Nowhere to run to?

15 07 2009

418898_hiding_-_2Is there any place that’s just for ‘us’? That’s the issue I’m grappling with just now.

I’ve been asking the little congregation I’m with to effectively give up our Sunday gathering. Not to stop coming. I’m asking if we can do something else with the time together. I’m asking them to give it over to mission. Some are really up for it. Others are struggling to let go of something that has sustained them spiritually and that they have worked hard to sustain through some difficult times. I understand that.

But I think this is a push worth making for the sake of mission.

But maybe it was a step too far to ask those who were there at our Tuesday night gathering if they would be willing to give up those Tuesdays as we do them now in order to be part of something new in the week too. I had thought they’d be up for it. They really weren’t. And actually, though I was a little taken aback and disappointed then, I can empathise. Because this isn’t about hanging on to a worship style that suits. It’s been about building relationships and conversation that can really be safe space.

A number of us are, in one way or another, refugees from more conservative churches. A common thread that emerges in conversation is how often people didn’t feel able to be truly themselves. We have felt under pressure to say or do the expected thing. Where we have said what we really think, we have been made to feel, by well-meaning people, that it is not acceptable to either hold or express a particular viewpoint. We have managed to create in our Tuesday night gathering a place where people can be themselves; where they can be real and genuine without being slapped down with a quote from the Bible. That’s not to say there’s no Bible in our gathering. There is. It’s a partner in our dialogue. We find it embraces, encourages, challenges and frustrates us in equal measure. We don’t spend our time necessarily looking at a particular text, asking setup questions and then finding the answer where we’ve been told to look. Instead, we can draw on those parts of the Bible that have seeped deep into our souls and shaped us, as well as confronting and grappling with those parts that we find it harder to reconcile with our experience of life or our knowledge of the world. Our conversation is honest, compassionate and enlightening. We all grow and are fed through it. We’ve got something precious — space to be ourselves and to grow in faith and discipleship in a grown up and honest way.

The issue with conservatism is not conservative theology per se, but how some of us have experienced it. There would be plenty of space for a conservative viewpoint in our conversation as long as that viewpoint was expressed in a compassionate way that valued the relationships in the group above the ‘right’ view prevailing.

There’s not really a fear of engaging with people who wouldn’t consider themselves to be ‘christian’. In the experience of most of the members of the group, conversations about faith are often more real in this setting than in the churches we’ve known. The fear that was expressed was because my invitation was to be part of something else with some other christians we don’t yet know so well. People understandably were reluctant to risk a return to unreality or disapproval. And, given the relaxed, conversational feel of our gathering, they were reluctant to have to do something that felt very much more structured or formal or to have to do heavy Bible study as they’d experienced it in the past. There is also a feeling that if the intimacy of our small group is lost, we would find it hard to have the same quality or depth of conversation as we currently enjoy.

So I think all that is good. It’s encouraging to me that people value so much where we’ve got to as a group. What I find harder to reconcile is the potential exclusivity that might foster. We invite new people on our terms.

But actually is that so bad?
What are our terms?

  • Be real.
  • Don’t judge others.
  • Be compassionate in conversation.

These are not things, having achieved them to quite a degree, that we should recklessly give up. At the moment, this is a gathering that includes some people who don’t call themselves ‘christian’ or who are less certain about what that might mean for them. This offers a safe place for them to explore without any pressure. There is a growing sense of commitment, one to another. The challenge is how we can continue to reach out and be inclusive, perhaps to some who would find the views expressed at times difficult.

It has been helpful to me to consider the gospel for this coming Sunday as I’ve prepared to share my reflections on it on Sunday morning. In that episode, the apostles Jesus has sent out on mission come back excited but tired and hungry. Jesus invites them to come away with him – to find some space just to be with him. It doesn’t quite go to plan: they don’t even find the space to satisfy their hunger. But these twelve hungry men are the ones who serve bread and fish to the enormous crowd that gathers. And at the end, there are twelve baskets full of scraps left over. This suggests three things to me.

  1. Jesus does invite those who have responded most fully to his call to spend time alone with him. But…
  2. That time is snatched along the way – they get a bit of time in the boat with him before they’re right back in it. And…
  3. Their needs are met when they are stuck into mission; when they’re feeding the crowd, they get fed.

What does all that mean for us – this little group of pilgrims on the way? It suggests to me that I’m right to ask this bunch to give up Sunday for the sake of mission. And it suggests that they were right to refuse to give up Tuesday so that they preserve their special, intimate time away from the crowd: a place to share our stories and be with the one who calls and sends us.

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Beer, Bread, Bible, Boosh

10 07 2009

BBBBThis was the liturgical shape of the Safespace gathering I was privileged to be part of. It was intriguing on both a literal and metaphorical level. What do I mean? Manuel, let me explain…

BEER
The evening began with a shared meal. Mark and Lou had provided some of the food but members of the community also brought food and drink too. So the space for and the staple basis of the meal were provided by the Berry family as hosts. But the final form and content of the meal was shaped by those gathered. As well as sharing food, this was the point where people shared their stories – just the ordinary events of their lives in the past week, including how they were trying to make sense of faith within that. There was a sharing of beer too. It was interesting because that seemed to be about trying new things. The beers on offer weren’t standard. It wasn’t about having your ‘usual’. It was definitely about exploring the unusual. I particularly enjoyed a welsh dark ale. Kind of like my usual Guinness and yet different. 🙂

BREAD
Following the meal, we shared bread and wine. Mark presided over that sharing. They had a really nice earthenware chalice and paten set, embossed with the cross of St Brendan. So this moment was special and charged with symbolism. Could we call this Holy Communion?

Technically, from an Anglican standpoint, we should call it an agape meal. The words of the prayer before the sharing and the words at the distribution were quite close in some ways to what would be recognisable in a trad church setting as a eucharist. Technically, I should be more worried about the distinction than I am. But lay presidency is a whole can of worms. It’s one of those issues that exposes fractures within the Anglican Communion and would test our relationships with the wider (small ‘c’) catholic church. But it’s also one of those issues that means very little to anybody outside the church or even to a lot of people within it. That doesn’t mean I think we’re free to just ignore all that churchy stuff and just go with the flow. But neither can we provide each and every little missional community that emerges with a priest to administer the sacraments – certainly not with our current models of ordained ministry.

Actually I wonder whether other people ever lead the bread and wine ritual. If not, I will definitely be needing to pull Mark’s ordination-skeptical leg.

What I do think is that sharing food levels and unites us (as long as we don’t create special places at the table [arguing against myself here?]) and is therefore essential to true community. And I think that the symbolism of bread and wine can function in [at least] two directions. I see those expressed in two shared meals from the gospels: Jesus feeding the 5,000 and the passover meal with the disciples (note it’s that broader group of the disciples, not just the apostles as is so often pictured). In the first, the table is open for the crowd and is abundant and reckless in its generosity and welcome. In the second, there is a sort of special recognition of the place of the apostles and a preparation for the crossward road: the way of uncompromising surrender to love’s agenda.

So maybe we need two sorts of symbolic meals. If we want to call the first agape and the second eucharist for the sake of ecclesiastical expediency, well so be it. Both re-member us in Jesus – one in his profligate welcome into God’s kingdom and the other in our inherited apostolic connection to his call to sacrificial discipleship (lived out in mission). The first could and should be shared regularly in each little gathering. The second on those occasions where we’re getting into the (small ‘c’) catholic vibe and presided over by those whose ordination puts them in the place of representing the apostolic inheritance.

At this point I really need to apologise to those I know who read this who aren’t in the least bit churchy. Bear with me. I know this seems like a whole bunch of flimflam. It is. But it is important at some, highly churchy, level. 😉

BIBLE
Next – or was it before bread and wine? – anyway, at some point there was a Bible reading and reflection. It was one of the lectionary (set) readings for the day and it was from the book of Genesis. It was the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac. Mark gave some space (accompanied by chilled, ambient music) for people’s own quiet reflection and also offered some input on this reading. Again, I wonder if others sometimes lead this sort of reflection, or whether Mark or the others in the community see this as his role.

This is a hugely problematic text. I thought Mark’s take on it was quite ‘straight’. I wondered if in a gathering that is seeking to challenge itself, a more critical reading could have provoked a deeper reflection. That’s not to criticise Mark. Maybe I just like throwing hand grenades too much, but I would have wanted to question the appropriateness of Abe’s response to YHWH’s request to do his son in. It’s interesting to compare it, as one contributor to Start the Week did recently, to the Abe that is pictured arguing with his deity about YHWH’s proposal to nuke Sodom and Gomorrah. No such unquestioning obedience on that occasion. Which is the more faithful response? (Clue: Israel means ‘contends with God’).

BOOSH
Finally, after all that, the conversation somehow turned to Stuart Hall and Jeux Sans Frontières. That led to us spending the rest of the evening watching clips of British comedy, in theory for the benefit of a Texan student who was also visiting. We took in Blackadder, Python and the Might Boosh along the way. The last of those proving somewhat challenging for our visitor and some regulars but hugely entertaining for those of us unhinged enough to appreciate the frankly lunatic humour of the Boosh.

None of these liturgical moments – and I’m being serious here – was any more important than any other. The common feature of all these moments was sharing and all, in their own way, offered a challenge; a moment, an opportunity to move out of our comfort zone and grow. Good times.





A kick up the proverbial

9 06 2009

Basically I have needed one. A kick that is.

I finally, after quite a lot of effort early in my appointment, have got a work consultant sorted. I saw him a couple of weeks ago and laid it on the line as far as what I though about my effectiveness as a worker is concerned. And I got the help I needed. He asked me the tough and direct questions I need to be asked but have shied away from asking myself. When I know what I need to do to turn around my effectiveness and achieve my goals – why aren’t I doing it?

I asked for a kick up the bum and I got one. And in a couple of weeks’ time, I’m seeing him again and he’ll ask me how I’ve been doing. This will be so helpful.





Future Church with Mike Frost

23 01 2009

The first thing I did after being licensed to my new post was to go to that other city down the road to hear an Aussie bloke called Mike Frost talking about missional church. He was an inspiring and engaging speaker. He was obviously on top of his material. He spoke without notes.

Max is missing
The first of three sessions was in the evening of Friday 3rd October. He told the story of how he had a life-changing experience of engaging in mission in a biker’s pub in Elizabeth; a tough area near Adelaide. Mike was working as an evangelist and was invited to accompany somebody he met at a conference to come and see what he was doing at the Rose and Crown Hotel. It didn’t seem very cutting edge at first. A bad gospel song accompanied by some very ripe jeering from the audience, followed by a talk which Mike was asked to give, also accompanied by jeering. Then Mike asked if anyone wanted him to pray for anyone. This huge tattooed biker called Max asked him to pray for the lads (soldiers) in East Timor. Then Mike and the man who’d asked him along sat at the bar. The man than asked everyone sat at the bar what question they’d ask God if they had the chance to ask just one.

When it came to Max’s turn, he said he would ask God: ‘Who am I?’

That story, even though it’s second hand, bore repeating I thought. Mike Frost used it to illustrate how people for whom church is ‘the last cab off the rank’ were nonetheless engaged in a deep and profound spiritual quest. But it’s clear that in most of our churches, Max is missing.

What is church?
According to Mike Frost, there were four aspects of church life that were pretty much common to all protestant churches:

  1. worship
  2. community
  3. discipleship
  4. mission

The problem, according to Mike Frost, is that worship has become the central principle around which the others are organised. All our effort goes into keeping the church machine running. If we identify people with gifts we give them a job to do that’s about the worship gathering. The finances are all spent on sustaining the gathered worship. The machine becomes self-serving. Church planting has been about setting up a worship service and then inviting people to come along. Why are we surprised when they don’t? Or if they do, don’t they usually turn out to be Christians who are just fed up with their usual church and wanting to be part of something new?

What if mission was to be the organising principle?

That’s not just a question of re-ordering our common life because the wheels have come off (which I think they have) but because, as Mike Frost was saying, it’s, theologically speaking, the proper way to reflect the God we love, worship and serve.

Being ‘sent’ is fundamental to the nature of God. God sends God sends God, sends us. The Creator and source of all being ‘sends’ the divine nature in the generation of the One through whom Creation comes to be. That same One is sent as Redeemer. The Creator breathes out the Spirit who sustains and enlivens Creation. The Redeemer sends the enlivening Spirit out to fill the people God has called to participate in the work of Redemption. The Spirit sends those same people out in mission. Sending and ‘sent-ness’ pervades the whole economy of creation and salvation.

So what does it look like if mission is the principle around which everything else is organised?

It looks like Jesus!

Where is Jesus? On the street. With the outsiders, the poor, the irreligious. He breaks down the separation between the holy and the material; the sacred and the stuff of everyday life. He takes the holy water set aside for worship – for ritual washing – and turns it into wine for a party. 17 barrells of it! What would most churches do if that happened now?

This sort of re-ordering will challenge us to decide whether we want to be missionaries or members of the audience. Will we be part of God’s move in the world or consumers of religious goods and services.

If mission bceomes the organising principle then we’ll worship as we go – celebrating as we find grace at work among the people to whom we’re sent and mourning their loss with them. We’ll become disciples in the same way the first disciples of Jesus did: watching him at work among the crowd. And we’ll enjoy the deep fellowship of those who share in an ordeal – the life of ‘communitas’.

Waterskiing church
Mike Frost told several stories to illustrate what this might look like. One that stuck in my mind was of a man who gave up going to a ‘normal’ church on a Sunday and invited his friends to go waterskiing with him.

The first time they went he said that they’d be sharing a really good time together and that as he’d been brought up to say ‘grace’ before enjoying a good meal they ought to say grace before they enjoyed what they were about to receive. His friends looked a bit taken aback but they went along with it. Then he said that as they were praying, they might as well see if there was anything else any of them wanted to pray about. After an awkward silence, one of them hesitantly said he was worried about his job. Another mentioned his sick grandma. So the bloke prays for his friend’s work situation and for the other fella’s grandma. And they get on the water and have a fantastic time skiing.

Next week, the same thing, except this time the man who was worried about his job, says how much better things are for him at work and the other fella says his grandma has improved. Now here’s the bit in the story as I’m hearing it when I want to get clever. I’ve never believed or experienced that prayer is as simple or straightforward as that. I don’t think God is into delivering the shopping! But I decide to give Mike Frost a break and go with the story.

Anyway the story goes that more and more people come along, so that now there’s a couple of hundred each week. They’re baptising people in the river where they ski and sharing bread and wine at the picnic tables at the riverside.

My question about the understanding of prayer that story implies hasn’t gone away, but I think it would be fun to try it out, no? And the thing that really excites is that this story is about church happening where people are. It’s about worship and fellowship and discipleship flowing out of being part of God’s mission.

Fishing for people
One of the things that also really struck me was what Mike Frost said about Jesus calling those Galilean fishermen to become ‘fishers of people’. We tend to instantly imagine the individual on the riverbank with his rod and line. The questions then are about how do we bait our hook and how do we reel them in. He reminded us of what was right in front of our noses: Peter and Andrew, James and John didn’t fish like that. They used nets. And how did they spend their days? Not fishing at all. They spent very little time actually hawling in a catch. They spent the days cleaning and mending their nets.

Mike Frost suggested this as a very powerful image for the networks of relationships that Jesus was inviting his first disciples to invest their time in. Now I’m wary of any suggestion that we view our relationships in any instrumental way. We don’t make friends with people because we want to snare them in our net! But if we can see that as God working through us, as we are, who we are, where we are, I think it can be a powerful image.

It also reminds us that we don’t ever go alone. Fishing for these men was a collective activity. They shared the task and helped each other. None of them on their own would be strong enough to bring in the catch, they needed each other.

So we’re called to be missionaries but not solo missionaries.
We’re called to be missional communities.

Ringing the Bells
Mike Frost’s own missional community expresses its common identity through adopting a rule of life. It’s a much more monastic model that it is an ecclesial one. That’s something you pick up on again and again as you think about missional communities and the emerging church.

For Small Boat, Big Sea, the simple rhythm they adopt is captured in the acronym ‘B-E-L-L-S’ which stands for:

Bless
Eat
Listen
Learn
Sent

There are more details here.

It looks to me to be very much a reflection of the first Christian community’s life as recorded by the writer of Acts in 2.42-47. I think this could be a really fruitful way forward for the congregation of St Luke’s and for any other missional community that emerges as I work in the city centre.

Conclusions/Questions
I haven’t here being particularly critical of Mike Frost’s thesis. That’s mainly because I find it so convincing and it chimes so readily with my own emerging thinking on mission in the heart of Portsmouth. There are some questions to be answered though about what mission might be for. What’s the purpose of our being ‘sent’? What are we uniquely bringing to those to whom we are sent? What about the affirmation that you’ll find in every part of the church, whether high catholic or new church, that our ultimate human vocation is to worship God? Doesn’t that conflict with the primacy of mission that Frost’s/my approach calls for? Answers on a postcard, please…