To snip or not to snip, er, that’s not really our question!

29 03 2010

This is what Paul and Barnabas really looked like. Possibly. Not.


Previously on LA Law…

In my last post on the question of discernment, dear reader, we thought about how it was that Peter came to lead the church in a whole new direction.

According to the writer of Acts, he was the first to preach the gospel to people who weren’t Jewish (or Samaritan). He led the way there. He had a vision of new possibilities: something so shocking for him that at first he struggled to accept it. It was a really surprising thought for him. So surprising; so out of his comfort zone, that he saw that it must have come from God. And yet we also saw how it was also the next step in an ever outward trajectory on which Peter had already been travelling. For Peter, the authority of his vision was confirmed by the coincidence that followed. Immediately after waking from his ‘vision’ (nap/hallucination), he was invited to go into a place he would never have gone before.

But remember that when he got back, he shared that story with the whole church and together they worked out that this was not just for Peter, but for them all.

Job done. Decision made. But turn to Acts 15.1-35 and here we are just a few years later and  it doesn’t look so settled after all. It’s not that people want to roll everything right back. They don’t want to stop sharing the gospel with people who aren’t Jewish. But some people are now saying that these new believers have basically to become Jewish. The men have to be circumcised and all of them have to keep the law of Moses.

Paul and Barnabas are really pretty cross about it. They were sent out from Antioch to carry on what Peter started. They’ve been seeing people who aren’t Jewish come to faith. Those people have been baptised in water. They’ve received the gift of God’s Spirit.

But now some people are saying they’re second-class. Not even that. No class at all. Unless they become Jewish, they’re still stoofed.

It’s a massive question for the Church. Sharing the gospel with people who aren’t Jewish. That’s okay. The Church had already got that far. But if they accept the gospel; if they come to have faith in Jesus; do they have to become Jewish?

In the end, the Church says, no they don’t. Their faith in Jesus is enough. But that’s not all. There is something new. These new believers who aren’t Jewish have to live in a way that won’t offend Jewish people who don’t yet believe in Jesus. It won’t be business as usual for them anymore. They don’t have to become fully Jewish. But it’s not alright for them to live like pagans anymore.

That’s really interesting in itself. But in the third session at our weekend away, we didn’t think so much about the decision itself as how the Church came to that decision. We were thinking about how we can be a community of discernment. So we looked at how the Church exercised discernment together.

Here’s a few things that we noticed…

  • WE’RE NOT ALONE
    This difficult question came up in Antioch. But it doesn’t get settled there. Paul and Barnabas go to Jerusalem. That’s where these people who were making life difficult had come from. Paul and Barnabas could have told them just to get lost. But they didn’t. They knew that their home church was part of a bigger family of churches. This was a question for the whole of God’s Church to answer together. Even though Paul and Barnabas were apostles, they weren’t free just to do their own thing. They needed to settle this question with all the apostles. I think that had two things to say to us in our situation:

    1. We need to settle our questions together. We need each other in our little group: the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s! We’re in it together.

    2. But we also need to test out our answers with the wider family of churches of which we’re a part. First, for us here, that means our sister church in Somerstown: St Peter’s. But our Anglican family includes other churches in the local cluster of parishes and the city deanery. And we recognise too in all this, the authority of the apostle who leads the mission in our Diocese: the Bishop of Portsmouth.

    We’re not alone as individuals as we try to answer our questions. And we’re not alone as a community.

  • OUR STORIES MATTER
    This whole question erupted because Paul and Barnabas told a story. They’d just come back from their travels in Syria. They’d been sharing the gospel with people who weren’t Jewish. they’d seen them respond in the same way as Jewish believers had. They’d seen them receive the same gift that Jewish believers had. Telling this story when they got back to Antioch caused a big upset. It was just too much for the visitors from Judea. It sounded like Paul and Barnabas had lost it.

    But Paul and Barnabas can’t keep it bottled up. They keep telling the story. They tell it on the way to Jerusalem. And all the churches in Phoenicia and Samaria get excited. They tell it to the whole church in Jerusalem. And they tell it again to the special leaders’ meeting that gets called.

    And telling their story sets other people free to tell theirs. Peter shares his experience again. But it’s not just people who agree who tell their story. Those pharisee believers who find it all a bit much get a hearing too.

    But finally, it’s James who sets all these stories in the bigger story of God’s love for God’s people. Everyone’s story matters. Those stories make sense when they’re heard alongside God’s story. So we need to share the story of what’s happening for us as get stuck in with what God might be doing in Somerstown. All our stories need to be heard. We need to hear each other’s joys in what we’re doing and share in that excitement. We also need to hear each other where our story is one of really profound difficulty with where we’ve got to. And we all need to agree that God’s story is the one that will help us make sense of all of that.

      EXCURSUS: BEING CREATIVE WITH GOD’S STORY
      It’s really interesting how James handles that story. He uses Scripture. He uses the spiritual practices of his people; their Tradition. And he creatively reinterprets both.First James recalls a promise about the Temple as if it’s about Jesus. The temple was everything to the Jewish people. It was where God lived. It was where the people met with God. And there was a hope that one day everyone would come to know God by coming to God’s temple. That included people who weren’t Jews: the Gentiles.

      Now Gentiles are coming to God. But they’re not going anywhere near the Temple in Jerusalem. They’re coming to know God through Jesus. Only Jewish people could come into the central parts of the Temple. But anyone can come to know God through Jesus. So the ban on people who aren’t Jewish coming to know God is irrelevant.

      Second James reminds everyone that people who weren’t Jewish were allowed in the Synagogues. There were lots of people around who weren’t Jewish but who liked what the Jewish faith taught. These ‘God-fearers’ were allowed to be associated with the Synagogue community if they kept what was called the law of Noah. The law of Noah wasn’t as full-on as the law of Moses. It was Judaism ‘lite’. But it meant that these people who weren’t Jewish were at the same time, not pagan. They were not Jewish but their lives didn’t offend Jewish people.

      So James puts these two things together in a brand new way. Gentile Christians had already come to know God through Jesus: the new temple. They could share in a mixed community if they kept the law of Noah. That way non-Christian Jewish people wouldn’t be offended by the gospel.

      I think that should inspire us to look into the Bible and the Christian Tradition as we try to answer our own questions. Let’s bring our story and Gods story together in creative ways. We’ll discover new ways to be God’s Church. We’ll find new ways too to share in God’s mission.

  • WE VALUE EACH OTHER
    This all starts with a row. Things get a bit heated. ‘There was no small dissension.’ That could have continued. What Paul and Barnabas have been doing challenges everything that Jewish people hold sacred. It goes to the heart of their faith. It threatens to undermine the whole basis of the people’s covenant relationship with God. They could have been put on trial for heresy. Instead, they are welcomed by the whole church. Who they are and the story they tell is embraced by the whole community. They are generously welcomed. They enjoy the hospitality of the church in Jerusalem.

    That spirit of hospitality is right there all through the proceedings. Generous welcome is what characterises the whole process of discernment. People don’t talk over each other. Everyone is heard.

    Did you notice that it keeps saying so-and-so stood up. The pharisee Christians stood up to say their piece. Peter stands up to tell his story. This is people giving each other space and taking their turn.

  • WE NEED SILENCE
    The other thing we notice is that people need silence. When the special leaders’ meeting is called, they all listen in silence as people take it in turns to share their story. They’re not grumbling. They’re not whispering to their neighbours in the meeting. They’re not trying to interrupt with their own thoughts. They really and truly listen. They give their full attention.

    It’s ever so easy isn’t it when we’re in a discussion not to listen. To spend the whole time while someone else is talking working out what we’re going to say when it gets to our turn. I can’t say from this reading that people aren’t doing that. It doesn’t get us inside their heads. But I’d like to think that they’re not.

    Really, really listening isn’t just about being quiet and not speaking. It isn’t just about being quiet on the outside. Really, really listening is about being quiet on the inside. That’s incredibly difficult. But if we really want to hear God in what other people say and in ourselves, we need silence. We need the sort of silence that penetrates deep into our souls.

    That sort of silence sets us free to be truly present to other people. It sets us free to be present to the moment we’re in right now. That sort of silence is a gift it takes a lifetime to cultivate. But it’s worth the effort.

  • WE’RE ALL INVOLVED
    When it comes to the crunch, it’s down to the apostles and elders to find a way forward. They’re the authorised leaders of the church in Jerusalem. It’s their job to listen to all the different stories and weigh them up. They work out what they think is right. They appoint people to take the decision to Antioch.

    And even in that group, it looks like James has a special job. He presides over the meeting and sums up where it’s all got to at the end. He talks at the end about what he’s decided. He might be talking about his own personal point of view. Or he might be saying that this is what he’s decided on behalf of everyone.

    I think that’s more likely. He seems to be the overall leader of the Jerusalem church. He is Jesus’s brother after all!

    But despite all that, I still want to suggest to you that the whole church is involved in this discernment process. These leaders don’t take these decisions without the rest of the church. In fact the process starts and ends with everyone being involved. When Paul and Barnabas first arrive, it’s the whole church that hears their story. And it’s the whole church that hears the pharisee Christians object.

    Next there’s this discussion among the leaders. They work out a way forward. But finally, it comes back to everyone again. The letter to Antioch goes with the consent of the whole church. So the leaders have authority. But they’re not authoritarian. Their authority comes from the whole church.

    How does that work for our discernment? Well there are obviously authorised leaders in our setup. Alex and I have authority from the bishop. But decisions have to be shared with the church council – the PCC. The PCC’s authority comes from the whole church. They are elected by all the church members. PCC members have a responsibility to reflect the views of the whole church not just their own.

    And so it’s perfectly appropriate for all of us together to consider how we go forward with some of the important questions that we are faced with.

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Stop me, being a christian.

23 03 2010

Every day someone finds their way to this blog because they’ve searched in Google or elsewhere for how to stop being a christian. I think it’s because of a post where I wrote about how I prefer the pre-Antioch language of ‘followers of the way’ to the epithet, first applied to ‘the believers’ in that city: ‘christian’. The former allows for growth and an ongoing journey, the latter speaks of arrival and a binary distinction between people what is and people what ain’t. I don’t know if that’s been helpful to anyone feeling that the well of faith has run dry for them. In this post I want to address those people directly.

Lots of people experience growth in their spirituality and their spiritual search that takes them away from their christian roots into new spiritual territory. Some manage to come to terms with their previous experience and integrate it within a holistic spirituality that can encompass a range of faith traditions. Others find the Christian heritage offers inadequate resources for their ongoing search. For still others their increasingly holistic or more often materialist understanding provokes a crisis of faith and they want to get out and breathe the fresh air.

It’s this last group particularly that I want to address. Because what I think I have picked up from reading other people’s blogs and comments online is that people are often emerging from conservative, narrow or literalist versions of the Christian faith. Not surprisingly they find themselves experiencing ‘cognitive dissonance’ as their certainty looks decreasingly, well, certain, in the face of their real, lived experience and the world of ideas. There comes a point where that snaps. In that moment, people can become hostile to their previous position and christian faith in general. What interests me is that often previously certain fundamentalist christians often become equally certain fundamentalist atheists. That’s not quite the same phenomenon as the spiritual growth I was referring to above (perhaps best described by Fowler and his ‘stages of faith’) but I do wonder whether the people looking to stop being a christian and so finding their way to my blog aren’t more often reacting to a narrow and conservative faith they’ve previously held or been formed by. Perhaps you’d be so kind as to tell me? (Comments welcome!)

The reason I ask is because I wonder whether you’ve considered that there may be other options than simply stopping being a christian. I experienced a similar crisis, where I thought I was losing or wanting to reject my previous faith in my early twenties. It just so happened that in the midst of that I went to an SPCK bookshop and found Dave Tomlinson’s book the Post-Evangelical. I discovered that maybe I wasn’t losing faith after all but instead just growing up a bit and coming to terms with uncertainty, doubt, mystery and complexity.

I wonder how many people of a more open understanding of the christian faith would make such a search (for how to stop being a christian). Not many, I suspect, because maybe there’s more scope for both mystery and reason in less fundamentalist Christianities.

So if you are looking for a way to stop being a christian, may I, being a christian, humbly invite you to stop; and explore the possibility that you’re not losing your faith, but just moving on in the development of a more mature faith. And if you’re drawn to leave Christianity to become a committed atheist, first let me commend you for taking these issues so seriously and second, might I respectfully ask if you really want to exchange one fundamentalism for another?

I’d be interested to hear from you…





Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.

19 03 2010

When you look into the Bible and begin to interrogate it for stories of discernment or guidance, you do find a lot of strange things happening. Actually the Bible is pretty strange all round. Some of it seems at times inpenetrable to me.

I’m probably not supposed to say that as an Anglican priest. But I hope the effect will not be to unsettle people but to release them from feeling inadequate because they struggle too. I think there’s a whole other post here waiting to be written. But I think for the moment I must lay those thoughts aside and press on with what I wanted to discuss here, which is the third of the sessions I ran on the recent weekend away for the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s.

In the preceding session on our weekend, we considered how we might receive direction from unexpected sources. Alongside that we experimented with the charism of prophecy as we considered an issue that is about the long term future of the Anglican mission in Somerstown.

This time we looked at the relationship between visionary leadership and the wider missionary community as we considered an issue that is much closer on our horizon. (In the subsequent session we thought about a very immediate question.) We looked at the story in Acts 10 and 11 of Peter’s vision, the expansion of mission that followed, and the wider Church’s response.

It’s interesting to me that the one to whom (according to the fourth gospel) Jesus says: ‘feed my sheep’ — a seemingly pastoral comission — ends up (according to the book of Acts) leading the Church in mission. Now of course I’m stitching two narratives together here that may or may not have had any influence on each other. But if I may be allowed to proceed on the basis of the wider canon rather than just a single author/redactor, I think this is gryst to my mill. When people have asked me: ‘But how will we be fed?’ I have most frequently returned to an assertion that following God in mission is how we are fed. And so, taking the New Testament as a whole, I am happy to affirm that Peter, charged by Christ with feeding the ‘flock’ does so by leading them into new dimensions of mission – he is the first to take the gospel into a Gentile home. It seems to me to be only a logical outworking of Jesus’ own response to the question of how he would be fed. Jesus said: ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.’

The second part of that question as people ask it – indeed I was asked it this weekend by a group of ordinands in training – is expressed as concern for me. I’m not sure the concern is always genuine but maybe I’m just an old cynic. ‘How do you get fed?’ Above all, my answer to that is: by getting involved with God in mission. I don’t get the kind of weekly teaching that others are looking for. But I am learning every day. And of course I have the benefit of working with a trusted colleague with whom I pray daily and meet weekly. It’s very difficult to ensure that our meetings are focused on prayer and theological reflection instead of just ‘business’. (Yes I know we shouldn’t make a divide between what’s spiritual and what’s not. But believe me, some of the stuff we have to deal with week by week is neither inspiring or uplifting!) Nonetheless that relationship is a source of stimulation and growth for me. But above all, I am spiritually fed, sustained, enlivened, encouraged, challenged, shaped, whatever you want to call it through being with Jesus in the world.

I’ve lost the thread again, haven’t I! Forgive me for riding my hobby horse all the way through this reflection on Peter’s vision.

On the other hand, to be fair to myself, it’s not entirely irrelevant. I think the point that Peter feeds the church by leading them in adventurous mission is a valid one. But having banged on about that – at length [sorry] – what else can we say about discernment through this passage that we looked at on our weekend away?

  • THE RIGHT PLACE?
    I’ve often heard evo charismatic types talking about being in the ‘right place’ to hear from God. But I don’t think Peter is there. He’s hungry and tired. He goes up on the roof and falls into a ‘trance’. It sounds to me like Peter is either knackered and falls asleep, or his blood sugar drops so low that he starts hallucinating. Now I’m not saying that Peter isn’t in the right place spiritually. There’s no suggestion that he isn’t but he seems to me to look for all the world like someone who is overworked and under pressure. And yet in the midst of his exhaustion, when his body finally forces him to rest, he hears from God.

    I don’t want to equate my experience with Peter’s but I think Peter’s story here does connect a little with my own. It’s often on my days off, when I really want to be switching off from the pressures that my role inevitably brings, that I somehow manage to have the most clear thinking about the issues I’m facing. I’m not suggesting that those occasions are always or perhaps ever about me hearing from God. I don’t think God, having established sabbath as a creation ordinance, would particularly or especially want to frustrate my desire for rest and recreation. But it may be that on occasion for me, as for Peter, a pause from overwork allows me to finally hear the still small voice that has been speaking to me as my unconscious mind has continued to wrestle with issues of finding a way forward. Which brings me on to my next point…

  • THE UNCANNY
    In her book, the Creative Mind, Margaret Boden writes about those moments of sudden inspiration that scientists and artists often report. These often appear to interrupt our conscious thinking. Margaret Boden’s thesis, developed through her extensive research into cognition, is that the unconscious mind continues to work on problems while the conscious mind is doing other things. The interruptive nature of the moments when the unconscious mind furnishes the conscious mind with a new insight has led some to the idea that they therefore must come from outside ourselves. I don’t see why these moments cannot be both inspired and the conclusion of an unconscious process. ‘Uncanny’ refers to experiences that are both familiar and strange. These moments of insight will inevitably be of that sort. But is that a credible explanation for what is going on for Peter here. On the face of it, this text seems to suggest a sudden God-given visionary experience that radically transforms Peter’s mental space. This is a paradigm shift moment. But I think there’s a familiar unfamiliarity about what Peter experiences at this point. We can focus on the shocking nature of this experience for Peter as a Jewish man and see it as a wholly revolutionary moment for him. It is revolutionary. It is strange. But there’s also a sort of logic to it if we consider the whole of Peter’s narrative.

    Peter is a man for whom the expression of the love of God for outsiders has some precedent. The whole of the Jewish identity had been focused on Jerusalem and the temple. To be Galilean was to be a ‘hick’, an outsider. Peter is disconnected from the arena where the proper worship of God takes place. And yet he is called by one whom he increasingly understands as making present the divinity of God in Galilee. In fact this man who he comes to call Messiah is Galilean himself. God comes to him, the outsider, as an outsider. And since Jesus’ ascension, he has had experiences of God connecting with outsiders through him. On the day of Pentecost, Peter preaches not to native Jerusalemites, but to diaspora Jews visiting the city from all over the Greco-Roman world, most of whom don’t even appear to speak the lingo. And then Peter has ended up endorsing Philip’s ministry among the Samaritans – an absolutely despised people as far as Jewish people are concerned.

    His experiences up to this point might well have suggested to Peter that the love of God is reaching out in an ever-widening circle. This would have been something that Peter would doubtless have puzzled over consciously and, most likely, unconsciously too. In the light of all that, Peter’s step into the Gentile world doesn’t look so much like a totally unexpected change of direction but more like a logical expression of God’s embrace of the other particularly in Peter’s ministry.

    This is a paradigm shift for Peter. But it’s a predictable paradigm shift. It transforms his mental and spiritual landscape but in a direction in which he was, to some degree already travelling.

  • AUTHORITY: FOCUSED AND DISPERSED
    There is a good deal of authority invested in Peter. (How much depends on your churchmanship!) But he is clearly for a time, the leader of the Church in Jerusalem and its mission. Authority has been invested in him by Christ himself. Peter does not immediately consult on this new direction for the Church’s mission. He pioneers it in response to his vision. And then he shares the story with the wider Church.I am not much of a one for power – having it or reaching after it – at least I like to think I’m not. But I recognise that there is a degree of authority vested in me by virtue of both my ordination(s) and my licence. I am engaged in mission here in Somerstown with the authority of the local inheritor of the apostolic commission: the Bishop.

    I think this story and that fact suggests that there are times when those with responsibility for leading the local church in mission are called upon to press forward with a new direction. On occasion to say: ‘This is where we’re going’.

    My colleague and I are saying something like that in regards to the issue of whether the Anglican mission in Somerstown is best served by there being two parishes or one. We are clear that there should be one parish.

    But there is no absolute authority at work here or in the first century Church. If we model our discernment process on this occasion we’re looking at, it becomes apparent that there are some moments where it’s legitimate for vision to come from authorised leaders, not the whole community. And even for those leaders to pioneer the initial expression of that vision.

    However, there does come a moment when that vision and its pioneering inception do need to come back to the whole community for affirmation or (presumably) or rejection. Peter comes back to the Jerusalem church to share the story of his experiences with Cornelius & Co. The Church affirms that this vision and action of Peter’s is an authentic expression of its mission, as much as it opens up a whole new dimension of the experience and outworking of God‘s saving action in Christ.

    In our setting, Alex and I are saying one parish for Somerstown and pioneering it by working as close colleagues. But in order for the reality to match the vision, that vision and action must be tested by the church communities it will affect – not just the two parishes but the wider cluster, deanery and diocese as well as the patrons and ecumenical partners.

  • COINCIDENCE
    This idea is a much loved device of Richard Dawkins in his attempts to debunk providence and God’s being. Religious people are always looking for meaning in random events that aren’t there – so I think he would say. It’s not remarkable that events coincide. It’s simply statistically inevitable.

    I don’t disagree with that. I actually do think that coincidences are, on the whole, real chance events. I don’t think really that they arise because of magic or direct interference in circumstances by divine agency. But that doesn’t mean that I think they’re devoid of meaning. On the contrary, I think coincidences are pregnant with meaning – because it is we humans who find and assign meaning in chance events. But also, along with Chris Sunderland, author of In a Glass Darkly (see the appendix to his book, pages 262-269), I want to affirm that events that coincide by pure chance are also the means by which God’s purposes unfold. This brings us back to where I started a couple of posts back. There’s a role for chance and particularly coincidence as we exercise discernment.

    Peter’s vision happened just before Cornelius’ two representatives arrived. We can choose to think on the one hand that it’s because God directly intervened to ‘fix’ the circumstances. Or we can choose to believe that coincidences are, by their very nature, the surprising coming together of otherwise unconnected occurrences in ways that stimulate our capacities for pattern recognition and meaning-making. This event only seems remarkable because it has been recorded but that’s only because the thousands of other occasions when coincidences didn’t happen aren’t!

    But however we interpret this phenomenon, I would still want to allow for and recognise the role of chance in finding a way forward. Maybe God fixed these particular events because this had been God’s plan from before the beginning of time or maybe this real coincidence provided the opportunity for the realisation of God’s desire that non-Jews should have the opportunity to come to faith in Christ. It doesn’t matter. We should look at coincidences as opportunities for discernment.

I planned beforehand (and then forgot) to talk about the role of the abbot in Benedict’s Rule during this session of our weekend away. That seems to me to offer a helpful model of the relationship between authorised leadership and the whole community. A matter for another post I think. This one is, surely, long enough!





What to do when your ass speaks…

18 03 2010

‘If God can speak through Balaam’s ass, God can speak through anyone.’ It’s an old, bad joke. A joke, sadly, I’ve never quite grown out of.

I suppose some people who’ve found their way to this page after typing in ‘ass’ as a search team are going to be seriously disappointed.

Er… Because there’s not a lot of donkey-related information on this page.

The ass I’m referring to belonged, according to Numbers 22, to a Canaanite prophet called Balaam. The story is from the period when the people of Israel are hanging around in the lands east of the river Jordan, beating up the locals. This is okay, apparently, because God had told them the land was theirs and they should turf out those wicked people who were going around the place wickedly minding their own business and stuff. Shocking. Sounds to me like they deserved everything they got.

So the people dishing out the righteous justice have already seen off the Amorites and ‘Og, king of Bashan’ (what a quality name) and now, understandably, Balak, king of Midian, is getting a bit perturbed. (He and his people have also it seems been minding their own business. The infidels!) So Balak calls on Balaam (local purveyor of sooths what needs saying) to go and put a curse on the Israelites.

As an interesting aside, it seems that Balaam receives his oracles from none other than YHWH – God of the Israelites. I’m not the first person, and certainly not the cleverest, to suggest that the evolution of Hebrew monotheism might not have followed the straightforward path outlined in the Bible. I wonder if there’s a hint here that YHWH might have started out as a Canaanite deity. If so, it seems someone has forgotten to airbrush it out.

Anyway. According the text, it seems that Balaam isn’t a false prophet. Balak’s invitation to dish out a bit of cursing is getting the thumbs down from the big G. Balaam stays at home. What happens next is a bit odd (but not the oddest thing that happens in the story). First off, God tells Balaam that it’s alright for him to go with all the king’s men. Then, it seems, God is cross that Balaam goes with all the king’s men and sends Arnie the Angel to stand in the way (complete with flaming sword). Now call me old fashioned, but if you say it’s alright for someone to do something, it’s a little bit unreasonable to be cross with them when they do it. Actually, I can think of more than one occasion where my wife has done the same… 😉

Anyway poor old Balaam sets off on his poor old longsuffering ass. Apparently donkeys can see things people can’t. So Balaam’s ass sees Arnie the Angel. And being more than a little intimidated by big shiny fellow with flaming sword, tries to turn around. Balaam, being a grumpy old sod, whips his ass. I know. I know. I just can‘t resist…

It’s at this point that the even stranger thing happens: Balaam’s ass speaks. Nothing especially profound. Pretty much just, ‘stop hitting me with a big stick!’ It’s at that point that Arnie the Angel stops being invisible (not really very fair of him/her/it in the first place) and tells Balaam to listen to his ass and turn back.

Talking donkeys. Invisible angels with fiery swords. It all sounds more than a little far fetched, doesn’t it! It all sounds like a bit of a bad trip. So why on earth would I make it the text for the Saturday morning session of our recent weekend away?

Well because I wanted to suggest to people that guidance can come to us from the most unexpected of sources. We shouldn’t expect that God will communicate only to and through the people who call themselves God’s people. Guidance may not even come through people at all. Now I don’t mean we should be listening more carefully to what our animals are saying. If someone came to me and told what it was God had told them through the voice of their hamster, I would back away slowly and then, when I was at a safe distance either a) run away or b) get them sectioned. In fact I’d probably react in the same way to anyone who told me they’d heard the audible voice of God in any way. What I mean is that interpreting the story, once again, metaphorically, we should expect to hear from God in circumstances, maybe particularly those that have something of the uncanny about them. (More of this when I post about St Peter’s vision in Acts 10.)

What’s interesting on this occasion is that the guidance is about not going in a particular direction. About some sort of imperceptible obstacle to taking a particular way forward. I often hear people talking about guidance in terms of the opening and closing of particular doors. You have to be careful about this because tit could end up sounding like you should only ever take the easy option. I don’t think it’s that. Actually, Balaam in this story is trying to take the easy option – doing what the king asks instead of standing firm on what he is fairly confident is right.

This reminds me of the occasion from Acts 16 when St Paul and his companions are prevented from going into Turkey by the ‘Spirit of Jesus’. I was reminded of this story by my dissertation supervisor when we were discussing the relationship between discernment and spiritual formation. So, to develop the point I was making in my last post, if the key is spiritual formation, then maybe discernment becomes about being steered away from unhelpful options rather than being shown the one and only way forward from a set of options.

For the parish congregations that my colleague and I are working with, the voice from ‘outside’ the community is not closing a door but potentially opening one. The civic authority has made an invitation that looks like an amazing opportunity to set the Anglican mission in Somerstown on a very sure footing for a very long time to come. We are seriously exploring it.

The other aspect of this story that I wanted to explore is the notion of prophecy itself. In the popular imagination, prophecy is about foretelling – the supernatural ability to predict the future. But, as many commentators have pointed out before, in the Bible, prophecy is very much more concerned with forthtelling. It’s about the people being called to account for themselves and their faithfulness to their values and tradition. Prophets often speak in the midst of a crisis – identifying current troubles as a judgement on a failure to be faithful.

There’s a notion too though, within the pentecostal and charismatic traditions that prophecy is a ‘charism’ – a special ability to speak on behalf of God to the Christian community. This might be a momentary gift or a more longstanding gift; such that the New Testament identifies prophet as a distinct ministry in the life of the Church. My own experience within these traditions and my growth away from them inclines me to be skeptical. But I have been challenged by thinking about this whole notion of discernment to consider again whether (again in the words of my dissertation supervisor) these experiences and gifts might be in my future as well as my past.

So with all that in mind, I invited the people at that Saturday morning session to invite God to speak through them prophetically in response to the invitation we had heard from outside the community.

In a discussion, it’s perfectly normal to expect people to influence one another and for the conversation to develop a dynamic of its own. But if we were to hear in a way that went beyond our collective voice, I thought we needed to approach this question differently.

So I invited people to go and find a space on their own; to spend 10 minutes in quiet, asking God to speak through them; and then to write down what they thought they’d heard. I then asked people to put their piece of paper into a bowl. In then invited everyone to take a piece of paper and read what was written on it. It wouldn’t be fair to share the individual contributions. But there was a sense I think in which there was both an encouragement and a challenge. There was an encouragement to engage in the process we were being invited into without knowing what the outcome would be as well as a challenge to remain true to our emerging core values. I think the sum of those contributions was bigger than its parts and there was a sense that this process moved us on. The door remained open. The way was not barred by any angels with flaming swords that we could detect. But then of course, I could be speaking out of my ass…





Take a chance on me…

13 03 2010

Any priest who encouraged their congregation to take a punt on the ponies would probably not be surprised to be summoned to see their bishop. Gambling has probably rightly been seen as difficult to reconcile with Christian discipleship. It’s forever associated in the Christian imagination with the game of dice that determined which of the soldiers that had brutally executed Jesus would get to keep the shirt off his back. Gambling is associated too with the frivolous waste of resources – the opposite of good stewardship – and with greed and vice. Games of chance seem at odds with a somewhat more deterministic Christian worldview. Letting things turn on the roll of a dice appears the inverse of seeking to learn the will of God.

And yet at the very beginning of the Church’s life we see a pretty major decision being made on the basis of a game of chance. Choosing the successor of Judas was settled by the casting of lots (aka cleromancy [sorry I love jargon]) according to the book of Acts.

It’s not the only time it features in the Bible when people are trying to hear from God or in the next case, the gods. In the story of Jonah, the stormblown sailors work out who the ‘Jonah’ is by casting lots. According to some writers on t’internet there are 70 references to ‘lots’ in the Hebrew Scriptures and a handful in the New Testament. That may be right or it might not. To be honest I can’t be bothered to trawl through and check it out. Maybe I should cast my urim and thummim to find out…

Thinking about the choosing of Matthias over Justus led me to wonder about the role of chance in the process of discernment.

If you’re a reasonably regular reader of this blog then you’ll probably have been wondering if there was ever going to be anything new on here anytime soon. But leaving that aside you probably also know that I’m in the process of writing my MA disssertation at present. It’s on the subject of discernment in pioneer ministry. This is no pure ‘academic’ exercise for me. There are some really puzzling questions facing my colleague and I and the churches and communities we serve. Finding out what shape is taken here by the ‘thy will’ that we want to ‘be done’ in Somerstown as in heaven is very much on our agenda. I’ll say more in coming posts about what we might mean by God’s will and how we engage with it. For now let it suffice to say that I don’t think it’s as simple as working out what God wants and then just getting on with it.

Thinking about casting lots came about as I puzzled over how to help my little mission community – the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s – into taking part in and responsibility for discerning a way foward for our ‘Sunday Sanctuary’ endeavour as we went away together for the first weekend in March. I was taking a trawl through the book of Acts looking at occasions when the Church in mission engaged in a process of discernment as its members wrestled with questions of direction. And this choice – who should replace Judas as one of ‘the Twelve’ – was the first that we looked at. At our weekend away, I suggested four features of that process that might help us in facing the questions that lay before us. I’ve since thought of a fifth. So starting with that new thought, here are five features of the discernment process that I discern in Acts 1.12-26.

  1. BEING GROWN UP
    This is pretty much the first decision that the band of Jesus’ disciples had to make following the ascension of Jesus. Here for the first time they’re on their own. They’re not simply following where they’re led anymore. The responsibility lies with them. I think that’s significant. It’s not simply a matter of seeing where Jesus is off to next and tagging along. It calls for a degree of maturity, independence even. I don’t mean that they are no longer dependent on Christ. But their relationship has changed. He is simply not physically there any more. The disciples have to come to terms hwith his abscence. His promised presence comes to them through the gift of the Holy Spirit. In terms of the Acts account, the fullness of the Spirit is yet to come at this point. They’re not quite on their own. But they’re not just followers any more either. It’s down to them. They have to grow up.
  2. GROUNDED IN PRAYER
    But as much as they have to grow up from their dependence on Jesus’ constant physical presence and direction, they are absolutely grounded in prayer. They don’t approach this question cold, their response comes out of their prayer. According to the writer of Acts they are ‘constantly devoting themselves to prayer’. I think this isn’t so much about just becoming empty vessels through which the Holy Spirit can speak. Prayer is the means by which they continue to be formed as disciples; to become themselves; to grow up into the people God is calling them to be.
  3. ROOTED IN THE TRADITION
    Judas was a pretty bad egg. At least that’s what the writer of this text wants us to think. None of this hanging himself after being overcome with remorse as in Matthew. (Take note anyone who wants to deny that the Bible has errors or contradictions.) In contrast to Matthew’s account, the Acts writer depicts a smug Judas getting his come-uppance. God gets ‘medieval on his ass’. Anyway none of that is really the point! The point is that despite having had a really bad experience with one of the Twelve (whom incidentally, Jesus chose), they don’t think: ‘well, eleven apostles is enough’. It doesn’t even occur to them that there should be fewer than twelve. The deep sacramental significance of the number is not a matter of small importance for them. It was what they had received from their Lord and it echoed the symbolic division of tribes in their own sacred history. There was no question for them but that their should be a twelfth apostle.
  4. TAKING RESPONSIBILITY
    I suppose this is very much linked to the first point, so maybe that wasn’t such a new point after all. But it comes from a different part of this story of discernment. There are about 120 people together at the point of making this choice. Some of these will have joined the growing (and, on occasion, shrinking) band of disciples at different points in Jesus’ ministry. But the original Twelve were chosen from a bigger band of followers who had been there from the start: Jesus’ baptism. So I think it’s unlikely that the two names were the only two possible names that could have been put forward at this point. This group have taken responsibility and narrowed down the options. From a larger field of candidates they have got it down to two between whom they cannot choose. They’ve got two good options. If there was only one obvious choice, they wouldn’t have needed the next step. It would have been settled by default. But the writer wants us to see that the unsuccesful candidate was a jolly good egg. Joseph Barsabbas (son of Sabbas) has the latin nickname ‘Justus’ – meaning fair-minded.
  5. LEAVING IT TO CHANCE
    This is the bit that is the most difficult for the modern mind to cope with. But when it came down to it, they left it to chance. They drew straws or threw dice or coloured stones. We don’t know exactly how they ‘cast lots’ and it’s a good thing that we don’t. Otherwise we might have ritualised that particular action instead of being able to see the metaphorical possibilities. There is a place for chance, or happenstance if you prefer, in finding a way forward.

At the beginning of our weekend away we drew straws to see who would end up reading which Bible passage of the half a dozen or so we would be hearing over the course of the weekend. I suggested to people that if they got one of the Bible readings they might look for what God wanted to say to them through this particular reading. And to those who didn’t get a reading, I made the invitation that they look for what God was wanting to say to them through not having a specific passage to look at.

Does that mean that I think God chose this particular reading (or lack of a reading) for them? I honestly don’t know.

I suspect not.

I think it’s more about the openness to hear from God that’s important. I believe that God, by God’s Spirit is gently calling, speaking, leading us all the time. That openness, if people achieved it, will have created the space for them to connect with the still small voice and so grow into what God has for them. Do you understand what I mean?

I guess I’d say the same about that group of disciples. Was Matthias the only right choice? Was there some flaw in Justus’ character that meant he would have been a disaster? He surely couldn’t have been worse than Jesus’ personal choice: Judas. So maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe both men would have been an equally good choice but in the end there could be only one. So let chance happen and see what emerges.

But what both men had, I think, is character. They were formed through their experience of Jesus and their deep and constant engagement with God in prayer. In the end it was about the whole community being shaped by Christ together and then seeing what happened. As I’ve said before I think this is a more authentic way of reading the stories of Jesus himself. I don’t think his ministry is about him following a minutely laid out plan. So that at every point he is hearing form his Father what to do next – turn left up ahead you’ll meet a blind man, heal him; breathe in, Son, now breathe out – no I really think Jesus just wanders about and stuff happens because of who he is. Wherever he goes, there’ll be a blind man or a troubled woman or a demoniac or a dead child. So maybe for us too, discernment is more about the formation of a Christlike character in us as individuals and communities. Making some choices ourselves using the brains what God has given us, then, taking a chance, letting stuff happen.