (like centering prayer or pray as you go) it should be easier to cultivate a discipline in prayer but the ever increasing demands of ministry lure us away from stillness and contemplation. And we probably scorn those who assert that such contemplation can be found on the morning commute or as we load the dishwasher or as we return from the school run....
As long as we see prayer as "taking time out" we are unlikely to make it a priority in our lives. Would it make a difference if we saw prayer as "putting time in?" It seems that we're more likely to take on something extra than take time away from those activities we see as core in ministry. And while most of us would assert that prayer is core, we still manage to consider it as requiring time that we simply don't have.
Engagement in any ministry and especially ministry on the edge can be isolating and pressured and the very least we can gift to ourselves is doing whatever it takes to find a way to be bathed in prayer - asking others to pray and finding a regular, habitual way to pray ourselves.
How do habits develop? By doing the same thing over and over. Once a habit is established it can be varied and developed but the first step is in forming a habit.
I firmly believe that, often, God acts with us and in spite of us. Our chaotic prayer life will not thwart the Spirit's efforts but grounding and bathing ourselves in prayer may bring us affirmation and consolation, insight and inspiration - that edge that sustains us through the desert, that irrigates and refines hopes and dreams and brings the impetus to kick out the evil spirits and to tenderly care for the bruised and hurt lives.
May our mundane habit of prayer become a power house in the work of the kingdom wherever we are, fuelling the work of the harvest in ways we would never have imagined - for the glory of God.