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".