Local discussion forum thingy…

We have had a house group at our house for a number of years- some dear friends, a pot of tea and lots of chatter. However, for some time now I have been thinking that it is time to move on into something new. We have floated the idea of starting a local discussion- probably in a pub.

The are a few reasons for this- groups like ours (no matter how lovely) can simply become too familiar, too safe- and the Lion of Judah is not a tame lion. I just think it is time to step out again a little.

Next, those of us who were part of all the ’emerging church’ discussions/conversations/debates/slanging matches perhaps became a jaded with the same theological merry go round. Post modernity, post evangelicalism, post charismatic- we all embraced the questions but had no certainty about where the road might be leading- and that was fine.

But there comes a time when a new direction for our theological journey begins to become a little clearer. All those questions start to find some kind of answer, even if incomplete and held lightly.

Of late, there have been some discussions about ‘teaching’ within Aoradh. I was rather shocked at first as I was not that sure I wanted to teach anyone anything. I was happy to learn alongside others as we journeyed together, but the idea that other people should be shaped and moulded by  my (or one of my friend’s) knowledge and wisdom was rather beyond me. At first the whole idea of it seemed a step back towards something that I was glad to leave behind.

But of course, St Paul talked about the gifts given to the body of the church- apostles prophets teachers miracle workers healers helpers organizers those who pray in tongues. I am no longer given to treating the suggestions of St Paul to the people in Ephesus as a blue print for the organisation of ‘church’, but neither am I going to ignore him either!

Having said that, there are a few other positions in St Paul’s list above that still have no certified incumbents. Whilst I hope that we can be respectful of church tradition, I have no real desire to start a journey towards a new clergy. Rather let us use the passion and talent that we can, and encourage the same in others around us. If we have a teacher, let him/her teach.

Or let us just gather to learn together- this still sits much easier with me.

So- if you are in the Dunoon area, do you fancy being part of a discussion group?

My working idea has been to use some of the questions proposed by St Brian of Mclaren in his book ‘A new kind of Chrisitianity’;

1. What is the overarching storyline of the Bible?

2. How should the Bible be understood?

3. Is God violent?

4. Who is Jesus and why is he important?

5. What is the Good News?

6. What do we do about the church?

7. Can we find a better way to address the issue of homosexuality?

8. Can we find a better way of viewing the future?

9. How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?

10. How can we translate our quest into action?

I am determined that any of these discussions has to start and end with respect for a diversity of opinion- and even to embrace this, and if we start to fight truth wars than we will not continue!
Up for it?
Here is a taster of St Brian, talking about Questions 9- pluralism;

Crash course in Churchianity…

I heard a story about Church the other day from one of my close friends that made my eyebrows shoot skywards. More on this later…

I have spent too long deconstructing institutional Church in all its glorious contradiction. Initially I did this as someone who had been chewed up by a negative experience of church – burnt out by it all – and then latterly, more from a respectful removed distance. Eventually however, all this deconstructing has to stop and we need to start constructing again, or we are remain caught in some kind of pointless cynical loop.

All things change. The usual human cycle of any project of human organisation always goes something like this; new thing-expansion-slowing down-dissatisfaction-deconstruction-emergence of new ideas-start of new thing. 

Except in Churches, things sometimes seem to go so slowly. It is almost as if the religiosity of these institutions becomes a gate for the flood of change. If the shape of Church is God-ordained, defined by theology, supported by Scripture and managed by the chosen ones then how could it ever need to change?

My answers to this question, thought over long and hard, are as follows;

  • Change will happen, even if you try to ignore it.
  • The institutions of Church are human constructs, not divine templates floated down on angel cushions.
  • Church arises in a particular time, place and culture- it answers the questions of this place, and everything about it is shaped by these requirements.
  • But then the time place and culture have moved on, and there is a danger of disconnection.

Sure, many will suggest that culture may change but not The Truth, but I am afraid I do not agree with this either. What we once held as absolute gospel truth on all sorts of things has shifted- the divine right of Kings, remarriage after divorce, the place of women (even though this is still a work in progress.)

Back to the story;

My friend grew up in a Church in the north of Scotland and she frequently visits her parents there still. The Church they attend has a room at the back, with a glass partition between it and the main auditorium. The sounds of the main Church building are piped in by speakers on the walls, but otherwise the room is a smaller version of the main Church- plain, unadorned, lacking in any distractions such as toys or books.

It is known as ‘The Training Room’- where young people learn how to behave in Church. When to stand and sit, how to keep silent and when to sing, how to dress and to maintain proper decorum.

Initially I was shocked. How far have we come from the Jesus way of putting the kids first (see Matthew 19.)

But is this so very different from what we all have to go through in entering Church? We learn first of all to conform- to how to behave; to what is correct. Later on we may be able to question some of the edges of what we have become, but the pressure to conform, to belong, is too great.

Perhaps this might serve us well in part. We DO have things to learn, and we learn best in our collectives. However, these collectives also need to be learning, changing institutions and this is not an easy thing to achieve. In the worst case scenario the choice we have is to accommodate or take the nuclear option- and leave.

Leaving is no panacea of course, because as individuals or small groups setting out on our own we will start to form our own Training Rooms.

The open question for all of us is; how do we remain open, questioning, teachable, lovers of the way (not sitters on the pew?)

I have some flickerings of an idea as to how we might do this- and it is about being a sent people, not a gathered people. It is about going with love, not staying with doctrinal truth.

Hmmmm.

Teaching, preaching- in small missional groups…

In the middle of all the laughter around the campfire on my recent wilderness trip, conversation took a much more serious turn. I found myself in the middle of a rather intense and difficult discussion with one of my friends and Aoradh chums. Some of this was about leadership in Aoradh- which I will return to when I have had a chance to process and discuss it again, but another issue flickered briefly in a way that surprised me- ‘Teaching’.

‘Teaching’ that is, in the traditional Christian/Evangelical sense of the word. Apologies to those not from a background like this, but those that are will know exactly what I mean. All our services revolved around one thing- the climactic 45 minute to an hour long sermon. Through this a skilled preacher would expound on a passage from ‘The Word’, inspiring us, shaping us, challenging us and bring us to repentant response.

This kind of spirituality grew out of Victorian spirituality- a combination of the elevation of the written words of the Bible  as the primary (even the only) revelation of God, and the syncretism of faith with modern rationalistic culture. So it was natural to engage with spirituality in the same way that we would engage with the study of medicine or chemistry- in a lecture hall, with the celebrity scientist at the centre, sharing his accumulation of knowledge- even his life long labour- with those eager for understanding.

Along with this of course, scientific rigour was required, along with reliable, testable source material. So faith became something it was possible to organise, define and defend. And we did this above all things by knowledge of the Bible- carefully cross referenced verses, once produced, ended all argument.

Perceptive readers may sense a certain scepticism in the tone of this piece. It is easy to have a go at all this from a post modern cynical perspective.  We can point to all sorts of problems that we inherited with this kind of spirituality-

  • The top down nature of it, casting us in the role of passive receivers, not active questioners
  • The potential it gives for the misuse of power and control
  • The one dimensional quality of a lot of preaching- the giving of one man’s (and it usually is a man’s) perspective on ‘truth’
  • The elevation of the words of the Bible to what I would describe as idolatry- a tendency to treat the words as some kind of unassailable blue print that arrived down on earth on the wings of an angel as the transcription of the very word of God (in case you are wincing at my heresy, there is a fuller discussion of this issue here.)
  • The changing communication style of the age- the shortening of attention spans, the endless competition of other media has now entered into the human condition.

There is also this question in me about my own experience of listening to preaching. I have had the privilege of hearing some really great preachers- people who hold the attention by their great oration and carefully constructed sentences. Preaching like this is an art form, all the more to be celebrated in this age of the 30 second sound bite. Some of my friends still are responsible for delivering sermons each weekend- and I celebrate their honest creativity- their genuine efforts in the long direction, to bring light into the lives of a congregation through words.

I also love to go and listen to speakers at festivals like Greenbelt- people who bring a totally new and sometimes controversial perspective.

But having said all this, when I consider the shape of my own journey, and try to remember how this was affected by teaching or preaching I have heard, I struggle to remember more than one or two actual sermons/teaching sessions (and even those, not necessarily for the right reasons.) Perhaps I was shaped by the experience more than I can remember the actual events, but considering the countless hours of preaching I have sat through, we might expect there to be much more connection between hearing a message, responding to the challenge, and life changes that flow from this.

I think that we have been caught up in the idea that refining our knowledge of a certain kind of moral interpretation of the Bible equates to something we called ‘spiritual maturity’. It was like a uniform we put on- a way of identifying with the church culture we belong to. But as I look back now, this is not the kind of spirituality that has deep value to me.

It is not that knowledge is unimportant, or that we do not need someone to give us some basic knowledge for the road, but despite all this, spirituality (in my experience) is only discovered in real places, encountering real people and asking questions of the experiences along the way.

I also think that the reductionism of faith down to basic facts is dangerous. It suggests that there is ONE understanding that we should all be conforming to- and increasingly I have found faith to be a glorious question mark, within which there are routes for many lines of enquiry.

Those of you that preach will right now want to tell me that there are other ways to skin the cat- and I would agree with you. Preaching can open up issues, not close them down. Preaching can soar like poetry in the ears of the listener. This kind of preaching I want to hear.

Perhaps preaching is reshaping too- think of all those wonderful TED talks that go viral on t’internet. Like this one;

So, what of our short discussion about teaching in small missional groups? How do we ‘teach’ one another in this kind of context?

The very idea initially took me by surprise. Why would I want to ‘teach’ my fellow community members anything? Does this not assume that I am some kind of God-expert who needs to sprinkle my knowledge on my disciples? Are we not learning together constantly just by living deliberately shared lives of faith? Ideas enter constantly into conversation through books we have read, things we have encountered through the internet etc.

Then I thought of our young people- who perhaps do need to learn some things in order to go through their own process of deconstruction/construction. Is it enough for them to learn in this kind of community chaotic way? Perhaps it is time to think again, if not about teaching, then certainly how we facilitate discussions around particular questions.

It is a work in progress- like most of my theological positions, but some principles seem important to me;

  • Open spaces. Learning requires safe spaces in which to adventure. We have to be free to get it wrong.
  • The honest question is worth a million cheap answers.
  • Community is teaching. Teaching is community.
  • We learn in different ways- listening, watching, reading, experiencing, discussing.
  • Everyone has something to teach.

hmmmm….

In defence of Church attendance (by one who does not.)

The former Home Secretary, Charles Clark chaired some debates on the place of faith in our society recently. He argued that church attendance (in decline in the UK for decades, with some minor fluctuations) was not a good way to judge the importance of faith in the life of our society.

You can hear what Clark had to say here.

He argued that if we focus just on two polar opposites – the ‘Richard Dawkins’ position (there is no God, all religion is dangerous superstition and should be stamped out) and those who would firmly believe in the existence of a divine deity at the centre of the universe – we miss the obvious fact that most people are somewhere in between.

Most people instinctively dislike the extreme position. On the one side we have the God shouters- the Evangelical truth dealers and hell threateners. And on the other side we have the Dawkins brand of religion- elitist condescending rationalism that cuts the colour from human experience.

But in the middle we have millions seeking their own understandings of what it means to be body mind and spirit. 

What we know is that in order to make our spiritual enquiries- or journeys- many of us need a vehicle in which to travel. We need the shapes around us made by the journey of others.

And because we are social animals, we also need to make these journeys in community. We need to find ways of marking our anniversaries, our life boundaries, our coming and going in company. Ceremony and liturgy have their place too in allowing us into the depth of things.

Which brings us back to Church.

I no longer attend formal church services regularly- at least in terms of the sort that gather beneath steeples. That is not to say I never go, but rather that our ways of churching in Aoradh tend towards the informal. I am blessed with a community of friends who journey with me, and this is all the church I need for the most part.

Along the way I have spent a lot of time critiquing church, because Lord knows there is a lot to criticise. Most institutions lumber along with a weary momentum that appears to suppress life and vitality. But this would be a false stereotype- Churches are also places of light. Places where we might learn to be light givers.

So here is my defence of arch and steeple, font and choir stalls, Priest and Pastor, organ and acoustic guitar, parish committee and conference, flower rota and Sunday school, back pew sitter and pulpit preacher.

If you are weary of soul and spirit, if you are hungry to encounter God, you may seek him in the mountains, or in a city train station, and you may find him there.

Or you could go to Church and sit on the back row.

New belief…

Over the past few years, often charted on this blog, the defining codes of faith on which I have sought to live my life has changed considerably.

At first it fragmented. I was no longer sure if I believed at all, let alone had confidence in the traditions I was part of. This was sometimes traumatic. Later however faith began to emerge again less as a set of resounding assertions about the nature of the divine but more as a process of faithful questioning.

In other words, it could be regarded as faith not as the opposite of doubt but rather doubt as an integral part of a living faith journey. I wrote about this before, here.

Along the way, the emphases I place have shifted considerably. I do not think that the correct goal for the life of faith is perfecting our theology- either from the point of view of knowledge, or narrowing down our understanding of ancient text until we have nailed down every errant verse to fit an integrated whole. Rather I think that attempts to do this will always be futile, and distractions from the real business of faith, which is all about how it releases us to live.

This has led me to worry far less about all those ‘questions-in-a-bubble’ theological arguments- the sort that no one really cares about apart from theologians. Such intellectual sparring can be entertaining, but when it is mixed with angry defensiveness or attack in the name of truth I walk away.

But to suggest that what we believe does not matter is foolish.

Our actions are driven in both subtle and obvious ways by the core ideas that we build our lives on. Here is an example from a psychological point of view.

>Core belief;  People are inherently evil and untrustworthy, particularly those who are ‘different’.

>Leading to guiding assumptions; I am at risk, my family needs to be defended, you are a threat, I need to prepare for hostilities.

>Leading to instinctive interactions; Distrust, hostility, defensiveness, aggression, tendency to isolation  and separation.

Everything that Jesus taught us about love is based on the idea that if this becomes the core of everything we believe then our core assumptions about the world and our instinctive reactions to it are all affected. In this way, love is not weak, nebulous and irrational, rather it can change the whole world.

But (unfortunately perhaps) life involves a whole lot of other questions to which we have to at least form working theories, if not absolute conclusions.

So back to the point of this post- the forming of new tenants of faith out of all of the questioning. It is another regular theme on this blog- what to construct after all the deconstruction. There comes a point (or at least there has for me) when I start to feel more comfortable with making tentative statements about what you believe again.

Although as I think about it, as a young man raised in Evangelical/charismatic settings, saying what you believed was not  often necessary- it was obvious as we all kind of knew what was held in common to be ‘true’. The point at which belief was really defined was in the negative- that is when someone (usually outside out immediate group) got it wrong. We could then dissect their incorrect doctrine and discount it and in doing so we could also discount them.

I confess that there is this tendency in me still- I continue to strive towards grace in this as in many things.

What I am starting to construct however, I do not construct alone- everywhere I see a convergence of a new kind of consensus around some basic ways of approaching faith. It seems to me to be cross denominational, but typical of those of us who may have come through all of those ‘posts’ discussions (post modernity, post evangelical, post charismatic, post Christendom.)

So, here are a few of the things that I have come to believe, structured around the ancient Apostles Creed. I expect things to change- I will be carving nothing in stone, nor nailing anything to church doors- these theories are not external, they are made of flesh, some sinew, and even a little muscle.

1. I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

I do. I believe that this unfolding universe began in the mind of God, and he let it all out in a burst of creativity. I also believe that we embody this god-quality of creativity as we are made out of the dust of the heavens, in the image of the Creator- and that this imposes deep responsibilities on us in relation to the heaven and the earth.

2. I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.

If there is one thing of faith that lives in me, it is the idea, the hope, the person of Jesus. Immanuel, God-with-us, walking in our filth and turning every thing upside down. I believe in the New Kingdom he proclaimed as being here, and near.

And if I believe in Jesus, then what we know of his ways has to be the place that I start from in relation to all other belief. I have to start with the stories and parables he told, and the way he lived his life in relation to everyone around him.

And I have to concede that love is the most important thing- far more important than judgement, or doctrine, so if I am going to make any error, I am going to strive to make it on the side of love and grace. This will inform my relationships to everyone, particularly those who are marginalised or oppressed.

3. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.

To be honest, this is not something I think about often- but I rest on the stories I have inherited.

4. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.

5. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again.

6. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

These stories too live in me and inspire me.

7. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Perhaps Jesus will come again- but I am not going to spend too much time thinking about this as we were not put on this earth just to hope for some kind of swift exit or heavenly Dunkirk. We are here to learn how to love, and how to put this into action.

I believe that we should not fear judgement from a loving God, and that all of us need grace.

8. I believe in the Holy Spirit,

I do- despite all the charlatans and the hype. I believe in the Spirit of God within us.

9. the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints,

I want to believe that the collectives of the followers of Jesus might be the conscience, the peace makers, the justice dealers, the healers, the party makers and the gardeners of this world. I hope for communities of people who support one another in this direction, whilst learning to love.

I believe that God is present in these gatherings, but also elsewhere. I believe that he reveals himself to people of other faiths, and none.

10. the forgiveness of sins,

Oh yes.

11. the resurrection of the body,

I was never quite sure what this meant- something to do with a day to come when all our bodies will be raised incorruptible. To be honest, I think this is another one of those that I will just shelve with a bit of a shrug.

12. and life everlasting.

Yes, I have this hope that we might be more than flesh but also Spirit, and that those Spirits that leave before us might yet be waiting for us elsewhere.

Is this ancient creed enough to define the central things of our faith now?

As I read it over, I do not think it is. Firstly, I continue to think that we have over emphasised right belief- even to the point of burning dissenters at the stake. The creed is all about belief, and very little to do with our response to it.

What I am hungry for is to see right ways of living and ideas of how love can be put into action.

So I would add to the list above a few of my own;

13. I believe in love

For those reasons above.

14. I believe that we are called to be active subjects of the Kingdom of God, and to participate with him in acts of creativity, healing, peace making, protesting, lamenting, redeeming and the formation of community.

15. I believe in the mission/adventure/pilgrimage that God releases us on.

16. I believe that my ideas of God are incomplete and imperfect, and that not every question can be answered. And that that is OK.

Good Shepherd Sunday…

It was today, according to the Lectionary.

It was also our Aoradh family worship day today, and it was lovely as ever. We used the general theme of Good Shepherd in our worship, then we ate together and sat round a fire in the garden until the spring rain set in.

Today we did a thing with some of Si Smith’s flat pack nativity figures– the shepherd, and lots of sheep. We asked people to write worries on the inside of the sheep, then add them to the flock- first feeling the better for the company, then we added in the shepherd. You get the picture.

Here are some of the flock;

‘Making missional communities’ podcasts…

Graham sent us a copy of the recording of our talk about making small missional communities at Calvary Christian Fellowship near Preston.

We were invited to take a road trip to describe something of our experiences with Aoradh, and we structured the discussion into three main sections ‘in’, ‘out’, ‘up’ with me talking about some of the background and theory (such as it is!) behind what we do, and Michaela describing our activities in a bit more detail. We tried to be really honest about the difficult bits as well as all the great stuff.

I have uploaded it as a series of podcasts, partly because other folk in Aoradh might be interested to know what we said about them, and also because the issue of how we make and sustain community in these fluid postmodern times seems to be pretty important, so others might like to hear something of our story.

You should be able to download the different sections on these links, but I am told that ‘ourmedia’ sometimes takes a little while to make uploads ‘live’, so you may need to come back a little later…

Making missional communities 1

Making missional communities 2

Making missional communities 3

Making missional communities 4

Making missional communities 5

Making missional communities 6

Making missional communities 7

Making missional communities 8