Of regeneration and resurrection.

6 01 2010

Tonight, with my sons, I re-watched David Tennant’s last ever(?) outing as the Doctor. I’m never quite sure whether it’s great telly or utter twoddle. Maybe it’s both.

This was the first time though, as many other commentators have said, that the Doctor has approached his regeneration as a kind of death. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Russell T Davies’ writing is intelligent — this is light entertainment after all — but this was certainly a new spin on a familiar event in the ‘Whoniverse’ and it got me thinking.

It took me back to some significant conversations on the subject of what might follow this life.

It’s less common these days to encounter people who would answer that question: ‘nothing’. There are all kinds of weird and wacky ideas out there. I sometimes feel I have more sympathy with those who have the integrity and directness to give the ‘nothing’ answer.

It was interesting recently to deal with a funeral where for one close relation that clearly was their answer. I am a Christian priest and so I will always want to talk about the hope of resurrection, but I wanted to do so sensitively in a way that recognised rather than obliterated this relative’s conviction. People often talk about how the loved one will ‘live on’ in the memories of those left behind and in particular in the way they have been influenced and shaped by their lost loved one. At this funeral, I said that would be enough for some or all they could honestly believe but that just for one moment I wanted to invite them to imagine the possibility of something more real and tangible — that there is some sort of real life beyond what we experience now. On the other hand, I always want to gently resist that desire to say (quoting a poem actually penned by a clergyman) ‘death is nothing at all’.

It might seem strange for a character that can cheat death and be ‘reborn’ after a fatal injury to be afraid of that process. But though his next incarnation will still be able to say ‘it’s me’, it won’t be this me. It won’t be exactly the same ‘me’ that is contemplating his end. It will be a new form that remembers exactly what it was like to be each of his previous incarnations but there is still a sense in which the tenth Doctor ceased to be. That thinking entity met its end. A new one came to be. There was a sense or continuity but only after a real ending; a real dying.

I think this has some resonance with the Christian idea of resurrection. This has often been confused with ideas of an eternal soul or spirit.

Jesus (according to the Authorised Version of the Bible) does say: ‘For what is a man (sic) profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?’ Indeed throughout the Bible the words ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ appear. But I’m very doubtful whether when speaking in Hebrew or Aramaic, Jesus or anyone else had in mind the wafty ‘ghost in the machine’ suggested by those English words. There’s no sense I think in the Hebrew tradition of a person’s being ending up in some way detached from their physical existence. That’s not what resurrection is about. I don’t think Jesus would recognise what all those hellfire preachers were talking about when they asked people about the destiny of their eternal soul.

So I guess I’m of the monist persuasion when it comes to Christian anthropology. We are holistic, embodied beings. That’s my best guess anyway — what do I know really?! I don’t think that who I essentially am can be sensibly distinguished from the physical stuff of my presence in this world. I think that’s more biblically authentic and more readily reconciled with what neuroscience tells us about ourselves. The clincher for me is that the personality of brain injury patients can change so radically that they seem to be a wholly different person. If there’s some whispy stuff that is the real repository of our essential self, what could we realistically say is contained there? Nothing that makes any sense in terms of how we human beings relate to each other. And if our essential being utterly transcends how human beings experience each other and relate to each other then any disembodied continuance of that essence would be so strange as to render it incomprehensible to what we are now. It wouldn’t evade the continuity question I pose below. One might ask how such an existence could be deemed human at all.

It seems to me that the idea of resurrection is about the re-embodiment of a previously embodied psyche — by which I mean an emergent property/pattern of the brain. To talk about a disembodied part of us that is untouched by death makes us immortal rather than mortal. So if we are instead a holistic embodied being then death really is an ending. We do truly die.

The horror of this is that I will end.

Socrates the Greek philosopher (a believer in the soul in its ghostly sense I think) approached his death calmly. Jesus the Hebrew faced his end in agonies of sadness.

Resurrection is about a re-embodiment. The thing that sometimes keeps me awake at night is that even if a new being comes to be that can remember exactly what it was like to be me, do I really go on? Is there experiential continuity? The Doctor saw an end of himself coming, even though a being called the Doctor would still exist in the Universe. That’s just a fiction of course. But I know how that character feels.

The thing that has offered some comfort has been to ask myself where the 5-year-old or 10-year-old or 15-year-old me has gone. There’s a real sense in which those children are gone from the world. My growth and learning has changed me so that the experiencing and thinking person I was at those ages does not exist anymore. And yet the sense of continuity with those people that I was is so strong that they are still alive within me. Maybe resurrection feels like that. Maybe the very different form that will exist eternally in the presence of God will be so profoundly identified with this me now that there will be a continuity with this experiencing self. But maybe in an even more beautiful way because it will not just be the ‘me’ as I am at the point of my death that is resurrected but the whole of me as I have been throughout space and time. That would truly be a much more profound existence than that offered by the regeneration of a Time Lord.





How do I meet SABRINA?

19 11 2009

How do I meet SABRINA? That’s the question that’s occupying my mind at the moment.

Not the Teenage Witch – well not especially. No, actually it’s SABRINAs (plural) of either gender. By which I mean Spiritually Active But Religious-Institution-Non-Affiliated. Another way of putting it is SBNRSpiritual But Not Religious.

I hope that’s a self-explanatory term. I’m looking to hook up with people who are interested in spirituality or actively engaging their spirit, but who – as some of my publicity for my Sunday night pub conversations says – don’t do church.

Why?

Well first off, let me state clearly and categorically, not to convert them. It’s not my business to convert anyone. That’s not because I don’t think ‘conversion’ can happen in the conversational space I’m trying to create. But if, as I believe, the mystery we call ‘God’ is going to be active in that space then conversion is something that can and will happen for all and any of us. To put it more simply, I’m not trying to meet people and open up a conversation in order to persuade people to become christians. I’m not trying to gather an audience to hear me preach. This isn’t backdoor Alpha. There’s no programme or agenda that includes a vision of moving people from one place to another along a particular route. I just want to open up a conversation and see what happens.

So that’s why not. It still leaves the question of why?

My answer is to do with the mission of the Church but also something more personal. As you’re reading this, you might discover that what I’ve said so far seems more designed to answer the question for people who don’t have explicit christian faith than for those who do. I’m trying to reassure SABRINAs that I’m not out to get them. I’m genuinely interested in their experience and to create a space for genuine conversation.

That’s because as I’ve said before, what I’ve often encountered in churches is that people can be infantilised by learning a language that shapes and to a degree controls their world view. It’s very difficult to articulate in that space real doubt or struggle or, perhaps more subtly, to celebrate real moments of grace. I think we often miss them because we’re conditioned to look for them in very specific, structured ways that doesn’t help us to recognise the Spirit blowing where she pleases. Speaking personally, I find conversation with people who haven’t been conditioned in that way more stimulating, challenging and real. So one aspect of why is, to be honest, for me. It’s part of the attraction of working outside the bounds of what normally constitutes church.

But I am being paid by the Church. This isn’t just about me having the sort of conversations I enjoy and want to stimulate. So if it isn’t about getting bums on pews, what does it do for the Church’s mission? Well, it is possible of course that some bums might find their way onto pews through this. I’m not setting out to make that happen, but that doesn’t mean it can’t. I would celebrate if someone who was regularly part of the conversation found faith where they wouldn’t have said they had it before. I would celebrate too if there emerged from this a little community of people who were wanting to take a Jesus-shaped life more seriously. But again, I don’t think it’s even possible for me to make that happen, so I’m certainly not seeing it as my job. That allows me to relax and let God do whatever God does in the midst of that. I hope it allows others to relax too and not worry that they’ll come under any sort of pressure to adopt any particular belief system.

So do I bring anything to the table other than creating a space for this sort of conversation? I think so. Because the church isn’t all bad news as far as spirituality is concerned. That’s the great shame of our (somewhat deserved) bad press. The christian tradition does have a wealth of resources to offer those pursuing a spiritual life – particularly one earthed in real, everyday experience. What I can do, therefore, is to put those resources, indeed christian faith itself back on the agenda in the broader conversation about spirituality. At least for those who join me. There’s also a gentle challenge that I can offer to people to think about the value of being in the stream of a broad tradition, rather than simply being a free-floating individual. There’s something about the ‘bigger-than-usness’ of faith that means there’s value in negotiating faith in the midst of a community that includes not just those immediately present but those who have gone before too. (In the language of the Church: the Communion of Saints.)

So far, the group, being mostly people I know already, is numerically dominated, by people who would call themselves ‘christian’. (As I’ve said before, that’s a descriptor that is not always helpful.) I say numerically, because I don’t think that so far, those people are dominating. They have got it when it comes to the attitude to different viewpoints that I’m attempting to cultivate. And I value them all being there. But if I’m just gathering interesting/ed christians together, then it does kind of defeat the object.

So I’m going, somehow, to try and make contact with SABRINA and her friends. Perhaps a website, perhaps some cards to give out, perhaps some media stuff. And just some of that providence sort of stuff that can happen when you just hang about and meet people. I’ll let you know how it goes…





Pioneer congregation?

27 04 2009

I increasingly find myself describing the parish aspect of my role as part of my role as city centre pioneer minister.

Actually that’s exactly what I was saying at the beginning when I was first exploring this appointment. I would not have been interested in a role that was a half time straightforward parish job with another half time job as pioneer tacked on. For the sake of releasing the funds to pay my stipend, housing, pension, etc that’s how it’s legally structured, but I always saw it as a pioneer role that included leading a struggling parish congregation into new forms of mission and ministry. And that’s what I said to those who appointed me. The advertisement for St Luke’s said that the parish needed a fresh expression of church. So that understanding was there in the parish too.

However, it has been difficult to escape from familiar parish patterns and just the admin that goes with a parish church — especially one without even the minimum of parish officers. That’s all despite having an excellent colleague who holds the legal responsibility for the parish and who deals with as much of the crap as he possibly can. (All of which is incidentally holding him back from exercising the ministry of presence that we both think is vital in this area.)

So for a time, it did seem like I was being pulled in two contradictory directions. But more recently it has seemed to me that I could talk about two aspects of one role rather than two roles with more authenticity. The congregation of St Luke’s has seen some growth from the lowest point during the most recent interregnum. Some of that has come through people arriving of their own accord. Some of it has come through dechurched friends of ours wanting to be part our new work. What’s most exciting is that in all of those subsets: the old guard, the newbies and the groupies, there is a desire to engage in real mission in this area (Somerstown in Portsmouth).

People aren’t here for their weekly church fix. In a way it would be illogical if they were because whether they wanted trad Anglican or soft rock contemporary worship they could get better quality gear at almost any of the other churches nearby. I suppose that knowing I was a bit of an alt.worship ‘specialist’ (I really am biggin’ myself up beyond credibility right there), they might have come for that, but I genuinely don’t think that’s it. All the committed people (admittedly not a numerically large group but the overwhelming proportion of the Sunday congregation) want to bless this community and seem prepared to go to them rather than expecting them to come to us and do what we do. That has been expressed in a willingness to break out of familiar and comfortable ways of worshipping God and to genuinely, if not always painlessly, engage with new forms.

And this weekend, at the APCM (AGM for those of you unfamiliar with Church of England speak), we expressed a desire to begin a conversation that may well lead us in some quite radical directions as far as how we are structured. Part of that is a recognition that our current situation is unsustainable and there is inevitably sadness in that, particularly for those who have worked so hard to keep a presence here. But overwhelmingly I think there was a realistic enthusiasm for engaging with the people of our locality.

The enthusiasm is what I have been hoping for. The realism is something that I needed to hear. The people of this area have been repeatedly failed by agencies who have wanted to tell them what is best for them. The last thing they need is another bunch of middle class do gooders coming and interfering in their lives. Of course, there would be no Church at all if people hadn’t been willing to cross cultural and social thresholds from the very beginning of the Church’s life. But the serious point I took on board more than I had before was that we need to work out what our ‘offer’ is. We cannot imagine that we can come here as twenty (or fewer!) enthusiastic but already busy people and plug the gap of needs. The needs in this area are a massive black hole that will consume more energy and enthusiasm than a hundred little pioneer congregations could muster. But if we can bring something positive that generates light and life and hope, that seeks out those things where they are already to be found in this community and celebrates them with people, maybe we can make a difference and grow something new.

Parties. That’s what we need to bring. Jesus was always attending, throwing and generating parties. Celebration. Joy. That’s what I think today, anyway. We’ll see what happens because, thank God, I don’t have to have all the answers. But now that I reflect on it, I realise that I am truly blessed and privileged to be called to lead and enable this bunch of emerging pioneers and to share God’s future with them and those among whom we will find and celebrate the vitality of God’s all-pervading Spirit. We can determine and discover that future together. I just hope I can be the priest that these people need to help them on their way. That is my prayer. Amen.





One trick? Pony.

30 01 2009

I’ve got a process I’m setting in place. I’ve got a plan. The periods I’ll spend immersed in each mission context give me a chance to ground my discernment in some real engagement and experience. (By the way, when I say ‘my discernment’ I don’t mean it’s just me. I will involve a whole range of people.) I don’t want to shortcut that process but there have been some tantalising nudges so far.

One of the biggest is the express desire of the Portsmouth Street Pastors co-ordinator to link up with another project that would provide a refuge/safe space for people they encounter in the Guildhall Square in the late/early hours of a Friday and Saturday. It’s one of the possibilities I saw straight away. Linking up with an existing and well known enterprise such as Street Pastors could shortcut a lot of the inevitably time-consuming work with city ‘gatekeepers’.

I think the model that Street Pastors have in mind is the Friday Fridge. It’s a model that would maybe work really well if it was recontextualised for the Guildhall Square pub culture – an area which is quite different from Southsea’s own pub culture. (Though I suspect one would meet a number of the same individuals.)

If you’re reading this and thinking ‘Friday Fridge… qué?’, first of all well done for reading a blog in English rather than your native Spanish. Secondly, Manuel, let me explain…

The Fridge was a mission project I helped get off the ground in the neighbouring parish of St Jude while I was curate. Basically some of the side rooms in the church building are temporarily redecorated with drapes, low lighting, funky furniture, screens, projectors and the like every Friday night between 22:30 and 01:30. This creates different zones: a Café, a quiet area and what’s called the encounter zone. This is basically sacred space with contemporary prayer/reflection stations. The chilled out Café serves hot drinks and bacon sarnies and most importantly, a chance to share in conversation with people who won’t judge you or try to evangelise you but will be genuinely interested in your story and offer what care they can out of their Christian commitment and experience. The encounter zone is a place to do something more explicitly spiritual if people want to.

People out and about on a Friday night first encounter the Fridge on the street. There’s often a couple of people out there serving tea and hot chocolate and again, the all important conversation. That conversation often includes an invitation to visit the Fridge itself.

It’s been very positively received generally. People know about it and think it’s an okay place to go and hang out.

A handful of other people (as well as myself and the Street Pastors co-ordinator) have independently [maybe – one never knows what conversations have taken place] identified it as a model that could be really effective and helpful in the Guildhall Square; including some of the people involved in the Fridge in Southsea.

I said from the outset of the conversations I had that led to this appointment that I didn’t want to just import a brand I’d devised into another setting. Because, 1. I didn’t devise the brand on my jack – it was a collaborative invention; and, 2. different contexts require different responses. The history of mission is littered with examples where a model of the Christian community has been imposed on a setting in a way that crushes the local culture and polarises the local people. Now there are sayings of Jesus (and stories about Paul) that suggest that the latter (polarisation) is an inevitable response to the gospel. But the whole point of the Incarnation is that God is found in the midst of culture. The kingdom breaks out among people, not wholly over against them. There is an internal critique of the prevailing culture but Jesus’s response to the indigenous culture (in which he lives) is not like Caesar’s. Basically I have wanted to avoid anything that smacked of colonialism.

I didn’t ask for this job just to peddle my product. I wanted to operate in a more sophisticated way than that. Funnily enough, I think I may have detected the tiniest bit of disappointment at that! I even heard of one parish expressing the desire that Fridge be set up in their patch too.

Back when I had a proper job, I was a graphic designer. So I have a background in corporate identity and small-scale branding. So in one way, developing and exporting a brand is something I’m quite well positioned to do. And brands aren’t always a bad thing. Street Pastors is itself a brand. Brands build awareness and understanding if they’re used well. Think how much easier it is to get street ministry going in urban areas both for the churches and secular authorities. I’ve even seen fresh expressions ‘brands’ developed in this diocese (Portsmouth) too – I’m thinking of Messy Church. The danger is when buying into a brand shortcuts the really hard contextual exploration that needs to be done before discerning the christian community’s particular vocation in any setting. 

There’s another part of me that’s also wary of getting a reputation as being a one trick pony. Now actually if the thing I’ve already been involved in would be the most appropriate model for the city centre, I guess I’m going to have to get over it. What people think of me should be neither here nor there. But it does come into my thinking. I admit it. I’m human. I have an ego. So sue me! Actually I think if I did have only one trick, that would be pony. But it just may be these nudges turn out to be the Spirit’s gentle prompting. If that’s so, I will just have to get over myself and go with it. Just like I once asked the Bishop’s staff not to rule out the possibility that where I already was (St Jude’s) might be the best place for my curacy, so I’ll have to remain open to the possibility that what I’ve already been involved in might be the best model for where I am now.

The point is that despite the tantalising suggestions, there really is no other way to discern what the vocation is for the city centre than listening, through prayer, through study, through conversation and through immersing myself in the place. I really don’t want to be a one trick pony. But I have to let that one trick be a runner. It might just be the winner at the end.





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…