What’s it all about, Alfie?

So let’s talk about church. You know, that building you go to on a Sunday morning or maybe evening.

We are, possibly, coming out of the worst Covid restrictions, barring another lockdown or a new variant running rampant. Ministers and church councils and stewards and PCCs are tied up on a lot of practical measures based around how they keep these buildings running. Have people drifted away in lockdown and are they coming back? Have too many of the congregation gone to join the Lord over the last couple of years? Have Slimming World or Weight Watchers restarted their rental of the of the church hall? Or, to put it bluntly, have we got the money to keep this place going? That is the current focus for many congregations and understandably so.

As Christians we would love to see people walk in to our buildings off the streets and say “I’ve heard about this Jesus fellow and want to learn more.” In a world of decreasing and aging congregations such a thing is a rarity. Most of what we see, if new people join our churches, is that they are already Christians and just seeking a new church because they’ve moved or they’ve left their old church for some reason or other.

An example, the Anglican group HTB took over St Mary’s church in Southampton. They saw the congregation leap from a couple of dozen to several hundred. Hurrah everyone cried, except for the numerous local churches who lost students and young people and families from their congregation who went to join St Mary’s with their fine coffee, high quality sound system and exciting services.

I don’t know how many of you remember the film “Field of Dreams” with it’s tagline “If you build it, they will come.” It’s an idea that works in a movie or if you build a theme park or open a Lego Store but apply it to church and it’s not a winning proposition.

Our biggest problem, in many ways, is that following Jesus makes so much sense to those of us doing it that we can’t imagine why anyone would choose not to. Jesus makes sense to us. From the inside.

Imagine for a moment though that you’ve never been to church outside of baptisms, weddings and funerals. These ceremonies and what you see on TV and elsewhere is all you know of Christianity. The horror of Magdalene Laundries, Westborough Baptists disrupting the funerals of American Service People, people making a fuss over baking a cake, crackpot pastors claiming to heal people by breaking wind on their faces (yes that’s real), child abuse, the Pope berating couples for having pets rather than children. If this is the face they see of Christianity no wonder people aren’t knocking the chapel doors down to get in.

This isn’t a view of church that will be changed by better coffee or a new music system. This is a vision of church that has to be changed from the ground up by rolling our sleeves up and getting into our communities, making a difference through meaningful acts of service and making sure people understand that when we do these things we are truly following Jesus.

One of my favourite stories in the Bible is Jesus meeting the Samarian woman at the well. I like it for many reasons but the most pertinent right now is where Jesus meets her. She doesn’t wander into the synagogue and hear him. He meets her where she has to go. It’s the equivalent of meeting her on the way to the supermarket or the coffee shop. I think it is also part of what lies behind many churches and denominations reaching beyond their own walls by running Alpha Courses in Costa Coffee and in a broader sense things like Pioneer Ministries and New Places for New People and Fresh Expressions. There is a recognition that for many people church buildings aren’t viewed as safe spaces, whether because of pre-conceived ideas due to press and media or past experience or present experience. If we want to introduce people to Jesus, the Bible and a loving Christianity we need new places to do it. We need to be meeting people where they are.

Wait a minute! Weren’t we talking about church buildings?

Well yes we were but lets just come at it from a slightly different angle.

In the early church followers of Jesus met in each others homes, shared meals and stories about Jesus and probably discussed the meanings of what he taught. Eventually groups got too big to meet in homes so they acquired buildings for it. Time moved on, Gospels and Acts and the Epistles were written down and shared and scripture became the core of meetings. Christianity spread, time moved on and people were meeting in churches all over Europe hearing liturgy in Latin. Things changed again, the Protestant movement got started, Bible in modern languages, services in local languages, still in special buildings. Things moved on again, house groups, secret churches and more. More divisions on theological grounds and more denominations spring up. Wesley meets and preaches in fields. All the denominations settle down into their own chapels and churches. Little splinter groups start and meet in homes over food. Jesus Freaks and home church movement get going, among others. Churches get bigger and we see the rise of the multi campus mega church. On the other side there’s a push towards smaller, community focused churches, house churches start to appear again.

That’s a brief overview from memory of the changes that have affected physical meetings. I’m sure I’ve missed stuff and misrepresented stuff but you get the point. Church has been through change, through many seasons since Jesus’s time. The way we do things now won’t necessarily be the way we do things in 10years time and the way we do things in 10 years time will also pass at some point.

So what’s my point?

My point is, if our eyes are on Jesus we shouldn’t get to attached to buildings and ways of doing things. Our purpose is to demonstrate God’s love to and for the world. If buildings or meeting styles or anything else stop us doing that we need to take a long look at why.

In Luke 17:2 it says “It would be better for him to have a millstone hung around his neck and to be thrown into the sea than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” I don’t think Jesus was talking just about children. When people meet Jesus they do so with the uncomplicated faith of a child. I think that is what Jesus was talking about. I think it is possible that when we are too focussed on buildings and styles of worship and rotas and all those things we are in danger of putting a millstone around our neck and getting in the way of people forming a relationship with Christ. Is that what we really what we want?

How my paintings look in my head
Thames River Scene 1805 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
How my painting actually looks.
(admittedly I had 30 minutes and Turner probably had slightly longer than that)

A Gentle Reminder about New Year

We are coming up on New Year, a time when many of us make impossible resolutions to change our lives for the better and then beat ourselves up when we fail to keep them. I have two things to say on the subject of resolutions.

first of all, and most importantly, God loves you as you are. Nothing you can do will make him love you more than he does now.

Secondly, If you have to make a New Year’s resolution, make it small, specific and achievable. Make your resolution the first step towards a larger goal. Do not set yourself up for failure.

I need to get fitter. I’ve put on too much weight and I need some exercise. “I need to get fit” is to broad to ever feel like it’s achievable. I need to go to the gym 3 nights a week, well it’s just not going to happen. So I’ve set a resolution now, not waiting until New Year. I am going to take a brisk, 30 minute walk once a week. That’s doable. I can fit that in around work and family and with my current lack of fitness it won’t do me in. If that works, if I keep it up for a month or two I’ll maybe increase it to 45 minutes or maybe to twice a week.

Most work coaches, life coaches and the like will tell you to break a task down into achievable specific steps. I generally find such people really annoying but on this subject I have to agree with them. Smaller and specific rather than large and nebulous.

Also bear in mind that long cold winter nights aren’t necessarily the best time to aim for some resolutions. For me winter nights are a time for staying warm, eating snacks and reading books. If I want to resolve to read more books this year, now is the perfect time. If I want to lose weight or exercise more it may be harder.

So as we come up to the New Year, be kind to yourself, be gentle with your self, don’t set yourself up to fail and remember God loves you.

Happy New Year

NASA and Theology


There’s been a recent run of stories in the news about NASA, The US space people, and 24 theologians looking at what it would mean for religion if alien life was found. Despite how it sounds in the news this is not a new thing and NASA have been doing this for at least seven years if not longer.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 15229420794_b7d6521185_b.jpg
NASA

What was interesting were the comments whenever it was posted on social media. The population of the world currently stands at around 7.9 billion people. Around 6 billion people consider themselves adherents of a recognised religion. That’s around 75% of the world’s population (figures drawn from a quick spin around Google, other figures are available). It seems wise to make enquiries about the response of 3/4s of the world’s population to a life changing event like the discovery of extra-terrestrial life.

The responses in on-line news site comments and on social media have been fascinating to read but are unlikely to be representative as most people who take the time to comment do so because they have a strong feeling on the matter but the comment that struck me was “why are they talking to theologians rather then psychologists?”

I think there’s a very good reason for not talking to psychologists about this. Someone on the outside of a group will not have the same depth of understanding as someone on the inside of a group.

Psychologists wouldn’t understand the nuanced interpretations of religious texts that affect everyone’s religious beliefs. Psychologists might draw a line between conservative and liberal Christians but they wouldn’t understand the shades of grey that lie in between. A good theologian will have an experiential understanding of the people as well as a deeper understanding of the scripture and history driving the reactions. A psychologist’s understanding will be objective but will lack the understanding that comes from being part of the “tribe”. Of course some of the psychologists may be Christians but they would also be trying to follow scientific methodology but this isn’t about objective behaviour.

This, of course, doesn’t just relate to the possibility of aliens. An insider, in this case a theologian, can give you a deeper understanding of what drives a group whether it’s about mask wearing or social justice. NASA have made a good move by talking to experts in the area they want to know about. Science often follows where science fiction leads. There have been a lot of stories about Christianity meeting alien life forms, including some corkers by Ray Bradbury, and the outcomes haven’t always been positive. They run the full gamut from crusades and colonial inspired evangelism to assimilation to loss of faith to faith reborn. It is an interesting thought experiment to imagine how we would respond to such a discovery.

I have to admit I would be fascinated to read their response to the question. I don’t know how such a discovery would affect my understanding of who God is. I don’t think it would shake my faith in the existence of God

In the end though, NASA are playing it safe, they’re wanting to know how their parents would react to them bringing home a new girlfriend or boyfriend who is different, someone unlike them in beliefs or colour, someone same sex, someone much older or younger, someone from another tribe. We may never see alien lifeforms, but we may be faced with that very weird boyfriend/girlfriend or the difficult relative. We will have to step out of our easily defined comfort zones and deal with people and experiences outside our preferred norms. It never hurts to work it through as a thought experiment , it never hurts to be prepared and have thought through as much as we can how we would deal with such situations as people of faith. It never hurts to look to God for an openness and willingness to embrace the outsider.

Wishing all a very happy New Year

Blessings

Pioneer Pete

Dealing with loss

This is, as they say, a trigger warning. Do not continue reading if talk of bereavement, loss and grief is something that you are finding impossible to deal with.

So yesterday I learned that a 12 year old child I didn’t know died from cancer. The details are unnecessary to share. It has made me think about how we deal with loss and what it is though. I will continue after this random photo.

Consider this an interlude, like the potter’s wheel.

I had been praying for the child and their family for several weeks, praying mainly for them to all know God’s peace and comfort in the face of what seemed likely to be a tragic loss. Cancer is insidious and no respecter of age or anything else.

The news that the child had passed away (a euphemism for died that I have never understood but still find myself using at times) left me thinking about loss and grieving.

I think when I hear people talk about their grief, it is about missed opportunities, things they will never get to do with the person they have lost. And people carry that grief in different ways. Some people carry that grief like an open wound, they are never able to move beyond that regret over the things they will never get to do or say or share. Others channel it into something else as a memorial, starting a business or a charity, fund raising or doing something creative. And some learn to live with it in other ways that slowly let the pain change into something else.

My dad died over 12 years ago now. I was devastated at the time. He was a rock and I could always count on him for support and advice or just to talk books over a beer. The one area where we connected most was with books. He taught me to read before I started school and as I got older we would buy or recommend books to each other. If I was in a bookshop or a charity shop and I saw a book I thought he’d like I’d buy it and go visit. After he died I would see a book and think “Dad would love this” and then I’d remember he was gone and the sadness and loss would hit me like a tsunami. As time passed though my thought process changed. I would see a book and think “Dad would have loved this. I think I’ll read it for him”. My thoughts focussed more on the love he had left behind with me. I was still sad but it wasn’t overwhelming and it was mixed with the happiness of still having a connection with him. So, because book buying is a bit of an addiction to me, each year around his birthday I go browsing bookshops in search of something I think he would have loved. I started with one I knew he loved and had recommended a year or so before he died, R L Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey.(and he was right as always, it was a great book) Reading it, I felt like he was there with me. And now I have a dozen books on my shelves that each hold a small part of my dad.

People deal with grief in all sorts of ways but the important thing is to find a way of dealing with it, of finding a way to live in the love that they left with you, the gifts they gave you and loosen your grip on the pain of loss. Do that and maybe one day the pain will begin to be replaced by the joy of having had that person in your life.

Drawing a line

“When you draw a line, God steps over it and invites you to join him on the other side.”

I’ve found myself in conversation with a lot of disillusioned Christians recently. People who are angry or disappointed, who are walking away from their church or from church all together. People who are wondering where they belong and if they belong.

“Holy Family” by Janet McKenzie

The thing is, most of this disappointment and disillusionment is aimed at the church, not at God. People are the “problem” apparently.

I think, for many people, it comes down to one of two things and they are both about change. One is that, for a lot of people in more traditional churches, it is the one unchanging constant in a world of constant change. Go to church on a Sunday and you know exactly what you’ll get, Bible readings, familiar hymns preaching based on the lectionary. You’ll have your regular seat and familiar faces. An safe haven in the midst of a sea of chaos. When that changes it can be very upsetting and can drive a wedge between a person and their church. On the other side of that coin are those who are desperate for the church to change and are disappointed when it doesn’t change or the change is painfully slow. Both sides of the coin feel justified in walking away. The church is on the wrong side of every line for someone.

The thing I realised about Jesus and which attracted me to him was that he was transgressive. He questioned the status quo, he kept company with outsiders, he challenged the accepted way of doing things. However he did not throw out every rule in the book, but he did recognise that rules were made for man, not man for rules and those that He saw as wrong He challenged or widened the application to include everyone (log in your own eye anyone?).

If Jesus had followed every rule of Judaism things would look very different today.

a print of this lovely painting is available from the artist here

Looking through Twitter (a social media platform for those who are lucky enough not to know) I came across something someone had shared. A US pastor was offering to give away two AK47s to two random members of the congregation for this Sunday’s service. They shared it with the comment “Wonder what the carpenter would make of that?” Which got me thinking. Back in the 1990s there was a brief spurt of popularity for bracelets with WWJD on them, which stood for “What would Jesus do?” I think it is possible, based on Jesus’s actions and words in the Gospels, to formulate a fairly clear idea of where Jesus would stand on most things that relate to our earthly world. This is, of course, a different question to what I often ask myself and I’m sure crosses many minds at different times, “What would I want Jesus to do that fits with my personal beliefs and opinions?” I’m sure the pastor giving away the AK47s asked himself the second question and is busy congratulating himself. If he’d asked the first he may not have given them away at all or may have beaten them into ploughshares.

Now that’s an extreme example and to be honest, when I ask myself “What Would Jesus Do?” it’s often tainted with at least a hint of what I would want Him to do so I am far from perfect. And when I ask it honestly, I figure out what He would do but I back away rather than do it because it’s too scary or too awkward. But I want to be on the same side of the line as God so I look at the lines I’ve drawn, I look at where my prejudices come into play, where my understanding of the Bible may not be deep enough and I ask myself, “What Would Jesus Do?” and sometimes I see clearly that I’m on the wrong side of a line. Occasionally I find myself on the right side of the line and some times… some times I I intentionally bury my head in the knowledge that I am wrong but I’m not ready to deal with that yet.

So if we ask ourselves “What Would Jesus Do?” and we ask honestly and we examine ourselves in the asking, we might find ourselves standing in uncomfortable places with Jesus and really living in his image and that could only be good.

Spectrum

I find the sheer breadth of Christianity amazing to be honest, running, as it does, the gamut from flat earthers and young earthers to universalists. We read the Bible as anything from a literal historic document written by God through human vessels and completely inerrant to a set of ethical guidelines on how to live a good life. We “do” church in a myriad of different ways, worshipping with hymns and modern worship songs and silence and singing in tongues. Some congregations want the preacher to limit themselves to a 15 minute TED talk and others feel short changed if the preacher talks for less than 2 hours.

I’m not even sure we all agree on what we are called to do as Christians, certainly we don’t seem to agree on how we should do the most basic of things like share the Gospel and make disciples. On sharing the Gospel we run a vast spectrum from street preachers talking of fire and damnation to those trying to preach the Gospel through their actions working in food banks and the like.

I used to believe I had it right and others had it wrong. I was convinced my understanding of God and the Bible were correct and anyone who disagreed with me was a fool who didn’t understand God’s heart for humanity.

I have come to appreciate though that, as the Vegetales song says, “God is bigger than the boogeyman”. God is so big he is beyond our understanding. He reveals himself to us but only in small ways we can handle. Elijah wraps his face in his cloak to meet the Lord when He appears as a small still voice. The enormity of God is too much for us to look upon normally. (I know Moses met with God regularly but we don’t have details of how that looked).

I have seen that fear of death or damnation has turned lives around. Equally I have seen that a gift of food from a food bank has opened peoples eyes to the presence of God. I have seen people walk in off the street and find God in a hymn, in a worship song and in silence. I have seen “uncreative” people meet with God in the most creative of ways.

I also know so many people who have been damaged by church, hurt by it to the point that they hold God responsible. I don’t believe it is God hurts people, it’s people who hurt people. People are still drawn to power over others, to control of others, to hurting others to hide their own hurts. But that’s not God. At the core God is love.

Some approaches to the Bible and to God may not sit comfortably with me, but that is often more about me than God, and I’ve come to a conclusion. God is more interested in creating relationships with us than he is about how those relationships start. I believe that as long as love, real agape love, is at the heart of it, then God is in it. It may not sit comfortably with me but it’s not about me, it’s about giving people the opportunity to meet a loving God and sometimes, maybe, it needs more than a smile and a cup of coffee to get someone’s attention.

Fight or die.

I have often thought of churches as being like sharks. I know, I know! Its an odd metaphor but stay with me. Sharks, so I understand, have to keep moving forward. If they don’t they will die. I always though of that as true for churches as well.

We are, as Christians, told that our job is to share the Gospel and make disciples. A “good” church is doing that, making Christians and seeing growth. We have to keep moving forward or we die.

But what if we choose to stop, to slow down, to just hold our place and rest? When Paul wrote about running the race it was at a time when 40 was a good age to reach, 50 to 60 was ancient and if you were one of the relative handful that passed 70 you were probably Methusalah. To put it bluntly, if we were in Paul’s time most of us would have finished running the race a long time ago.

The future for church buildings as church moves out.

So is it reasonable for an aging congregation to decide that they have run long enough and just want to meet, pray and praise God in the way they are used to? It’s a question I am struggling with.

Part of me does not want to lose that experience and wisdom, part of me hates the idea of giving up (which is what this feels like to me) but part of me remembers Matthew 11:28 “come to Me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest”.

Perhaps this is why Fresh Expressions and New Place for New People are important ideas. Maybe it is time to refresh how we see God for a new generation who won’t understand our old ways. There was a time when church moved out of peoples homes and into chapels. Perhaps it is now time for it to move out of chapels and into another place.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not promoting giving up and resting on your laurels. Age is no barrier to sharing the Gospel or doing the work of the church. But I can understand the desire to rest and we are saved by the Grace of our Lord and Saviour, not by our works.

So if you want to lay down your burdens, to rest and enjoy the fellowship of your congregation, that’s okay, God is okay with that. You have run your race and it is time for someone else to pick up the baton.

Perhaps this is the start of a new movement of God, recognising the needs of new generations will be different from those of the current generation. Denominations and buildings will crumble and turn to dust but God is eternal.

Blessings

Pete

The Pineapple of Prayer

My wife and I have a friend who excels in buying eccentric gifts. Over the years we gave gad some real doozies, remind me to tell you about Atomic Bunny some time.

One of my all time favourites has been an ornamental candleholder in the shape of a pineapple. The main body of this odd little item is hollow and this is the important bit. But first, a confession.

Like many of us the words “I’ll pray for you/them ‘ roll easily off my lips but the order sometimes, oh all right often, got forgotten in the business of other things. I tried many things ti help me remember, prayer chains, phone reminders, notebooks, but nothing worked.

Then one day I was reading about liturgy and tradition in the early church and how that worked in the rhythm of life and I had an idea….

THE PINEAPPLE OF PRAYER (dramatic music)

Each morning I am, invariably the first one out of bed. I have a short period of peace before the day starts.

Anyone I agreed to pray for, I wrote their name on a scrap of paper and put it inside the pineapple. First thing each morning I would look through the names in the pineapple, light the candle to give me a physical focus and offer prayers for the people in the pineapple, sometimes with particular emphasis one one ir two of the names.

I started this in February 2020, just before we went into lockdown and have continued it up to this say. I’m not suggesting everyone needs a pineapple but it is amazing for your prater life when you make or adopt a process that works for you.

So if we are talking about someone and I mention The Pineapple Of Prayer, now you know what I’m talking about.

Hijacking for God.

Remember, remember the fifth of November. Thats what this is about this time.

I’ve been reading How The Bible Actually Works, a book by a gentleman named Peter Enns, and while it makes many points that might upset some Christians, it does make a very good point about cultural engagement.

Much of the Old Testament particularly is concerned with making the point that Yahweh is stronger/wiser/kinder/more loving than (fill in the local pantheon of your choice). To do that the Jews, and later the early Christians, had to be aware of and engage with the local culture. It’s hard to say that our God is stronger than Ra, for example, if you know nothing about Ra. Jesus took a “new theology” about God into the temple and the synagogues and built on the Jewish understanding of God. God has always been tied up in cultural understanding and cultural terms because he is beyond us to fully understand. This is why we see God described as a king and a shepherd. He is not a literal shepherd but that is a metaphor that makes him understandable on a human level.

“Where is Pete going with this?” You are now doubt asking yourselves at this point. Well this is the point where I go full circle and come back to the 5th of November. Guy Fawkes Night, Fireworks Night, whatever you call it, is a secular celebration. It is also ripe for hijacking for mission. And that is what Waltham Chase have done.

In case you are not aware, Waltham Chase Methodist Church have done a couple of fireworks evenings. Each had a splendid display, burgers and hotdogs and a simple gently evangelical preach/altar call. Each year the attendance has exceeded expectations and grown greatly each time. By hijacking or invading this secular event Waltham Chase have brought the good news of the Gospel to their community by demonstrating love and acceptance.

They are not alone in this, bringing God into an act of service to a community transforms the service into mission and evangelism. Quite a few churches are finding this is a great way to step out of their Sunday meeting and share the Gospel.

Bishop’s Waltham have been doing something similar for years with their Faith Al Fresco. By offering bacon rolls and drinks and crafts outside their church building along with a display and a talk. They are taking the word of God to people who, in all likelihood, would not hear it otherwise.

These things don’t necessarily translate into people joining either church but that isn’t what this is about. This is about building the Kingdom of God. This is about bringing the Gospel to people , planting and watering seeds and making them fertile ground to receive God’s love. That may bring them to one of these churches, it may bring them to a completely different one, it may bring them to call on God and accept Him on their death bed. The thing is, it doesn’t matter. We are called on to share the Gospel and what happens after that is God’s call.

Blessings

Pete

The future

Getting away from the wider thoughts that usually occupy me when I write these posts, I want to focus on things more personal.

I am coming to the end of my time as a missioner in the Meon Valley and I am giving a lot of thought to what that means and how it will play out. When I started I met a lot of good people who were keen to take the Gospel out into their community through mission, expanding on an already excellent record of service to the Meon Valley communities. 18 months of Covid related lockdowns and social distancing really affected the progress that had been made though and the loss of some people within the churches has also affected what was happening.

Mission is a scary proposition for many at this point. Covid is not over, although people may be behaving as if it is, but connecting with people through mission is just about starting to become a possibility again. So I find myself in a position of almost restarting my role with less than a year to go. So I am looking at what I can do in that time.

Firstly I am in the process of working through options for Elemental Tent and the Wickham Festival with the Circuit team. There will be more on that as we reach some conclusions. Secondly though I am looking at what I can do that will be of value to the individual chapels.

The missioner role is essentially that of a mission enabler. Each of the five chapels has a distinct personality that, I think, reflects what they are called to as part of the body of the church. That distinct personality means that what Hambledon is called to won’t be the same as what Chase is called to. What Bishop’s Waltham is called to won’t be the same as Swanmore or Shirrell. I must admit that it is only in the last year that I have given a deal of time to the thought of churches having personalities that lead to specific callings on them but I believe it is true. If a church doesn’t know who it is it will spend a lot of resources on things it is not intended for.

So I believe there are two particular things I can do for the chapels right now. I can help them figure out their identity as a part of the church body and I can reoffer the evangelism for the faint hearted course to help people come to terms with talking about faith.

Beyond that I can offer support and advice to anyone who has an idea they want to follow as an individual or as a church group. If you have a dream God has put on you, whether it is to start something or to get involved in something, let’s chat. You can email me, phone me or come and join me for a coffee in Costa in Bishop’s Waltham between 10am and Midday for the next couple of Wednesdays but let’s talk and see how I can help.

Blessings

Pete