Author Archives: supersutton

Endings and Beginnings.

the end is nigh | The End is Nigh sandwich board near the en… | Flickr

What kind of book reader are you? Do you start at page one and read to the end or are you tempted to skip to the last page to see ‘who done it’?!

I would argue that if you are the latter then you are a good christian; let me explain further.

I start with another question – What is Christian about the church?

The reason I ask this is that faced with the malaise that afflicts many of our congregations and churches, we have turned uncritically to secular business and leadership literature desperately searching for quick fixes and a one-size-fits-all technique. As a result, we have found ourselves swirling in intra-Christian polemics: some leaders loudly commending the latest books on effective leadership, with others equally loudly claiming that Christians are called to be faithful and prophetic rather than selling out to popular notions of success.

The polemics are tearing us apart rather than building up the Body. Adopting an either-or position will not equip our churches to act as incubators of transformative life and cultivators of thriving communities. 

So is there something distinctively Christian about the Church?

Yes: The end.

Don’t stop reading!, this isn’t the conclusion of my reflection. Rather, it is ‘the end’, the goal, the purpose, the telos that shapes the church and makes it most distinctively Christian. Our end is to cultivate thriving communities that bear witness to the inbreaking reign of God that Jesus announces and embodies in all that we do and are. This should shape the way we think about our lives, and our churches.

In one sense, it is so obvious that it scarcely needs mentioning. The answer brings to mind the old story of a preacher inquiring during a children’s address, “What is grey, has a bushy tail and gathers acorns every autumn?” The children are silent for a few moments, then one child responds, “I’m sure the right answer is Jesus, but it sounds like a squirrel to me.”

Of course the right answer to the question, “What’s Christian about the church?”, is Jesus. Centring our lives in Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, enables us to locate our lives and our church in this comprehensive story of God.

For a long time I took for granted the “why” questions about purpose: Why does the church exist, or need to exist? I was given a jolt in an ecumenical meeting when someone said “The church is here to convert Muslims”! It was a bad diagnosis of our culture, I thought. But even worse, we cannot advance the church’s mission in the world by identifying our purpose by what we are not. 

Too often as a church, we can name our activities, but we struggle tell our own story of shaping communities of faithful (if flawed) discipleship. We struggle to speak of a community engaging in the great stream of God’s story in time and space. (God’s story beyond time and space it not ours to tell.)

Many churches have learned from secular business culture to “take the long view”, but we Christians are called to develop an even longer view, a view that must incorporate the best thinking in business, psychology, history and other fields but situate it in our story as followers of Christ. The end in Christian perspective is not simply the termination of things, but rather the fulfilment of all for which we have hoped, yearned, prayed and worked.

The end is what orients our thinking about how we can honour the past as we search for the most faithful and imaginative way forward: to be a people who bear witness to the Holy Spirit who, by conforming us to Christ, is “making all things new.” The end helps us discern and clarify what needs to be preserved and what needs to be jettisoned for us to be faithful. The end enables us to be a people of traditioned innovation, envisioning the future by honouring the church’s past rather than merely ceaseless change.

Claiming the end as the heart of our story is critical for the church. For it returns us to basic questions all organizations, for-profit or otherwise, must ask. Why must we exist? What do we do that no one else can do as well? What would be lost if we disappeared?

In a time of economic tumult and unceasing reports on the decline of the mainline churches, we are prone to constrain our perspective by focusing on short-term questions of survival, that is understandable. However, especially in times of tumult, that we most need is to return to our fundamental commitments and focus on the end, a fulfilment of all that is and has been. After all, it might give us a new beginning.

Grace and peace, Alan.

Lent 4: Not more theology!

Theologian? You Guys Are Always Fun Drawing by Charles Barsotti

DISCLAIMER – I’m not nor have I ever been a theologian!

In my last post I spoke of how we need to to think of the church as vibrant institution and that would perhaps need us to think of how we speak theologically about vibrant institutions.

Sadly in many churches Theology has become something of a dirty word, somehow the opposite of mission. However theology just means words about God. Revd. Dr. John Taylor (of late and blessed memory) once said that there could be a theology about anything, even lampposts. It just required that asking of two simple questions – ‘What has God to do with lampposts and what have lampposts to do with God.’ You can replace lampposts with any thing else you wish.

So what would the theology of the church as a vibrant institution begin to look like?

Three great themes that underpin all theology are creation, reconciliation and redemption.

CREATION One of the marks of the church as a vibrant institution is that through the centuries Christians founded institutions based on love of neighbour. The unprecedented and still unmatched moral triumphs — its care of widows and orphans, its almshouses, hospitals, foundling houses, schools, shelters, relief organisations, soup kitchens, medical missions, charitable aid societies and so on. Pagan Greeks had only houses to help wounded soldiers recover and get them back to the front. Christians opened houses to heal the poor out of obedience to their Lord.

The Didascalia, a third-century Christian document, made bishops, the church’s key leaders, responsible for educating orphans, aiding widows and purchasing food and firewood for the poor. The church of Rome in 251 had some 1,500 poor people on its rolls, whom it cared for with food, oil, wine and clothing. And such efforts were before the lifting of state-sanctioned persecution against the church. Once official harassment of Christians gave way to imperial largesse, churches became the first institutionalized public welfare organizations in Western history.

And lest anyone think this history self-serving, look to the witness of Christianity’s most bitter ancient enemy. The emperor Julian sought to reinstate imperial worship of the ancient gods and to stem the rising tide of the church in the empire. His primary means? Encouragement of pagan altruism. Julian declared it a “disgrace that these impious Galileans care not only for their own poor, but for ours as well.” 

Christians won people because they cared for the poor materially and they did this through institutions. Pagans lost people because they did not. These institutions showed, and embodied, the Christian claim that God is not on the side of the strong, but is personally fleshed in one crucified Jew. His resurrected light transfigures all with eyes to see now, not one heart at a time (as today’s evangelicals would likely put it), but one almshouse, hospital, soup kitchen and food pantry at a time.

The church is a vibrant institution when it recognises we are all part of God’s creation and therefore we care for all of God’s creation.

RECONCILIATION Churches as a vibrant institutions can offer enormous good to countless people, to be sure, but they also carry inherent risk. Institutions can become bureaucracies and deaden the energy that led to the institution’s founding in the first place. Churches are not only witness to God’s good creation, but as themselves are in constant need of Christ’s reconciling work. They’re in need of saving if they are to save others.

In the fourth century St. Jerome praised a Roman aristocrat named Fabiola, whose money founded the first hospital in the West and whose personal zeal had her washing wounds and dispensing food herself. In the Christian East, another aristocratic woman named Olympias supported churches, convents, beggars, prisoners and exiles. In between institutional crevices themselves, as women in a highly patriarchal society, Fabiola and Olympias nevertheless helped create new vibrant institutions.

This founding impulse is not limited to the ancient church. For example, the Methodist revival succeeded not only because John Wesley preached to poor coal miners. It succeeded because it institutionalized charity to those most crushed by the Industrial Revolution. Wesley described the Strangers’ Friend Society in London as “instituted wholly for the relief not of our society, but for poor, sick, friendless strangers.” Later the civil rights movement in the U.S. was no momentary spasm of do-gooder sentimentality. It was a highly considered and planned effort in the black church to “turn Southerners’ notions of hospitality inside out.” 

Yet there is a danger in this institutionalization of hospitality. Christians are called to offer welcome to the needy stranger. Yet once institutions are founded to regularize this offering and make visible where the needy can go for care, that care can become bureaucratic, professionalized, distant from the heart of Christian love for the other. For example, ancient Christians founded hospitals to normalize care for the needy. Yet the efficiency these brought also, ironically, removed the needy from the community and locked them away. In one way this irony should not surprise us. God has no one other than sinners through whom to offer care to his beloved poor. Further, institutions founded as havens for the vulnerable can easily become places where the vulnerable can, outrageously, become trapped and preyed upon.

We need to recognise our churches as vibrant institutions need to be constantly reconciled to God as we offer the path of reconciliation to others.

REDEMPTION The work of making all things holy, traditionally attributed to the Holy Spirit in the Triune life, can be seen in vibrant institutions founded by missionaries all over the world. We call these institutions holiness-making because this function is largely unplanned, as wild and unhindered as the Spirit’s work always is. The Western missionaries who founded hospitals, universities and almshouses in, say, Africa, had no idea those institutions would train and equip a generation of African intellectuals who would not only demand that Westerners (like missionaries) leave their country. It would also produce missionaries who would be sent by African countries to newly de-Christianized Western places and to places European missionaries never hoped to reach. Institutions as living things can move in directions their founders never intended. In doing so they can fulfill God’s purposes, which are so much higher than ours as to induce not just surprise but wonder.

The emergence of indigenous faith is the lynchpin of Churches becoming or rebecoming vibrant institutions. Ambassador Gertrude Ibengwe Mongella of Tanzania, in an address to Boston University said, “I must thank the American missionaries who came and started the girls’ school in which I was educated. Without the work of the Maryknoll Sisters, young African girls like me would have no opportunities to get an education, to become a teacher, or to attend a university. But why are the Americans not focusing on founding schools and hospitals like they used to? Where are the missionaries of today?” Nelson Mandela could have given the same speech, having been educated in his village by Methodists.

Where indeed are these vibrant institutions? The Spirit blows where God wills. The Spirit blew countless preachers and teachers of the gospel across the sea in the modern missionary movement, and thousands more may come from the East and the South back to us in the spiritually moribund West. It seems to be what God is doing at the moment and the greatest hope for the future of the church. Who knew God would act this way? Yet as people produced by Spirit-inspired institutions, we should get used to being surprised. Who is a Christian without being baptized? Who a student without a school? Who a professional without training? And where do these come from without human institutions?

Creation, Reconciliation, Redemption. All three can help us see that institutions, created good, fallen and being reconciled, and pointing the way to God’s future redemption are integral to a flourishing life in this world. All three are important for our churches to be the vibrant institutions that God intends the churches to be.

God bless your Lenten journey, Alan

Lent 3: Who needs the church? – We do!

2,329 Church Service Illustrations & Clip Art - iStock

In my last post I spoke of how we seem to be hardwired into criticising the institutions we rely on in civil society and I included the church in this. Yet we cannot escape institutions, and nor should we continue to try. We need the institutions within which we already live to serve as the backgrounds of our minds and our lives, giving shape and form to who we are. In his book “On Thinking Institutionally,” political scientist Hugh Heclo argues that institutions enable us to be “mindful in certain ways, exercising a particular form of attentiveness to meaning in the world.” Vibrant institutions are crucial to sustaining meaning and purpose in our lives and in the world. As a Christian I would also want to say that vibrant churches are also necessary to sustain meaning and purpose in our spiritual lives and in the Kingdom that we inhabit.

For our churches to become vibrant institutions rather than bureaucracies we need to change the conversation we have about the church. However the headlines about corruption, clergy sexual abuse, financial misconduct, give us “performance-based” reasons for wariness. Some churches are, indeed, bureaucracies of the worst sort; some institutional leaders have been careerist bureaucrats who have betrayed the public trust and damaged our common life as a church.

Even more damaging, though, is what Heclo calls our “culture-based” distrust of institutions. Our romanticized search for “personal meaning” places institutions in the way of our quests. We become increasingly bitter when we learn that institutions are so powerful we cannot escape them.

One would think Christianity offers a way beyond the impasse. Christian wisdom illustrates our need for the church institution to shape and form us, as well as recognising the vulnerability of churches and their leaders to corruption. The reality and persistence of sin, understood as self-deception, ought to make us wary of the romantic quest for “personal meaning” through individualistic personal fulfilment. And our persistent capacity for sin reveals our need for the church to teach and train us, through faithful practices and holy friendships, to unlearn sin and learn holiness.

Unfortunately, many Christians have drunk too deeply from the well of romantic individualism. In todays world sin has not disappeared and we have suddenly become virtuous. Rather, we Christians have lost our own vocabulary and become seduced into thinking we can discover our best selves through introspection and self-help manuals. We have pretended that authentic Christianity can occur solely between an individual and God, or, for evangelicals, an individual and Jesus.

Some Christians who want to overcome individualism turn to modern expressions of monastic communities as an alternative. Yet even these communities and their practices cannot exist for long without institutions, so those romantic quests are caught in the same impasse.

Too many modern christians suffer from a neglect of “institutional thinking,” or appreciating from within just how and why the church is crucial to a flourishing faith and thriving communities. Institutional thinking requires an interpretive standpoint of affirmation and trust rather than thinking “about” the church as an observer or critic. Institutional thinking still requires critical attention to the failures of the church, but with “respect” of the institution of the church.

Christian institutional leaders, model the practice of thinking institutionally when we focus attention on the larger purposes our churches serve other than just existing. We advance this practice when we love enemies in our leadership and when we engage in discernment that keeps us aware of our own, as well as our churches, capacity for sin as well as redemption.

We need a richer Christian account of vibrant churches that is mindful of personal as well as institutional sin and redemption. As Christians we should have a clear sense of the end for which we live and move and have our being. We are well-equipped to narrate the vices and virtues that are intrinsic to thinking institutionally.

In this time of cultural turmoil, when economic challenges are troubling to even the strongest churches, we cannot afford any longer to be cynical about or hate institutions. It is time to develop a robust Christian theological imagination for, and understanding of, them. Indeed, we need to learn, by God, to love the institutions we need.

God bless your Lenten journey. Alan.

Lent2: God save(s through) the Church!

Building the Church - Part One - Ralph Howe Ministries

In the world we live in today institutions are as easy to dislike as they are difficult to get rid of. In the western world we seem to have an ingrained suspicions of the institutions we need and use. The government, NHS, schools even the church all can provoke a level of suspicion that ‘they’, the institution are out to get ‘us’! Yet some of us seem, wonder of wonders, to see the good they have wrought and are called to lead them — from the hospitals where we were born to the schools where we were educated to the churches where we worship. How do we reconcile the good institutions do (even the ones we lead) with the bad of which they inarguably are capable (even the ones we lead)?

We often are called to pray for the institutions that affect our daily lives. We pray for schools and colleges at the beginning of a new academic year. We have been praying fervently for our hospitals over the last two years. Occasionally we pray for our Parliament, although I have yet to see a thunderbolt strike the Palace of Westminster!

Of course we pray for our churches, both at a local and a national level. However when we pray for our churches there are three possible paths we can take.

One path prays, “God save our church.” For this group, institutions are so important to human life generally that their collapse is unthinkable. We may find in this group leaders and financial supporters of our churches, particularly those under duress.

The strength of this position is that it acknowledges that the health of a society depends, to great degree, on the health of all its institutions. Just as it is extremely hard to have a functioning economy, let alone a healthy one, without healthy banks, so for our congregations to function as a missional community we need healthy churches and denominations.

In their eagerness to help society, those who back this position might overlook instances when it is necessary to overhaul existing institutions. Such overhauls can be painful, especially in the interim between the eclipse of one form of church and the birth of the next. Christians need only to think of the difficulty in the transition from a temple of stone to the temple of Jesus’ body. And perhaps more damagingly, adherents to this prayer can forget institutions should not exist only for their own sake, but for the sake of those they serve.

The second path prays, “God save us from institutions.” This group sees only malice. Its backers would read the current financial difficulties, for example, as evidence that banks, markets and corporations have only their own interests at heart, and that these come at the expense of all other interests. This group also may feel harmed by the church, leading them to conclude that institutional religion is essentially bad.

Those who take this line would agree with Reinhold Niebuhr’s observation: human beings tend to be good as individuals but bad in groups. We know churches that have scarred some people and have systematically oppressed others.

The position’s weakness is that it overlooks the fact that human life depends on institutions. The goods of human life — education, faith, health care, art, music — are social. The Church is defined by its congregation as much as its’s traditions or structures. There is an individual aspects to the church, but no one can pursue mission to its fullest without other people — trained people, dependent on knowledge passed down for centuries, enabled by gifts (monetary and otherwise) given by strangers and friends. Without people, a vision, a mission, money and perhaps buildings, the mission of the church tends to dissipate like water through open fingers.

The third way of prayer incorporates the strengths of the first two and avoids their weaknesses. It calls for the church to be a flourishing institution for the sake of the whole of human life in communion. The prayer is, “God save us through your church.” This prayer recognizes the deep pit of human need from which we all approach God: it is we who need saving, but not from institutions like the church.

God has no blessing for us mortals that is not institutionally mediated. God saves through Israel, ever-wrestling with God’s chosen people just as God wrestled with their father Jacob by the Jabbok. And God saves through the church: a people called out from the world to be joined in baptism to God and nurtured through Eucharist. One may judge others’ “organised” religions from the safety and isolation of one’s easy chair or the rigour of one’s study (the key word here: “one”). But Christianity joins us in Christ to one another in and through the church to a concern for the thriving of all of God’s creation.

This position will also recognise that while institutions are indispensable to God’s work, they are never frozen, unchanging, in their current form. Institutions are essential, but not static. The church may take many different forms, as dramatically different as Israel’s magnificent temple and Jesus’ vulnerable flesh, but it still is a necessary vibrant institution for God’s mission to be fulfilled here on earth.

God’s blessing through this Lenten season, Alan.

Lent 1: The Church is dead – long live the church.

church logo - 441 Free Vectors to Download | FreeVectors

A time before there was South Parade Church? You couldn’t imagine it but there are some people, who are now in their 90’s, who remember a patch of land where bulrushes grew which is now the site of South Parade.

But South Parade has always had been here. Hasn’t it? It only has been here, as it turns out, since the early 1930s, when some of the older members and others watched its construction. People had to figure out the location as well as the design, not to mention several years of painstaking construction. Because of a wide variety of people’s vision and care, we now have a space that looms across the landscape, a sanctuary for worship and music, a visible symbol of the Methodist commitment to the importance of Christian ministry. All the churches in our circuit could tell a similar story of vision, planning and construction.

Modern Christians too often celebrate community without attending to the critically important roles that vibrant institutions play in enabling a community’s practices to flourish. Too often we take vibrant institutions for granted, forgetting they are crucial for creating spaces that shape and pattern human life and address fundamental human needs and yearnings. Because we have ignored the crucial difference that vibrant institutions make in our lives and in the ecology of our wider social existence, we too often have allowed vibrant institutions to become lifeless bureaucracies. We have watched once-glorious church spaces deteriorate and become shells of the vitality they once represented. Christian life suffers as a result.

By contrast, vibrant spaces, and more broadly vibrant houses of worship, continually make room for Christian wisdom to be nurtured over the course of time. We tend to underestimate how institutional spaces “speak” to people. Over the years, I have heard story after story about vocations discovered and renewed, relationships developed and reconciled, spiritual life developed and deepened, all occasioned by particular Christian worship spaces.

But not only the space. It is also the way of life those churches nurture. At their best, churches communicate and nurture vibrancy as bearers of tradition, laboratories for learning and incubators of leadership. Christian institutions give form and structure to our convictions, enabling us to cultivate thriving communities to be signs, foretastes and instruments of the reign of God. Seen in this light, faithful Christian living depends significantly on our ability not only to think about churches but also to think appreciatively from within them, to cultivate the practice of thinking institutionally rather than bureaucratically.

Vibrant churches are bearers of tradition. These traditions are found in the architecture, in the rhythms of daily schedules, in the formal and informal norms of the people who work and pray there, in the ways positions are described, in the ways decisions are made. This is most obviously evident in monastic communities that have lasted for decades and even centuries, but it is no less true of such institutions as theological colleges, congregations, L’Arche communities or hospices.

Vibrant churches nurture ‘traditioned innovation’* as a way of thinking and acting and make central the practice of ongoing learning. This includes honouring the gifts of our personal and collective pasts as well as repenting of sin, both personally and institutionally. Traditioned innovation focuses on the future to which the Holy Spirit is calling us, reminding us simultaneously that we need to be a learning organization if that future is to be faithful. Rather than pitting romanticized community over against sterile bureaucracy, or traditionalism over against newness, vibrant churches are spaces for learning traditioned innovation that bears witness to the Holy Spirit who is conforming us to Christ. Vibrant churches create spaces in which people unlearn sin and learn faithfulness as a way of life.

Vibrant churches nurture the gifts of leadership. Their dynamic internal cultures attend to the diversity of people’s gifts, nurturing people in their variety to develop the virtues, skills and perspectives that make transformative leadership possible. Not all participants in an organisation will have the gifts for transformative leadership, but all participants play indispensable roles in the overall vibrancy of an institution’s leadership. That is nurturing leadership makes each of the various parts of the church stronger and makes the sum of those parts even greater. By contrast, bureaucracies, not to mention toxic organizations, can take even the best leadership capacities and turn them into mediocre mush or sinful sludge.

Vibrant churches are not always born in vibrant times. South Parade emerged from the ground amid a national financial crisis. It began its ministry at a time when the world order crumbled into a world war. That story serves as a reminder that a crucial way of thinking institutionally is taking the risk to found new institutions that meet our deepest human needs; for worship, education, shelter, hunger, beauty, joy, community. As with South Parade, we ought to be willing to found them even in less than ideal circumstances, or especially in challenging circumstances. For it is when we recognise that churches are crucial spaces for nurturing faithful and joy-filled living that we will be even more likely to take the risks of founding fresh expressions of church and for caring for them in practices and commitments that enable their continual birth and rebirth over time.

God’s blessing in this Lenten season, Alan.

*A way of thinking and being that holds the past and future in tension, not in opposition, is crucial to the growth and vitality of churches.

The Prayers we pray – and those we avoid.

As a student a group of us attended Spring Harvest as Student Helpers We all shared a chalet and we catered for our evening meal together. We took it in turn to offer a blessing for the meal, it was Helen’s turn to say grace, “God, help us know when we have eaten enough and stop.” Those words stunned us. We had all been up early to help set up venues. A can of pop and biscuit grabbed running from one task to another through the day. We were starving, why could she be so cruel? There are some prayers which simply should not be prayed! We know to avoid prayers for those things we have no intention of changing.

Hunger, for instance, is one of the subjects about which we’ve learned to be careful. If you pray too seriously for hungry people you’ll end up skipping meals and giving your money away.

That’s why most of us are careful not to pray too seriously for the homeless. It’s awkward to pray for people who have no home when we have empty bedrooms.

We avoid praying about things that we don’t want to change. It’s frightening to pray about our careers. Does the law student with good career prospects in international tax law want to pray about whether God would like for her to be a social worker? Does the successful businessperson want to ask God if a lower paying job might make more of a contribution to the world?

We’re especially careful about praying for people we don’t like. Think of the person whose presence bothers you the most, who gets on your nerves and probably always will. When Jesus said “Pray for your enemies,” he was inviting us to the kind of prayer that will lead us to say something kind that we don’t want to say.

Most of the time we are afraid to pray about what we could be or what we could do because we prefer the life of comfort we have chosen rather than a life of prayer which allows God to choose for us. We are afraid to pray not because our prayers will be unanswered but because the will!

We’ve learned to pray, “God, make me a better person, but not so much better that I have to change the way I live.” Prayer is hard because we don’t want to start doing what God invites us to do or stop doing what we are used to doing.

King David went a long time without really praying. One afternoon a look turned into lust, and David didn’t pray about it. The lust turned into manipulation, and David acted in ways that he never would have considered if he had the courage to pray. David was able to keep from admitting what he had done or what he needed to do for a long time. He didn’t pray, because he didn’t want to face the harsh realities.

After being confronted by Nathan the Prophet David began to pray again. His words are recorded in Psalm 51. This is an honest psalm of a man struggling to pray honestly to God. The amazing thing about this psalm is that for all of its agony, there’s also a sense of relief. What David ignored for so long is finally brought out into the open. It couldn’t have been any easier for David to tell the truth about himself than it is for any of us. There is no painless way to stop protecting our easy lives and be honest to God.

Psalm 51 is the psalm set for Ash Wednesday when we begin our Lenten Pilgrimage. Lent should be time of self examination, of honest prayer not just a few weeks to give up some trifling luxury and pretend we are doing the will of God

People who pray passionately don’t have easy lives, but they have abundant lives. God has dreams for us that we’ve been afraid to imagine.

What would happen if we made a searching, fearless inventory of how much more we could be if we asked God for the courage to change and take chances?

God’s blessings for this Lenten season, Alan.

The Season with a Reason

Christian Christmas Nativity Wallpapers - Top Free Christian Christmas  Nativity Backgrounds - WallpaperAccess

During the Christmas season many churches will have a wayside poster proclaiming ‘Jesus – The reason for the season’. Despite having some theological reservations about the statement I will concur that Christmas is a season and a season with purpose.

The birth of Jesus is, no doubt, the most joyous and celebrated of all holidays in our culture. Families get together, gifts are exchanged, and a good time is usually had by all. Even people who know or believe little about Jesus celebrate together. However most people think of Christmas as a singular event and when it is over, it is over until the same time next year.

Although the birth of Jesus was a momentous event, it was not a singular event. Jesus’ coming has deep roots in the religious and cultural tradition of the Jewish people; and the fact that God – Emmanuel came in the form of Jesus has had a profound effect on human life that show no sign of abating even after two thousand years.

The season that we call Christmas began thousands of years before the birth of Jesus. The Messiah had been expected for a long time. Ever since the Jewish people got into so much trouble that they realised their condition was beyond human help, they had been expecting divine intervention into human affairs in the form of a messiah. Their expectation of a coming messiah was intense but also intangible. Mothers prayed that their unborn would be a male child, and that he would be the Messiah. The expectation of the coming was not casual, like expecting a white Christmas, it was heart rending and visceral.

When times were good the expectation was less intense. Like most of us they did not feel the need for divine assistance when they were getting on quite well by themselves. The intensity of expectation was in direct proportion to the degree of national and personal difficulty they were experiencing at any given time. But, the expectation was always there, albeit at times in the background. When times were tough, they expected the imminent arrival of divine help. Like present-day Christians, when in trouble, the first words out of their mouths were: “Dear God, where are you?” It became increasingly obvious to them, as it does to us, that God’s timetable does not necessarily correspond with our timetable.

Crises came and went and no messiah. False messiahs came and went. In every age there are religious charlatans who exploit for their own selfish purposes the simple faith of the naive and desperate. There is always a following. People who live in the zone of desperation will grasp at any straw of hope and help. 

There were many widely divergent concepts of what the Messiah would be like when he came. For the most part their hopes and dreams tended toward a political and religious “strong man,” a warrior-like messiah who would destroy the enemies of Israel and restore Israel to the power and splendour of the reign of David. They never dreamed that the Messiah would come when and as he did. Only Isaiah came close with his “suffering servant” who would be a light to all nations, and this was a fragmented glimpse that had little ideological support by the Jewish people (Isaiah 53). The Messiah is on his way! The time is drawing near that the hope of the ages will be fulfilled, but in a most unexpected manner.

Of course we would not have mistaken the truth of the Messiah, but how many people today yearn for a revived ‘messianic’ church which is full, wealthy and powerful.

The epicentre of Christmas is the birth of Jesus. Even those who know nothing but the solitary fact of his birth can be blessed by the event, but blessing and insight await those who know how it all came to pass. No one puts it all together in such a fetching story as Luke. Luke takes the loose ends of strange and obscure events occurring in the lives of the most unlikely people and leads us unerringly to Bethlehem, a stable, and the manger in which the newborn Messiah was laid by a wide-eyed teenage mother as a puzzled, but faithful, Joseph looked on.

Again Luke’s nativity began before the birth in Bethlehem. It is Luke, with his scientific mind, who tells us that in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (which she had kept secret), an angel appeared to a teenage girl named Mary and informed her that she would bear a son without benefit of an earthly father, who was to be called “Jesus.” The angel informed Mary of the pregnancy of Elizabeth, her kin. So, in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Mary came to visit. When Mary greeted Elizabeth the baby leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth said to Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” These two women share a secret that the world has waited long to know. As they revel in what they have come to know, Mary speaks a song of praise that has more to do with her unborn son than herself. It is Mary’s song. We call it “The Magnificat,” from its Latin name.

The song thanks and praises God for including her in this unfolding divine drama. As Mary sings of the power of God, we can read what she says to be the power to be exercised by her unborn son. It portends a revolution and a reversal of present reality. This is the most comprehensive statement of liberation theology in the Bible:

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1:51-55)

We look around the world today and realise that Mary’s prophecy is still to come to pass. Like our Jewish ancestors who looked for the coming messiah we hope and yearn for this new messianic world.

Do not give up hope, Christmas isn’t over yet!

Christmas blessings, Alan.

Are we nearly there yet?

I am sure we have nearly all experienced a car journey as a small children where the moment you pull off the drive the chorus starts – “Are we nearly there yet?”. The driver will roll their eyes and tell us to be patient. But we can’t, we are just too excited to reach our destination and so ten minutes later the question rises again – “Are we nearly there yet?”

Well the first snows of winter have fallen and in conversation people say they can’t believe that it’s December and Christmas is around the corner. Quick get the tree up and decorate the house with lights, but before we reach Christmas, we must first travel through Advent. Like an exasperated driver I need to say “Be patient.

One of the challenges of Advent is to stop being busy and spend some time in prayer. Prayers for patience. Prayers for tempering our enthusiasm. Prayers for remembering not everybody enjoys this season. Prayers to slow down and think.

Advent is a time for giving praise for what God has done, is doing, and promises to do. We focus first on the One who was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, as we sing in the Gloria Patri. The One who breathes into us the breath of life, who sustains and guides us through our years and receives us when we die. The One who comes again each year at Christmas that we may never lose hope.

Thanksgiving naturally follows. We thank God for being God, for coming into our world to be One with us—Emmanuel. We thank God for God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. God who understands us when we do not understand ourselves. God who is patient with us when we have none. God who receives us back when we wander away, rejoicing in our return, embracing us in arms of grace. 

This, too, is a season for confessing sin. Imagine what breaks God’s heart. Living and dying with Covid. Political divisiveness. Economic injustice. Fear of the stranger. Quickness to judge and slowness to listen. Climate change and mediocre environmental stewardship. Housing and food insecurity. Racial intolerance and misunderstanding. There are so many reasons we need Christ to be born into our world as Saviour. Lots to lift in prayers of petition too. 

Remember also to build in pauses for silent prayer, that you may hear God’s voice speak an Advent message to us. Remember prayer is listening as well as talking.

I believe it essential in our prayers that we honestly name evil alongside goodness, sorrow alongside joy, agony alongside hope. Remember in the joy and sparkle of Christmas there is a story of a heavily pregnant woman have to journey on foot(!) from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Remember, too, of a family with a baby having to flee a tyrant and seek refuge in another country. Give thanks for God’s incarnational, suffering, resilient love, no matter what happens in life.

In all things we believe God is working for good. So, we pray to God honestly, but not always patiently. We won’t stop asking ‘are we nearly there, God’ because we are confident we will reach our destination. No matter how long it takes.

Grace and peace this Advent season,

Alan.

Nec Tamen Consumebatur*

Growing Pyracantha (Firethorn) | ThriftyFun

Have you ever considered what type of burning bush Moses encountered when God showed up?  There is a garden shrub called “burning bush” (euonymus alatus) that takes its colloquial name from the story, but it is doubtful that this is the bush that intrigued Moses.

Exodus 3 tells us the bush was aflame though not consumed when Moses spotted it in the wilderness.  Putting plant taxonomy aside, is there any value in considering the binomial nomenclature of the burning shrub in the wilderness? Ancient rabbinic commentaries on the book of Exodus believed the curious endeavour was worth pursuing. 

I feel that our church has entered a wilderness experience. That experience has been ‘sharpened’ by the effects of the pandemic lockdown. Like Moses, once a prince now a shepherd, our churches find themselves no longer at the heart of a community but viewed as an irrelevance, a paragraph on the pages of history. 

Yet into this wilderness God will direct us to bushes that are alight with the flame of his Spirit. 

Hear this good news: the story of God always begins in the wilderness. The Christian tradition is adamant that when God acts in the world, it is always with the people and the places least expected; the people called no one in the places called nowhere.

A very common cry at present is “The church ain’t what it used to be” and the decline of the Church parallels the changes in society. As we’ve lost the interdependence of communal life, we’ve also lost the ancient identity of the church’s propensity. To confront the catastrophe of church decline, we may also need to reconsider the very essence of the church. We need to reimagine the church, because in reimagining the church, we may reimagine our place in society. 

This is why the ancient rabbis earnestly declared that the bush of Exodus 3 was, of course, a thorn bush. When the Divine presence creatively manifested by name to unleash Israel’s covenant in the world, it came through the same medium that imaginatively related to the esteemed  Garden of Eden of Genesis. As the commentary goes, the garden of creation was surrounded by thorn bushes as a hedge of protection; a source of preservation to foster the vitality of that Garden free from the influence of ‘fallen‘ humanity. The intention of the bush theophany was a reminder that Israel, too, was meant to be a thorn bush for the world; that which protects, preserves, and sees to the life of all creation. Israel was to be a thorn bush for the flourishing of the earth. 

If the church is the continuation of such a covenantal vision, is the church meant to be a thorn bush for the world today? As we scan the dismal landscapes in our desolate wilderness, we ought to take solace in our history. One may wonder, is there an organisation, a group, or a movement dedicated to making the world good and fostering the health of places by taking responsibility for its future through ordering its present life? 

There is. The local congregation has been on this mission since that bush was aflame.

The prophet Jeremiah proclaimed a similar daring vision. In speaking to the covenantal people when they were staring at a future that looked nonexistent, the prophet sent word for how the Jewish people were to embrace their bleak situation and imagine a new future:

“But seek the welfare (shalom) of the city (place) where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord on its behalf for in its welfare (shalom) you will find your welfare (shalom)” (Jeremiah 29:7 NRSV). How will the exiles endure? What is their directive in a world that has been destroyed? See to the welfare – the shalom – of the places where they are. 

The church needs to become thorn bushes in the places where they are. Be a subversive body for the good of the larger body. Be a signpost for God’s reign by offering healing and hope, cultivating transformation, and supporting and guiding our communities toward God’s dream for the world. 

If the local church has the best propensity to form, nurture, support, create belonging, and compel relational and economic life, churches can be the hope of the ‘city’. Churches can be that force to honour a place’s memory, adapt to a place’s context, and through shared history, shared vision, tangibly enact God’s reign.

What would it look like if God is in charge here? As with the wilderness meeting tent in the book of Leviticus, we can embody God’s story in such a way to activate the imagination of the places we serve and give a glimpse of what is possible. 

We need to stop trying to do the normal conception of church better, and start imagining how we can do church differently; which isn’t about being new or cool or exciting. Rather, we embraced the ancient art of being meaningfully adapted to our place as thorn bushes.

What would happen if churches used their buildings as a third space in declining communities who have little access to gather neighbours together? How might local churches use their platform, their message, and their organisational capital to mobilise the meeting of needs and catalyse the gifts of the people who call that place home? How can we foster a way of living that is adapted to our particular context? 

What else could the church be?

Reimagining the church in our community might be the only thing we can do in our present circumstances; but it might also be the only thing we ought to do. 

May we embrace the vulnerability of desperation.
May we take advantage of the wilderness’s bountiful imagination.
May we seize the propensity of the local church.
May we see ourselves as thorn bushes.

And may the world never be the same.

God bless, Alan.

*And yet it was not consumed (Exodus 3:2)

The Communion of saints

The Communion of Saints – Liturgy

In our society we have become so obsessed with Halloween we forget the following day, November 1st, is All Saints Day.

When we confess the Apostles’ Creed*, in particular the phrase ‘the communion of saints’ our words echo with the voices of the saints, believers from throughout history.

All Saints’ Day is a time for us to remember the ordinary people who’ve made possible our faith, to recognise that we speak with their tongues, that we’re indebted to their faithfulness. On All Saints’ Day, we remember that we are not alone, that they accompany us.

In the book of Revelation, we glimpse a heavenly vision of the communion of saints, of believers in solidarity with us — a multitude “from every nation, tribe, people and language” around the throne of God (Revelation 7:9 NIV). When we say, toward the end of the creed, that we believe in “the communion of saints,” we’re calling upon that scene in Revelation 7 — the reassurance of a people on our side, the knowledge that their God is our God.

“The communion of saints” isn’t a select club of very special people. Instead, the phrase is a name for the church through the ages, the many people who’ve made possible our communion with God. They welcome us into a community that reaches out to us from beyond death.

Saints are people who offer their lives as a home for God, to make room in the world for God’s life to grow. They bear witness to what it looks like to let God live in this world through them. In other words, saints show us how to be disciples. They reveal that discipleship is about hospitality to God: welcoming God’s love into our lives so that new life may be born for others.

That’s why Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the first saint, the person who “brought God’s salvation to the world.” She is the first one in the Christian story to show hospitality to Jesus — God with us, God of her flesh.

Other than Jesus, there are two people named in the Apostles’ Creed: Pontius Pilate and Mary, “the one who says ‘no’ to him,” the Anglican theologian Rowan Williams remarks, and “the one who says ‘yes’ to him.” Pilate the sinner, Mary the saint. Their lives outline the possible responses to God.

As sinner and saint — each of us as both at the same time — we wobble from one figure to the other. From day to day, moment to moment, we teeter between resistance and reception of Jesus.

We’re usually like Pilate in our rejection of God’s work in the world and in our lives. But we’re called to be like Mary, to echo her yes, to emulate her posture of welcome to God’s life, the labour of hospitality, to make room for God.

“Behold, I am the servant of the Lord,” Mary responds to God’s plan for her life. “Be it done to me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38).

Saints like Mary, the mother of our faith, guide our discipleship. They testify to the miracle of grace. They bear witness to the movement of God, the labour of the Spirit who transfigures our lives with the Word when we say yes to the gospel. They share the life of God with the world. Their witness beckons us into the gospel, into Christ’s love, for God’s love to become flesh with us.

The lives of ordinary saints not only provide models for discipleship; they proclaim a truth about God, that the Spirit dwells with people, that Christ welcomes us into his body. Like Mary, Christ has said yes to each of us. He has opened his life to receive our lives; he draws us into communion with the saints.

We are here, as members of God’s people, because the Holy Spirit has baptized us with grace, joining our flesh to the faithful who’ve come before us, all of us as members of one another.

All Saints’ Day is an announcement of the hospitality of God — that we are being welcomed into a communion that reaches from Mary to us, through people of every generation, all as a declaration of God’s love for the world. Saints surround us with the Spirit’s embrace.

God bless,

Alan.

*Apostles Creed.

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth;
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son Our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into Hell; the third day He rose again from the dead;
He ascended into Heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God, the Father almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.