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  • On Church Meetings

    Lots of people seem to be thinking about Church Meetings and things like membership or leadership at the moment.  Now and then friends from other churches, Baptist or otherwise, ask me my views on how things are being done in their churches (as if I somehow am qualified to comment!).  The more I read, the more I think that here in Dibley we do Church meetings rather well!  I've never had a really awful meeting in three years; no one has stormed out, no one has shouted or cried and although apathy can be the order of the day, our meetings usually include quite a lot of laughter.

    When I arrived and prepared my first meeting in January 2004 I made a lot of assumptions - as did the good people of Dibley.  I arrived in good time, set out my papers and waited.  The pianist arrived and asked me which hymn we were singing - I had not sung a hymn in a church meeting for over ten years and was taken aback to find that people here assumed that everyone did.  The next meeting (3 months later!) I was prepared and carried a large pile of BPW's (red 1991 hymnbook) into the hall only to be told 'oh, we use the green book for church meetings' (c 1960).  Since then we have only sung once and no one seems to remember that we ever did.  (Bit of a blow when at D+2 we did on Monday...).  More interesting was what people said to me about the hymn - it meant you could arrive late and sneak in unnoticed, it meant that the meeting hadn't really started yet because it was the (sic) religious bit.

    Since I arrived we have increased the frequency of church meetings to bi-monthly.  We often spend time in small group prayer at the start of the meeting, usually but not always with deacons expected to facilitate a group if it sits in uncomfortable silence.  Most meetings include some small group work on a topic of some import.  But possibly my greatest success is getting the finance and property reports tabled rather than read to us line by painful line!  Instead of 15 minutes of people staring into space, they stare at the pages for a minute or so and have the chance to ask questions before we move on.

    For some of our folk, the demise of rubber stamping 'deacons decisions' - and with it the freedom to stamp their feet over what is suggested has been something of a blow: they can't moan when they've had an input.

    Meeting with D+1 was a good way of seeing how far we have moved in our church meetings; reading other people's stuff which seems to advocate a far less participatory form of meeting troubles me; knowing that 'we always do x, y or z' is becoming a thing of the past inspires me!

    Church Meetings are not my favourite pastime in the whole wide world, I still get hacked off with apathy and indifference and the inevitable huddles in corners, but I still belive in them and think they are a great ideal. Here in Dibley we don't do too badly.

  • What Happens Next?

    On Monday night 18 good folk from Dibley, plus their 'vicar' and 17 from D+1, plus their 'moderator' met at D+2 whose minister chaired our first joint meeting to talk about what my apologetics tutor used to call "possible futures."  It was an interesting experience, and since then I've acted as punching bag for a few of my folk who needed to vent their frustration.  The big question that emerges is of course, what happens next... and the short answer is I really don't know.  I have some thoughts on process but most folk seem hung up on content, and specific bits of it at that.  Time will undoubtedly tell...

    In the meantime, I have been working with the parable of the unfruitful fig tree in Luke (rather than the zapping of the fig tree that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time in Matt/Mark) and the Johannine vine imagery ready for Sunday's joint service.  Is it maybe time to call a spade a spade (or more biblically, an axe an axe)?

    Reading around the fig tree story has given me a very different perspective on it.  It takes three years from planting for a fig tree to reach maturity, after which it produce fruit.  A devout, Leviticus obeying Jew in Jesus' time would also have known that the first three years' fruit was forbidden and the next year's had to be given as a thank offering to God.  Thus seven years would pass by before the grower could benefit from the harvest of figs.  Once a fig tree begins to fruit, seemingly in those conditions it will be in fruit for up to 10 months a year (which makes it even tougher on the poor zapped fig tree).  Whether the tree in the story was three years old when the landowner first came to look for fruit or seven years old (i.e. not until after he could enjoy it) is a moot point, the fact is that he kept coming back for three years and found nothing.  Fed up, he told the gardener to cut it down.  The story ends with the plea from the gardener for one more last chance... but what happens next?

    The vine imagery with its ideas of grafting and pruning is one I have worked with on and off over a number of years.  Reading it this week the fate of the unfruitful branches also struck me, but I chose to stay with the fruitful ones that get pruned... but once again the question remains, what happens next?

    Sunday's sermon feels like a high risk strategy, allowing the reality of these stories (which is rather scary) to speak to us and ask us precisely this question 'what happens next?'  Time for these two churches is not infinite and if we don't do something - so there are some new shoots for a new season of growth then, axe-bearing land owner or not, we will surely die.

    It is a little tough for my folk who, on the whole have come miles in their thinking and doing. It will undoubtedly be tough for D+1 who, if they are honest, know they face almost certain death unless they do something very soon.  I worry about what  my sermon might do to them, and then I go back and re-read the passage used at my induction from Jeremiah's call 'to uproot and to tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.'  In case the preacher is reading (and he will in due course, I'm sure) I do not have a Messiah complex, am not into meaningless gestures but perhaps I am a very naughty girl.  Three years ago, I heard 'build and plant,' for almost two years I have served an 'uprooted' community - am I now about to destroy?  Scary.

    So, what happens next?  If I escape without being linched on Sunday I will let you know.

  • 'Moss Side's Views Have Changed - Have Yours?'

    I lived for four years on the edge of Moss Side in Manchester and came to love this place and the people I got to know for whom it is home.  Granted, I was curb crawled within days of moving in, saw drug deals take place outside my front door (and shocked my middle class friends by not phoning the police - I quite like being alive!  But that is about drugs not Moss Side) and was a victim of the postcode trap that meant my household and car insurance were astronomical at a time when my dependable income was £0 pcm; at least I had the reserves to pay for them.

    I have been saddened and irritated by the way national media have handled the tragic death of Jesse James - only yesterday I flicked round ceefax localnews and found numerous murders in other regions.  Of course it is a tragedy when someone is murdered, and from the comfort of middle class, middle England, easy to ask what a lad of that age was doing out in the wee small hours.  But I was annoyed at the whole portrayal of Moss Side - and maybe even Manchester - as gang-land; annoyed that a gang (or was it actaually two gangs?) in 'South Manchester' (i.e. cannot have been Moss Side) with guns brazenly flashed for the camera was presented as normative; annoyed that the reporter was a nice white woman (how brave! not) whizzing through on an arterial road.

    Moss Side and Hulme are areas of Manchester that have changed dramatically in recent years, enough so that the slogan 'Moss Sides Views Have Changed, have Yours' was used by the council in 2001 to celebrate the fact that at a time when, away from media glare, violent crime decreased old through routes were openned up, older houses refurbished and new ones built.

    Karline Smith's book 'Moss Side Massive' is set in Moss Side/Hulme around 1990.  It is not a happy story, but it gives a perspective on the experience of young black men caught up in the drugs/gun culture.  I guess I was attracted to it as parts of it were set literally in the street where I lived.

    Page 194 says ‘Drug gangs and gang warfare.  Guns.  Extortion.  Violence.  Intimidation. Some people compare Moss Side to hell.’  Sadly, this week the news reporters seem to be saying the same thing.  Perhaps the one saving grace was an article in that lesser read publication the Baptist Times.  Here the local Baptist minister gave an honest inside impression that showed that while there is much to mourn, Moss Side is also a place of hope.  I guess it strikes me that the majority of the ministers in the Moss Side area (with the obvious exception of the Catholic Priest) are women - something not unusual in inner cities and so-called 'tough pastorates'. 

    I have many happy memories of Moss Side, and some great photos of people of all races enjoying life together.  If Moss Side is on your mind, please pray for Edith, Sarah and Genny, and indeed for other ministers like them, who live and minister in areas where violence is portrayed as the norm.  As time passes, Moss Side's views will continue to change - the question is, will ours?
  • Gobbleydegook

    Never did know how to spell that word, maybe it doesn't matter since it is self explanatory.

    Last night was the Dibley and District Churches Together meeting which I was chairing.  It had some good moments - another church has decided to think about joining in and their minister, complete with dog collar and brief case, had come to the 'Council of Churches' as he insisted on calling us.  We managed to appoint people to organise most of the activities planned in the next three months - and I only ended up with one action, hurrah!

    After sharing news from the churches I opened a short time of open prayer, inviting people to pray for the other churches' needs.  One of my colleagues, from a tradition nominally highly organised, always prays pretty much the same thing, and while I think I know what he means, it always makes me simultaneously cringe and fight off the giggles.

    'We put Jesus in the centre... we lift Him up... we magnify Him...'

    Every time he says it, I have a mental image of a circle of people dragging Jesus into the middle of the ring and hoisting Him up onto their shoulders in some sort of gymnastic/acrobatic maneouvre.  Then as He perches precariously on human shoulders someone gets a magnifying glass to make Him seem bigger...

    OK, I'm sure that is not what is intended, but there is implicit some theology I struggle with...

    Whilst I'm sure my colleague's "putting Jesus in the centre" is more what the Victorians would have deemed "looking unto Jesus" the words used imply that it is us who somehow control where Jesus goes - not unlike the parody of the missionary who carries Jesus in his/her suitcase.  It is not, I would argue, we who put Jesus at the centre but instead who ask God to help us align ourselves with where He is.

    'We raise Him up, we magnify Him'  Yes of course I know what these mean, but I do wonder if they make any sense to folk not schooled in religious langauge.  It is, afterall, a Baptist minister who once used as a 'children's talk' the idea that the pulpit was a magnifying machine and made it 'magnify' a match stick into a pencil, a pencil into a broom handle and a tennis ball into a football who is to blame for my desire to giggle during this prayer.

    It is easy to critical of other people's attempts at prayer, which may be infinitely more sincere than my own but maybe those of us who lead public prayer have a duty of care in our choice of words?

  • Dibley Doodles

    It has been a funny sort of a week in and around Dibley, rather disjointed yet with a few moments of connection-making and new insight.

    Being carless (or at least active car-less) until Friday meant lots of public transport with all the attendent hassles.  On Tuesday a twenty minute walk to a suitable bus stop for a ten minute ride to the next town for a one hour meeting.  Then a ten minute wait for the same bus inorder to return the long way round taking 40 minutes!  On Thursday a lift to a railway station taking 20 mins in order to catch two trains to get me to Manchester in just under 3 hours and then the reverse journey taking over 4 due to delays and cancellations.  It made me appreciate what it is like having to rely on public transport when you don't live near Oxford Road in Manchester or Oxford St in London!  New Saxo, I am glad to have you!

    It was rather odd being in Manchester for another 'end of era' event with my final NAM conference before Min Rec (by any other name) in December.  Seven years' association with NBC reached it's conclusion - how fast it has gone by and how much has happened in that time.  It was good to catch up with friends and also to recognise that the time has come to move on.  Of course like a bad penny or Arnie 'I'll be back' if only when I visit the university as part of my ongoing studies.

    The Church Meeting on Thursday was one of those 'wow' things where you walk away wondering how you got from A to B so painlessly!  We agreed to release funds for the essential manse repairs (costing about £1k), agreed to spend money on mission/outreach in a pub and even managed to home in on the central themes of mission, fellowship and worship (in that order) for our discussion with D+1, with only one person wanting us to focus on buildings and none on finance, governance or admin, let alone the colour of the hymnbook.

    Yesterday we took the wrinklies to Southend (well, strictly Westcliffe on Sea) for the day and had a great time in sweltering sunshine.  We set off with 24 and came back with the same 24, despite one or two ladies hoping they might have been kidnapped by a nice young man!

    All of this seems quite disparate and yet at the same time it links up and connects with the parable of the sower we looked at today, and my emphasis that the sower must risk a portion of last year's harvest in order to sow this year - and that this year's harvest provides the seed for the next sowing.  I risked a lot when I left work to train for ministry and yet the sowing of my time, money and intellect gave an abundant harvest of new insights, new visions and new energy.  I have NBC and the congregations I worked in Manchester to thank for providing the soil - good, rocky and thorny - that yielded another harvest.  Being in a small Home Mission funded church is risky but I have invested my time and talent in working with the good folk to here towards another harvest: twenty four wrinklies in the sun at the seaside is a good harvest from the first planting!  Part of seed from my last academic training is being replanted as I work towards a higher degree and the potential harvest of new knowledge that can once more be reinvested for the future.

    When I set out on this path in 1997, when I began training in 1999, when I was called in 2003 and settled in 2004 I had no idea what type of 'soil' I was sowing with the precious seed.  Yet each time despite the struggles and frustrations the God of all eternity has returned me a harvest many times over.  Not always what I wanted, rarely what I expected, but the harvest that gives me the seed for another season.

    This all feels a bit waffly and self-indulgent but it has been good to see that in the muddle of an ordinary week there are still extraordinary things happening.