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  • Minister as Risk Assessor

    Well, I guess it had to happen eventually - my old life as a risk assessor and my new life as a Baptist minister finally find their link as I begin the process of developing a generic risk assessment tool for our senior citizen's lunch club.  It is quite good fun to use the old skills again, even if the context is a little different from the old days, and the consequences of incidents rather different (though one wonders how much the difference in outcry might be if we mislaid 50 senior citizens or released the odd microgramme of something nasty into the north sea... not a lot I suspect).

    In the Johannine version of the feeding of the five thousand, the baskets of scraps are collected up so that nothing is wasted - the remnants of my risk assessing knowledge could well fill 12 large wastepaper baskets so it's good to find that they, too have their use.

  • Life in Dibley

    When I moved here from central Manchester, it felt like moving to Dibley - and the manse has more than a passing resemblance to the vicarage in said fictional village.  Hopefully Geraldine Granger does not have to live with the fact that her gas fires have been declared unsafe and cut off, or a chimney that was described last week as being at imminent risk of collapse.  That said, my diaconate cannot quite measure up to the Dibley PCC, so we must be grateful for small mercies!

    A vicar friend of mine often refers to summer weekends as 'cinema time' with anything up to four weddings and a funeral.  If that is so, this must be a reverse film fortnight, as it has seen four funerals and not even a hint of a wedding!

    The result of the above means that not much energy has gone into much else, and having delivered two services literally back-to-back yesterday my brain is largely reduced to mush! 

    I was using the lectionary readings from Deuteronomy 18: 9-20 and 1 Corinthians 8 as the basis for paired reflections looking at the balance of 'life in the faith community' and 'engagement with the communinty of which we are part.'

    My own congregation began with an activity to list things they had been told that 'Christians don't do' and then I asked them why not - they realised they did not know (as expected!).  So we should not be knitting or sewing on Sunday, swearing, laughing at risque jokes, hanging out washing on a Sunday or gambling.  They seemed rather shocked when I told them I could make a Biblical case in favour of drinking alcohol and probably justify one against hair dye and perms!  And as for the fact that if I take the church table cloths to wash after a Saturday event they'll be hung out Sunday morning ...

    Anyway, we used the Deuteronomy passage to think about life in the faith community and the need to engage with questions about life style, spiritual matters and so on.  The twin risks of foot-stamping, proof-text quoting legalism at one extreme and laissez faire 'as long as we love each other' at the other were identified.  We talked a little about occult involvement but focussed on the central theme of seeking God's guidance in matters of faith and life. 

    The 1 Corinthians passage raised questions about understanding the culture outside the faith community and the need to respect the sensitivities of others and not simply assume they know what we know or think as we think.  What are the stumbling blocks we put in the way of people discovering a relationship with God through Jesus?  We identified the need to be culturally aware and to understand why, for example, alcohol, meat eating or head covering might matter to others.

    We concluded by recognising the tension that must exist between seeking to develop our own 'holiness' (to pinch a Wesleyan word) and being gentle with those on the edges of faith community.  We are not to be holier than thou, thinking we've got it all sorted, but as learners oursleves, we need to be gentle with others, allowing God to challenge and change them (or us) if needed.  Got a few raised eyebrows at my illustrative scenarios but hey, that's the job!

    The second congregation (at Dibley plus 1 mile) did not do the interactive bit but heard the same reflections.

    I'm not too sure if what I said made any sense to either of them, but I found it helpful to reflect on these two lesser known passages and to see how my own understandings have changed over the years as I have better (I believe) understood the challenges of authentic discipleship and become less dogmatic in my views.

    I'm not too sure what either congregation would have made of me ordering a pizza delivery when I finally got home on Sunday evening - but I can find at least two proof texts in my favour!!!

  • Biblical Literacy Project (St John's Nottingham)

    Today I received an email from one of my deacons asking me if I could help her with any ideas of Biblical expressions in popular idiom for an empirical research project that is being run by St John's, Nottingham.

    I think the idea is to show how Biblical ideas have thoroughly infiltrated present day parlance, but the list they supplied, whilst impressive and including all the obvious ones, had some that I would not think to use even on a Sunday!  Anyway, I did a quick electronic trawl of the book of Proverbs (which sparked a few more thoughts to look elsewhere) and found about 20 not already in their list, thus preserving my (false) reputation as having a thorough knowledge of the Bible (I mean, just who knows the reference for 'a dog returns to its vomit'?!  It's Proverbs 26:11 by the way).

    Anyway, if you are reading this and would like to contribute to the project, the contact appears to be Sue Coyne, the Biblical Literacy Project Development Officer, Stapleford Centre whose email is scoyne@stapleford-centre.org

    Happy idiom hunting!  I wish I could think of an amusing one to close with but I can't - if you can then let me know.

  • Reflecting on - and in - Matthew 18

    I am always hesitant about sharing my sermons beyond the congregation for which they were prepared – they feel sort of ‘personal’ and it feels like self-aggrandisement to suggest that outside that context they have merit.  However, given that my effort at our united service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was apparently good enough to convince a retired minister (who is both a top rate preacher and an impressive theologian) that it had been worth turning out on a cold January afternoon, I will risk the suggestions of vanity and share my thoughts.
    I took the whole of Matthew 18, which we had in a dramatised form.  The two parts of the chapter can provide a way of viewing the status and purpose of the church in Britain (approx vv1 – 14) and about how it conducts its internal affairs (vv 15 to end).
    The UK church in 2006 is small (~3-7% attend worship regularly), struggling, marginalized, largely voiceless, seemingly powerless and irrelevant.  This is precisely like the first century Judaeo-Roman view of children.  Here is good news – in this seeming weakness we find ourselves esteemed in God’s Kingdom – we have worth, just like the 1% of the flock mentioned further on.
    However, there’s a note of caution – we must beware the risk of putting stumbling blocks in the way of other powerless, marginalized, voiceless or struggling people/groups in their own search for Jesus – the consequences are horrendous [maybe the slow death of decay by irrelevance?].  How are traditions, buildings, and denominations, etc. obstacles?  What rubbish do we need to clear away to allow people to get to Jesus?
    The sheep parable also gives a question of focus – inward on maintenance or outward to the wanderers?  Not denying the worth of internal pastoral care, but recognising that those inside should be OK to look after themselves so we can seek those outside.
    So with a vulnerable, powerless, outward looking church, aware of its potential to trip up seekers, what does the writer have to say to those inside?
    The ‘conflict resolution’ passage is well reflected upon by better scholars than I.  Suffice to say that it speaks a lot of common sense – try to sort out your differences internally involving as few people as possible.  And if at the end of the day you cannot be reconciled then treat people as tax-collectors (cf Levi, Zaccheus) or foreigners (cf The Syro-Phoenecian woman, the Samaritan woman, the centurion, etc.).  Jesus subverts both the notion of exclusion and the revelation of the Shekina glory as the privilege of a learned elite, saying it may be discovered as believers earnestly wrestle with their differences.
    The question of forgiveness – and its answer – requires no exposition.  Yet how often do Christians persecute each other or bear grudges?  None of us is exempt, Protestants wrong Catholics, Baptists wrong Anglicans who wrong Pentecostals who wrong Roman Catholics… persecuted turns persecutor.  We all do well to heed the cautionary tale of the servants with which the chapter ends.
    It’s an amazing chapter with depths to plumb far beyond the 20 minutes I gave it today.  But in a little church struggling to move from past to future, asking questions about mission, ecumenism, community and context, I find it really helpful to see that our situation can be seen reflected in a mirror called Matthew 18 (apologies Sean, I cannot remember which analogy this is!) and insights found.  Not only that, but as I think about the wider UK situation it is helpful to see what we can learn that may help us to flesh out the oft quoted text ‘my strength is made perfect in weakness.’  Our vulnerability is a place of growth – not in numbers so much as in maturity as we recognise and deal with the sins that wound the ‘Body of Christ’ that is the “kata holos” church so that we are enabled to embrace the excluded – as Jesus would do.

  • McGrath on Dawkins

    I have not seen the television programme in which Richard Dawkins expresses his views on religion in general and Christianity in particular, but I am led to believe they portray him as aggressive and lacking any scientific rigour or method in developing his arguments.

    By chance, I had recently visited a real live book shop and, whilst browsing the 'popular science' for a copy of Does Anything Eat Wasps? happened across a book called Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life which sets out to tackle precisely these ideas.

    It's a fairly quick read - took me about 3 hours - but unless you have a basic knowledge of scientific and theological ideas and language might not be so easy.  Interesting really, since McGrath has a brief excursus into the role of language in understanding each other's worlds.  In terms of McGrath's target audience I am less sure: almost everyone has heard of Newton and Darwin, probably most have heard of Mendel or even Thomas Aquinas, but who outside theology knows of Tertullian and Paley?  Fortunately McGrath does explain the key aspects of everything he refers to.

    I guess the thrust of McGrath's arguments is as follows:

    1. Dawkins is an eminent scientist the value of whose work in his field is unquestioned.  Indeed McGrath has been an avid reader and admirer of Dawkins' work for over twenty five years
    2. Acceptance of the theory of evolution does not automatically preclude belief in the concept of God.  It is possible to accept evolution and hold theistic, agnostic or athesistic views. 
    3. Science is always provisional and even if something currently seems absolutely convincing, it may one day turn out to be wrong (e.g. earth at the centre of the universe): this does not undermine the integrity of the scientists but should engender an appropriate humility.  [I liked this as I've argued this many times with both theologians and scientists!]
    4. Science does not assign value judgements: things 'are' they are not 'good' or 'bad'; moral judgement is not part of the scientific method.  Dawkins is assigning a value judgement to religious belief, not a scientific one.  As a reuslt his arguments (and methods) are not consistent with his scientific approach.  Further, he makes unreasonable leaps in his arguments: e.g. people with religious faith do bad things, hence religion is bad.  The flaws in this logic are obvious - it is easy to show that people with and without religious faith do things that are good, bad or indifferent - this not not imply that religion is necessarily any of these.
    5. The 'meme' theory is questioned - McGarth is not convinced by it and notes that it survives more in popular culture than in any form of science.  The concept of religion as a 'bad meme' or a 'virus' is not scientific - but maybe Dawkins' own memes force him to this view (Although a logical consequence of Dawkins' views, I also detect a little bit of tongue in cheek here!)

    The book is good humoured and shows an immense respect for Dawkins as a scientist.  Probably my main criticism is the use of American spellings throughout, but that's just my prejudice showing through.

    Anyway, I think I should leave the last word to Mcgrath himself (Dawkins' God p189-9)

    I'm sure that we have much to learn by debating with each other, graciously and accurately.  The questions of whether there is a God, and what that God might be like, has not - despite the predictions of overconfident Darwinians - gone away since Darwin, and remains of major intellectual and personal importance.  Some minds on both sides of the argument may be closed; the evidence and the debate however are not.  Scientists and theologians have so much to learn from each other. Listening to each other, we might hear the galaxies sing [a quote from Dawkins book Unweaving the Rainbow].  Or even the heavens declaring the glory of the Lord (Psalm 19.1)