Monday, February 19


Hopeful things happening across the pond with the arrival of Barack Obama on the scene. The cynic in me says he doesn't have the cash to see this early enthusiasm through to the end, but you never know - perhaps the US is ready for him? I'll be watching his campaign with interest. Genevieve sent me this quote from his book, The Audacity of Hope, which I think I'll be reading sometime soon.
"I was drawn to the power of the African American religious tradition to spur social change. [...] In the history of these struggles, I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death; rather, it was an active, palpable agent in the world. [...] It was because of these newfound understandings–that religious commitment did not require me to suspend critical thinking, disengage from the battle for economic and social justice, or otherwise retreat from the world that I knew and loved–that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day and be baptized. It came about as a choice and not an epiphany; the questions I had did not magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth."

Shame I don't get a vote...

Monday, January 22

The "Inbetween Place"

I'm continuing to prepare my sermon on "Being a Welcoming Church" for this Sunday. I'm using John 4 as a text, where Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at Jacob's Well, and doing some digging into the history of that encounter is proving fascinating.

Here's a sneak peak direct from my sermon notes (comments welcome!):

Being a welcomer means “going to them” (or, for that matter, not even thinking about “us” and “them”). We value their questions, their journey with God, wherever they are. It's about not drawing boundary lines. When Jesus does this to the Samaritans they realise their questions are important and valued, and they their journey with God is affirmed. In other words they feel welcome.

Jacob’s Well is situated at a point of great historical significance for Christians, Jews and Muslims, as well as for followers of Samaritarianism, which still exists as an unpopular minority. It lies between two mountains – Ebal and Gerizim, the latter being the Samaritan place of worship to this day. It’s still a point of intense conflict between Israel and Palestine, and to many Israelis the nearby modern city of Nablus (where most modern Samaritans lived until recently) is considered the infrastructure centre of Palestinian terrorism. The areas is still politically “untouchable”.

In Deuteronomy Ch. 27, God commands half the people to stand on Ebal and pronounce curses, while the other half stands on Gerizim to pronounce blessings. Imagine it – two groups shouting opposing viewpoints, each from their own mountain. Does that sound familiar?

In John 4, Jesus goes to the “inbetween place”. He goes to the place between curses and blessings - where there is division and where people draw boundary lines, and there he calls us all to worship in spirit and truth. He goes into the valley, and takes us to a higher plane.

This is more than geography. Just as you can go to a place without really being there, you can also really “be there” without leaving this building. It’s not just about where you are physically, but where you are philosophically. Are we really meeting our community where they are at? Are we valuing their journey, meeting their needs, and trusting the Spirit to show us not just their surface questions, but their deeper longings?
Looking at my notes, I think I might end up speaking for about an hour. Need to trim some stuff out! But there's so much good stuff here. Plus playing with Google Earth has been so much fun! I wish I had the pro version so I could do a helicopter tour into the valley as part of my sermon. Ah well...

Wednesday, January 17

We have a Dream

Probably the weirdest/toughest part of my job (Assistant Pastor at Bishopbriggs Community Church) is that there is no 'quantifiable product' with which to measure my day's work. Someone at a party asks you what your job involves, and it's hard to answer the question. Or you get to the end of a day and think "what did I do today?". At the moment, our church community is trying to make a vision into reality: namely, to see us engage with and bless our local community through things like a cafe, fitness classes, children's care or debt counselling. It's an exciting time for us.

One page in Frost and Hirsch's "The Shaping of Things to Come" (a book I just keep coming back to - thanks for the gift Mark!) struck me today, and I couldn't help thinking of Martin Luther King again.

It's page 188 - and I'll put the full text in a comment (well worth a read, especially if you're in church leadership). Here's a snippet, though:

"My task as a leader is to so articulate the vision that others are willing to embed their sense of purpose within the common vision of the community. Only if they think that the common vision legitimizes their vision will they be motivated by the leader's vision. In this sense, willingness to partake in corporate vision is the greatest compliment that a person can pay to leadership. It is holy ground and should be treated with reverence."

I think Martin Luther King is a great example of this kind of leadership, even if he never saw the "promised land" himself. Sure, he said "I have a dream", but when he gave that dream words (despite their being in the first person) the community sat up and heard their dreams being given voice. Come to think of it, that makes some sense out of Jesus' early popularity too - he gave words to the dreams of the people, and that 'common' vision (the kingdom/dreams of God) was holy ground.

Monday, January 15

Happy birthday MLK

It's Martin Luther King, Jr. Day today (

For Americans, it's supposed to be a day of demonstration for peace and for community service, and not just a holiday. I'm going to see if I can participate in that this week.

Meanwhile, it's been a fitting day to prepare a sermon on "being a welcoming church". I've been looking at how we, as a community, can be genuinely welcoming and bring reconciliation by practising 'embrace' and not 'exclusion' (in Volf's language) to those different to us. Hopefully MLK would approve.
I thought I'd post a few quotations:
"We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools."
"Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars... Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."
"If your opponent has a conscience, then follow Gandhi and nonviolence. But if your enemy has no conscience like Hitler, then follow Bonhoeffer."
"True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice."
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
"Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend."
"I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant."
Life and Death
"I submit to you that if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live."
and, on the eve of his assassination...
"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
finally, as a tribute, I thought I'd pop in just one by his namesake, German theologian Martin Luther:

"Everything that is done in the world is done by hope."

Wednesday, January 10

"Aesop's Fableization"

Children's ministry can really stretch you sometimes. Last Sunday, for example, I had to prepare a lesson on Exodus 32. Here's a synopsis:

Children's lesson material
Idolatry is bad. God corrects it. Application: We should keep clear of idolatry but not be upset with God when he corrects us, because we need it (use illustration from school exercise book).

Historical facts of the story
Moses goes up the mountain. The people ask for a god. Aaron makes a gold calf for the people, and declares a feast day to the LORD (note it was intended as a feast day to Yahweh), it gets out of hand and becomes idolatrous. God is annoyed. Moses convinces God to be merciful. God relents (Open Theists smile smugly). Moses goes down. Moses gets annoyed, destroys the calf and calls the Levites to his side. Moses tells the Levites that God has told them to kill their brothers, friends and neighbours. 3000 are killed by their own priests. Moses tells them they are blessed for doing this. Moses goes up the mountain. God doesn't comment on the slaughter, but then sends a plague as punishment for the idolatry.

Now I don't have a clue what to make of this text - or any text where God seems to be asking people to commit murder/genocide in his name - but I'm content (for the time being) to not know what to make of it and keep my list of questions live. The interpretation of texts like this is a hugely problematic issue in Old Testament study (and, lest we forget, New Testament - remember Ananias and Sapphira?) and should be dealt with very carefully and with humility. The problem for me is when we practise an approach to children's ministry that has no room for a healthy agnosticism and insists on teaching a moral life-lesson from every story in Scripture. Sure, Jesus taught in parables lots of the time - but he didn't use the chequered real-life history of his people to do it.

In her book "Postmodern Children's Ministry", Ivy Beckwith calls this kind of life-application approach to using the Bible with children the "Aesop's Fableization" of Scripture. Did God really put the story of the slaughter at Sinai in the Bible to teach us a moral lesson about his correction of idolatry? If we really believe that what happened that day is historical fact, how can we look ourselves in the mirror and use it to teach such a simplistic lesson to children? Surely we should be horrified by this, not using it as a moralistic object lesson.

Our younger children's group is tentatively called "Noah's Friends". But (as one children's leader pointed out in a meeting last night) all Noah's Friends died. [Ahem... Oops!]. I am not innocent of this kind of Fableization. My daughter Pippa's room is decorated with scenes from Noah's Ark. All very cute and cuddly. Apart from the nagging thought that they are scenes from a global disaster ending in the deaths of countless people.

Am I being a spoilsport? Or is this a valid hermeneutics/children's ministry issue?

Thursday, January 4

Trampolines vs. Brick Walls

One of my best Christmas presents this year was a copy of Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis. This is an excellent book. I finished it by Boxing Day and don't really have the time to list all the great points it made. One helpful image Bell uses (on pp. 22-28) is the picture of the doctrines of the Christian faith as springs in a trampoline, rather than bricks in a wall.

Springs aren't the point of the trampoline - jumping is. Springs help you jump. Springs can stretch when examined, pulled about, whatever. In fact, their stretchiness is kinda the point. If they weren't stretchy they'd be rubbish springs and useless for jumping. The springs are very important but they aren't the whole deal.

Bricks, on the other hand, are very different. Try to take out one brick or 'stretch it' and it's liable to crumble; and with it the whole wall. Bricks are the point of a wall - their purpose is to be immovable and impenetrable. Mess with them at your peril. The other thing about walls is that they exist to keep us in and/or keep others out. For it to keep doing this job (one I don't think Jesus spent a lot of time on) it must be defended, kept immovable. So you end up talking about how right your bricks are, because without them the wall comes down and the whole endeavour ("brickianity") is lost.

As Bell puts it, "you rarely defend a trampoline". No, you jump on it - and invite others to come and jump too.

It strikes me that the trampoline image is more faithful to the early church fathers. These guys had this tremendous experience of living in the way of Jesus Christ - the experience of "jumping" - and developed the doctrines of the Christian faith (the springs) which best described what they knew to be true. And we should learn from them and use the springs they developed as long as they are still good for jumping. But the doctrines weren't originally the point (although it seems like they quickly became more "brick-like"). Following Jesus was the point.

Because, as Bell puts it on p. 27, "God is bigger than any wall. God is bigger than any religion. God is bigger than any worldview. God is bigger than the Christian faith".

Tuesday, December 19

On being hosts and guests…

For those at BCC you'll see the following in the church newsletter this week (hey, we emergent types are all for recycling!)...

I was deeply struck by the story in the paper this week of the Orkney minister who opened his home for Christmas lunch to all on the island who were lonely. There’s something about radical – even reckless – hospitality that speaks of God to me. After all, God is pictured in Luke 14 as a host who holds a party and instructs his servant to “go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame” and even pulls people in from the streets to fill his house. What recklessness! Our God: the radical host.

In this story of course, the invited guests refuse to go to the party. Are we prepared to allow God to be our host? Can we receive gifts from him? Or do we, like Peter, say “No, you shall never wash my feet” (John 13:8).

I watched ‘The Da Vinci Code’ the other night (I know I'm a couple of years behind - always have been!). Apart from its obvious confusion of fact and fiction, the thing that struck me most was that, for the characters in the story, the big scandal – one the Church would kill to cover up – was that Jesus might have been married (or even a father). For me, the greater scandal is that God might have (and did!) become man. The ‘scandal’ of Christmas is that the divine and human touched. God, the consummate host of creation, became its guest: a guest in a stable, a guest at a wedding, and a guest at many a supper. Mary was, for nine months, host to God. God made himself vulnerable – and was a guest of humanity.

This Christmas, and in the year to come, we will have many opportunities to be hosts to our community – and maybe “entertain angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2)! We will also have time to be guests of God – as he seeks to go on (as he always has) giving us gifts and inviting us to feasts. Let us be humble guests, allowing the Saviour to “wash our feet”. And let us, like God, take the risk of radical hospitality and welcome in “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame” without judgement. Above all, “by thought, by prayer, by every tried and untried means, let us do all that we possibly can to make known that astonishing mystery, which is also a historical fact, that God became one of us so that we might become like Him.” (J. B. Phillips).

Emmanuel: God is with us! Happy Christmas!

image: Christina Saj, Madonna and Child (1998)

Tuesday, December 12

"Prayer life"

...words which used to make me feel instantly guilty!
I don't know about you but I've never been able to get a good "quiet time" routine into my life. I can't sit quietly in the morning before work - my mind either fills with the days challenges or falls asleep.

So recently I've started a 34-week Ignatian prayer retreat - but one that continues through my working day and not as I step away from it. I'm in week 5 now, so I thought I'd share a little about the prayer retreat so far.

Ignatian prayer uses what some call the "background" (that part of your thought life that usually gets filled with the last song you heard on the radio this morning). In weeks one and two, I tried to fill this thought space through the day with memories of my life so far and using my imagination to picture God with me in all of it, good and bad, bringing me to this time and place as the person I am today. I moved then to considering creation - allowing the world around me (including urban things, not just idyllic pastoral scenes) to show me God, present in all creation and all creation created to allow me to worship and serve him more. I'm in quite a tough bit now - Ignatius talked of a kind of holy 'indifference' which leads to balance and peace in life. He said:

"We should use God's gifts of creation however they help us in achieving the end for which we were created, and we ought to rid ourselves of whatever gets in the way of our purpose. In order to do this we must make ourselves indifferent to all creation, to the extent that we do not desire health more than sickness, riches more than poverty, honor more than dishonor, a long life more than a short life, or anything at all in and of itself. We should desire and choose only what helps us attain the end for which we were created."

I'm still working on this one! I'm slowly unpacking what I think Ignatius was getting at, but there's something about being "indifferent" that is counter-intuitive to me. Maybe that's the point. Thoughts?

Anyway, common themes of this kind of contemplative prayer are:
using imagination
sharpening my consciousness (of myself, of creation, of sin - noticing God!)
journeying with God

I am finding this new way of praying immensely liberating - no more measuring my spirituality by how many (or few) minutes I have spent in prayer this week. I am finding a life of prayer that permeates all that I do (ok, I'm making a pig's ear of it some days and have to consciously get it going again). I wonder how many other people are in this sort of rut.

The online version of the retreat (which I have sync-ed to my PocketPC with AvantGo) can be found here.

For fellow youth pastors, Mark Yaconelli's book "Contemplative Youth Ministry" takes these themes into the practical sphere of youth ministry in an equally liberating way (more on that in another post I think).

Practical Theology

It's been the longest break in SFT posting since inception. May be something to do with a) new job b) new house and c) new baby (her blog is running nicely though!).

I was speaking at a youth event the other week and before I spoke I was asked a few interview questions. One of them was "if you were a kitchen implement what would you be and why?". My on-the-spot answer was "a whisk - because I like stirring things up", but my wife said I should have answered "microwave". It seems she has noticed that I want everything to go "bing" and happen NOW!

Having spent a lot of time in the last couple of years thinking and theorising I am now doing my best to put some of it into practise. This can be quite frustrating. It's more a slow-cooker than a microwave. Sometimes I even have to check the slow-cooker is plugged in. As a result I think the direction of SFT may shift more towards practical theology and less theory. I'm sure that's a good thing, but I don't quite know where to start - I reckon I've probably got 5 years' worth of ideas already (and they keep coming)!

So here's a list of what's on the top of the messy pile that is my mind these days (I think I'll post in more detail on these over the next week or so):

1. Building an authentic community of worship and discipleship which genuinely involves all ages
2. A new kind of prayer life, Ignatian-stylee
3. Developing a personal vision statement
4. Trying to be a good youth pastor, but maybe not a great 'youthworker'
5. Church and the arts

Anyone who knows me will know that that's an abbreviated list!

Thanks for checking back here from time to time. I'm looking forward to some more conversation soon...


Wednesday, September 13

Emergent Logo Conspiracy?

image unavailableThe "friend of emergent" logo appears to have disappeared from the internet. It's not on my blog anymore (it used to be on my sidebar) and the html code for it has strangely wiped itself off my template. Seriously. Where once there was a whole line of code there is now just half a line and a gap. Weird.

Also, It's not on the emergent site any more. And I can't find any anywhere else, including the blogs of Emergent and Brian McLaren.

see for yourself: here and here.

Is this sabotage by anti-Emergent types? Possibly.

Or is it a clever trick by the people at Emergent themselves? Is it some kind of time-released theological computer virus deconstructing our desire to label everything and turn a generative fluid conversation into a branded 'movement'?

Personally, I like the fact that it's disappeared. I think the "image unavailable" cross-in-a-box thing that is generated by internet explorer is the most powerful 'logo' the emerging church conversation could have. It says "we don't have a logo", "we are not a brand", "image unavailable".

I am a friend of emergent, but I'm quite pleased my "Friend of Emergent" logo has been deconstructed.