Sunday, 30 July 2017

Vision & Seeing

At St John's over the next six months or so we will be exploring visions for our future as a 'community church', in partnership with a group from Greyfriars who, we hope, will be coming to join us. With a bit of luck we'll also be exploring in partnership with God ... there's not much point if not!

So this post is intended to be a quick (-ish) summary of where I'm at now, at the start of this shared process - obviously this is something we've been looking at ourselves for a while, so none of us are really starting from a blank sheet.

In the best church tradition, I'll do this as three points ... or maybe just three different angles.

The first part is simply the idea mentioned above: that St John's needs to be a community church. Not a church defined by it's walls, although they give a good local focus; nor by its churchgoers, although they are its lifeblood; but by the community it engages with, serves, and works with.

Churches just 'serving' their local community sometimes lose the plot, because that's not really how people work. It is in working in partnership with people that all grow and all can use their talents together in the most effective ways. I was listening to a lady from Greyfriars a couple of weeks ago who spoke of "a church without walls", which conveys the idea nicely.

The next point is about numbers. I think we need a decent sized core congregation to provide the foundation (in Jesus, of course), stability and direction for the work. I see that as being around 100 people over a couple of congregations. Any larger and the thing becomes an all-devouring monster, in my view. But we are within a community of over 9,000 people, so if we are to be really effective we will need to involve and include much more than that core congregation.

Currently we take part in a number of initiatives which are separate from the core of the church and are run in partnership with those who go to other churches or none: there's a 'cooking club' on the Amersham Road estate, which is intended to grow into a 'fresh expression' but needs resource to really progress; there is the 'community cafe' on Tuesdays, which could usefully run on other days of the week; there is a 'food for families' group using part of the church grounds. All of these involve us, are separate from the church organisation, and have great potential to grow and do much, much more if more people got involved.

I see this as the best model going forward: a kind of 'hub and satellites' picture. Something where people who 'don't go to church' can live and grow as enthusiastic followers of Jesus without getting bogged down in all the 'religious' stuff.

The final point is not about organisation or about models, but about who we are especially there for. Who we can work with to be life-giving and grace-transmitting. To my mind the priority should be those who are lonely and lost in our neighbourhoods; those who feel worthless and rejected; those with enormous creativity and love to bring to the table, but who don't feel they belong enough to have the right outlet. Those whom God especially loves because religious people have traditionally turned their backs on them.

The thought of partnering with people from Greyfriars to reach those in need of such life-giving inclusion and welcome is one I find concerning*. But that is the nature of God's Kingdom: it moves forward through the most unexpected people.

To finish, the final verse and chorus from the Bad Pollyanna song above, which I think says a lot about what churches should be relaying to their communities:
Let me put my cards on the table
I've been where you are
I'll never see the stain of a label
Or a scar
You need to know that I won't reject you
Let's unbreak your heart
You are not the voices that shame you
When you are lost
I will find you
Through the dark
I can see you
And you are loved
You are worthy
You can't hide
All the beauty
I can see you
Because that's what Jesus says ... to you and to those around you.

* NB 'Concern' does not equal rejection, more an appreciation that God's way sometimes involves a degree of surprise. It seems likely that those considering moving to St John's will have concerns of their own, of course.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Lyriel's Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could

Lyriel's Leverage album is sometimes seen as a transitional work between their earlier 'folk metal' and the heavier more Gothic metal of Skin and Bones. A good track to illustrate this, perhaps, is The Road Not Taken with its journey from acoustic guitar and strings to full-band metal for the final chorus.

Be that as it may, this is an interesting track lyrically, based as it is on the apparently deliberate (and possibly fatal) ambiguity of Robert Frost's 1915 poem.

Both song and poem end on the phrase, "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference". 

In our time of celebration of difference and our felt right to make our own choices, this lyric is often seen as telling us to walk our own distinct way and choose our own unique destiny. Yet, according to Frost's biographer, Lawrance Thompson, the poem is based on Frost's indecisive friend Edward Thomas, who "whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn't go the other." So the original poem is about the waste of energy in pointless regret, always looking back and worrying about "what if".

Which way does the Lyriel song lean? It is, of course, hard to tell as they retain the ambiguity in their selection of lines from the poem.

But there may be a pointer in the final song on the Leverage album, Repentance. This features the following lyric:
"Repentance is a path that we can not walk for long, my dear. ... Come with me and I will show you how to choose a side."
So maybe their take is that you can only waste energy worrying about the past for so long, before you need to commit to one path or the other.

Of course I may just be projecting my own views onto this - it is easily done.

Because I have undoubtedly wasted time and energy myself second-guessing choices already made. Somewhere there is a balance between flexibility and commitment and I don't always hit it, I know.

From a Christian point of view, our calling is to serve God through Jesus wherever we are, in whatever circumstance. It makes sense to seek God's will for the future perhaps, but not to stress too much about it. He is with us wherever we are and, I think, he most appreciates working with us on the choices that we ourselves make and are fully committed to.

So our calling is to commit to our path with God, here and now. Not to worry overmuch about either past or future, but to be fully present in, well, the present. That's where we can make a difference.

Frost's indecisive friend, Edward Thomas, finally decided to commit to signing up for the First World War shortly after, where he was duly killed on the first day of the Battle of Arras. The story is told in this rather interesting article in the Guardian. After finally enlisting he sat down with a friend and told her that he was glad to have made the decision, he didn't know why but he was glad.
Things will happen which will trample and pierce, but I shall go on, something that is here and there like the wind, something unconquerable, something not to be separated from the dark earth and the light sky, a strong citizen of infinity and eternity.

Friday, 14 April 2017

It's All Greek To Me

I had an interesting conversation today with a lady who seemed convinced that if she can only know the Greek original of a word in Scripture then understanding what it says is easy.

The context was the story of Jesus' crucifixion, where we had just heard a version read out which spoke of Jesus being crucified between two 'revolutionaries' rather than 'thieves', as in the King James translation, or 'robbers'/'bandits' as used in most modern versions of the story.

So which translation is 'true'?

Well, the original Greek is lestes, which my big book of words tells me means "robber, highwayman, bandit, revolutionary'. Which covers pretty much all of the modern translations. One point being that simple one-to-one translations between languages and cultures hardly ever exist.

Fortunately my book of words also gives context and background - which is why I use it.

Lestes generally refers to one who robs with violence, as opposed to a kleptes, who would typically be a thief who steals by stealth. One complication is that being a lestes doesn't necessarily imply being dishonest or illegal: a soldier was legally entitled to seize plunder whilst performing his duties, in so doing he would be a lestes.

But the big confusion comes from the rabbis of the day calling zealots 'lestes' - the zealots were violent anti-Roman (and by implication anti-collaborator) freedom fighters ... or terrorists.

Crucifixion was a deliberately horrific way of torturing a person to death, used by the Romans as a way of imposing their control over a region. It was used to 'discourage the others' on people who the Romans really didn't want anyone to emulate: especially rebels.

So, 'robbers' would be a simplistically literal rendering of the Greek word used. But at this time and in this context it is much more likely that the word meant 'rebels' or (more clumsily) 'revolutionaries'.

Can I back this up from the Bible itself? Actually, in this case, yes: John 18:40 tells us that Barabbas was a leptes, whilst Mark 15:7 expands on this to tell us that Barabbas was amongst the rebels in prison for murder committed during an insurrection. So here we do indeed have a violent rebel described as a leptes.

Why might this matter? One point is that when it comes to the Bible the question 'is this translation of the passage  true?' is the wrong question: a better question is 'does this translation help me see the truth in this Bible passage?'

Jesus was crucified between two rebels because the authorities of the day saw the things he said and did as rebellion. Even though Jesus had no army and harmed nobody they saw him as a threat against their world order, just as much as armed revolutionaries were.

When Jesus rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and sent his Spirit to empower his followers the authorities and powers of the day carried on trying to stamp them out by force ... and carried on failing. It turned out that the power of Jesus, working in peace, was far greater and more long lasting than the violent might of the religious and secular rulers combined.

Today, some groups claiming to follow Jesus have actually turned into those religious and secular authorities, still trying to stamp out followers of the Son Of Man; whilst other groups turn to the ways of Barabbas and the other men of violence, seeking to change the world through force and terror, but just perpetuating hatred and injustice.

Yet Jesus is still here, amongst those at the bottom of the heap. Still changing the world, still setting people free, even on a Good Friday when it all looks really grim.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Insults To Blessing

I was called an idiot a couple of days ago by an 'adjunct professor' from Fuller Theological Seminary.

On social media, of course: I'm sure he's far too polite to do such a thing in the real world. What I found interesting, and mildly amusing, is that the overall process turned out to be a great help for a project I'm working on.

A the moment I'm trying to develop a series about (Christian) Discipleship for later in the year. So when I saw a Facebook post from a 'friend of a friend' with a slide from a conference, titled "Four elements of discipleship" I went over for a look.

The slide looked really good: well laid out and beautifully presented. The trouble was, like a lot of church produced stuff, it was jargony and didn't appear to make much contact with what is laughingly known as the real world.

So I said so. Politely and reasonably, of course, and making the point that the talk that went with the slide might have been wonderful for all I know. And the adjunct professor who had posted it took exception. He'd been at the conference and thought the talk was wonderful, etc, etc ... and I'm an idiot for disagreeing. Fair enough, such is the joy of social media.

Except that, in another comment against the same post, he posted a link to a Church of England paper on encouraging discipleship (and leadership) amongst lay people - something the CofE has long struggled with. That paper is really helpful and got me past a structure issue I was struggling with in my own series.

What's more, I also had an example of the importance of getting an opening summary right, as that is what people see first - it may even be the only part they see. And he was a reminder that discipleship encompasses the whole world, even social media.

So out of his rudeness I received a blessing. Such is the wonder of God's way.

Finally, just for fun:

Sunday, 19 March 2017

The Courtesans In Southampton

Last Friday the two of us went to Southampton to see The Courtesans, who were live at The Talking Heads there. It was a superlative experience, so I'm afraid you're now going to see several hundred words of me gushing.

Even travelling by Cross-Country Rail to get to Southampton was pleasant enough - certainly far easier than driving. The only slight problem was that there seemed to be no indication at Southampton Station which exit went where ... once we had left by the wrong exit we couldn't go back through the station to the right side of the tracks.

Southampton Novotel is easy walking distance from the station, even with the detour, so it wasn't a problem. The Novotel was a great find! Getting back from Southampton to Reading after a gig is a lot of hassle, so I had booked us a room overnight.

My previous experience of a hotel in Southampton had been decidedly meh, with complications even when things should have been simple. On this trip I had changed the number of people staying in the room (originally my wife was working that day, so it was just me, then her shifts changed so we could both go - nice, but a recipe for confusion) so I was expecting the worst. As it turned out they were brilliant: everything was sorted already, we just paid an extra tenner for breakfast at checkout. The room was comfortable, bar food was fairly simple but good quality, breakfast was excellent, and everyone was friendly and helpful. Oh, and the price was reasonable too.

So, after eating we popped back over the railway line to The Talking Heads, where the Courtesans were playing. They were having technical problems in the venue proper, so we couldn't go in at the official 'doors open' time. No problem: there was also a spacious front bar with a stack of real ales and some acoustic jigs playing (it was early on St Patrick's day night, so it was already busy).

When we did get in to the main concert room it was nice and spacious, with a bar down one side (also with real ales) and a corner with seating and a decent view of the stage on the other - handy for a knackered old codger to wait for the bands. Another feature of The Talking Heads was the friendliness of the clientele in general - although that may be just a feature of Southampton, or of the musical genre, as I noticed the same thing when I went to see Bad Pollyanna a while back.

The opening band were Lost or Stolen, a local band. When they started the room was completely dead; by about their third song you could feel the energy pumping out, warming things up. They were essentially blues-rock, but clearly wanting to push the boundaries of that genre, and themselves. From time to time they pushed further than they should have perhaps, and lost a bit of timing, but I can respect that: it's far better than a band who just play it safe and bland.

Main support was Ruby Blue and The Chain, occupying a sort of triple point between jazz, blues and funk, with consummate style and musicality. I am surprised to see on their website that they have only been around for about a year, they seemed to play so comfortable and eloquently together. I really enjoyed their gig and hope to see them again.

But the highlight of the evening, by a huge margin, was The Courtesans (just as an aside, searching for "Courtesans Southampton" returns some interesting results, including an ad claiming you can buy courtesans on Amazon!). Nothing particularly showy or flashy, just excellent, powerful music, presented with a depth of charisma and presence.

I already had their new EP, from PledgeMusic, so I thought I knew their most recent songs, but hearing them live was at a whole different level. The drumming was so powerful and spikey, bass and guitar so evocative, and the deeply passionate lyrics sung with such heartfelt strength that it was overwhelming. I'll stick a link to their Mesmerise video at the bottom of the post, so you can at least get a feel for their style ... just imagine that with the intensity racked up a few orders of magnitude.

A shout-out here for the sound at The Talking Heads - it was impeccable: loud enough but not too loud, beautifully balanced and wonderfully clear. Often live music means sacrificing sound quality for the live experience, but not here.

Do I have any negatives in the midst of all this dreadful positivity? Just one: by the end of the Courtesans' gig I was bouncing and jumping all over the place, absolutely into the music and the movement. Now I hurt pretty much all over. Would I do it all again? Silly question - I'd be there in a flash, aches or no aches!

Seventy Disciples Or Seventy-Two?

Last Sunday at St John's we tried to get the congregation seeing (and feeling) a Bible passage from the inside, as it were, by getting them all to take part. The results were remarkable and illustrated just how much power there is in Scripture if you take the time to go deeper than the abstract religious stuff. But that's not my point today.

The passage we used was from Luke's Gospel, in the New Living Translation, and began:
The Lord now chose seventy-two other disciples and sent them ahead in pairs to all the towns and places he planned to visit.
Straightforward enough, one might think, except that we've been seeing this passage quite a lot during our Partnership for Missional Church initiative, but usually in the New Revised Standard Version where it begins:
After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.
Spot the difference.

On Sunday nobody mentioned this - they were too busy being struck by the contrasting experiences of welcome, exclusion and judgement which come later in the passage - but it certainly struck me as being odd: how can two modern translations of the Bible differ on something so simple? So I did some research.

The short answer seems to be that the original written by Luke probably said seventy-two, but that seventy makes more sense.

Translators don't have access to Luke's original, of course, so they have to work from copies of copies. The people who made these copies were incredibly accurate, but over centuries changes and 'corrections' did creep in. The earliest copies we have of this passage say 'seventy-two', but later on someone seems to have 'corrected' that to 'seventy' and copies of this 'corrected' version went on to be very influential in early English Bible translations.

So now we have a situation where translations which prioritise faithfulness to the original, such as the NLT, say there were seventy-two disciples sent out, whereas those which prioritise faithfulness to tradition, such as the NRSV, say there were seventy.

Problem solved? Not really: it just moves the question on to why anybody ever thought 'seventy' was a correction in the first place? Which takes us to the book of Genesis.

In chapter 10 of Genesis you get a passage known as the 'Table of Nations', where Noah is presented as the father of all the different races and people groups in the world. In the earliest Hebrew versions of this we have found there are seventy names in this list. However, in the main Greek version, called the Septuagint and translated two or three centuries before Luke was born, there are two extra names, making seventy-two. If I tell you that Luke's Gospel, like the rest of the New Testament, was written in Greek and tended to quote from the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew Scriptures, you can probably see where this is going.

The odds are that Luke was trying to make a point in this story about the disciples who were sent out representing all of the races of mankind, not just one or two. This sort of inclusiveness is an important theme in Luke's writing. So he uses a number which his readers would have recognised as referencing the Old Testament list of all the peoples of the world: seventy-two.

But later translators of the Old Testament used the Hebrew as their primary source so they ended up with just seventy races in the Table of Nations list - breaking the connection. Therefore they 'corrected' Luke to restore the likely point of the number in the first place.

So which number is best today? To be honest, hardly anybody in churches today knows their Old Testament well enough to recognise the point of either, so it doesn't really make a lot of difference.

Today we tend to think that numbers are all about counting, so we are more inclined to ask something along the lines of "how many were there really?" This would have seemed a very odd question back then, but does tend to bother us today.

The short answer, of course, is that we don't know. A longer answer might be that if Jesus was wanting to make the point he would have used the number from the Hebrew Scriptures: seventy. But for Luke the correct translation of that into Greek - meaning for meaning - would then be seventy-two. So working on pure likelihoods: seventy is probably the correct count of disciples, seventy-two is probably the correct literal translation of Luke, and seventy with a footnote back to Genesis 10 would probably be the truest meaning-for-meaning translation: I don't think any of them do that!

So, is there a less technical point to all this Bible geekiness? Actually I can think of three:
  1. The mission of the church includes everybody, irrespective of race, gender or all the other things that normally divide us;
  2. Have sympathy with Bible translators: it is a far more difficult job than we imagine;
  3. If you're given to quoting the Bible at people, always do so with extreme humility: there's a lot more to Scripture than we can possibly grasp, and our understanding is bound to be less than God's. The flip side of this is that if someone quotes Scripture at you, especially if they do so in a judgemental way, treat their words with caution: their understanding is also far less than God's, and if they are being judgemental then they don't even understand the very basics of Scriptural teaching:
"Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself"
On which (slightly judgemental) note I wish you grace and peace in the days ahead, and every blessing for you and yours.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Second Class Christians?

Tomorrow the General Synod of the Church of England looks at the Bishops' report on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations (pdf file). This is a 'take note' debate, so no decisions will be made, but it should be an opportunity for the bishops to get feedback on whether they are on the right track.

I read the report myself yesterday and was somewhat shocked.

The report starts fairly constructively, summarising the bishops' position as being that they don't feel they can change the traditional Anglican definition of marriage as being a lifelong union of "of one man with one woman ... for the procreation and nurture of children ...", but emphasising the need for a change in the way LGBT people are treated: "establishing across the Church of England a fresh tone and culture of welcome and support for lesbian and gay people".

So I wonder what that looks like.

The CofE pattern of worship is strongly based around liturgical worship, so what will be done liturgically to "welcome and support lesbian and gay people"? CofE ministers are only allowed to use liturgies which are specifically authorised by the bishops; the paper goes on to say that these will not be changed: hence there will be no new liturgical provision for LGBT people.

Meanwhile, LGBT priests are told that they may not marry their same-sex partners (that appears to be a sackable offence) and, if they live with them, they may not engage in sexual relations. Full stop.

Part way through the report the writing style changes - as though Dr Jekyll has been replaced by Mr Hyde - and the underlying attitude, with its implicit Catch-22, comes out.

The logic is this:
  • Marriage can only be between a man and a woman;
  • Sex outside of marriage is inherently sinful;
  • The Church cannot be seen to condone sin;
  • Therefore LGBT relationships have to be condemned, at least implicitly.
Hence any change in tone is not going to be supported by the bishops, whatever the introduction to their report might say.

Almost two thousand years ago the young Christian church started getting converts, in some geographical areas, whose lifestyles did not fit in with the traditional understandings of Scripture. Conservative churchgoers started agitating for these converts to be pressured into conforming. Some early church leaders appear to have gone along with them, probably in order to preserve unity across the fledgling church.

The apostle Paul, who was deeply involved in missionary work amongst those whose lifestyles were seen as different, got really angry about this. We know from Paul's writing that he cared deeply about church unity, but when it came to treating some Christians as second-class followers of Jesus he was implacably opposed. Hence his letter to the church in Galatia, and hence his push for a big meeting, known subsequently as the Council of Jerusalem (see Acts 15). The Council of Jerusalem agreed with Paul and thereafter, in theory at least, all Christians are to be treated as equals, there is no division based on external characteristics nor on legalism:
"So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
For Paul the central question was whether someone had received the Spirit of Christ: if they had then they were unambiguously part of the church, Jesus' body, if not they were not.

So, in my simple-minded way, I think the solution to the bishops' problem is clear. Find a fair selection of LGBT churchgoers who are living faithfully with long-term same-sex partners and speak with those who know them: do their lives and their relationships with those around them, as individuals and as a couple, reflect the Spirit of Jesus or not.

If no such Spirit-living couples can be found, the issue is solved.

But if there are a significant number of LGBT people whose lives do reflect the Spirit of Jesus then this is a clear Galatians issue. The bishops who produced this report are unambiguously just as opposed to the will of God as were those early pharisaic churchgoers. And the traditional understandings of Scripture need to be revisited with this in mind - just as Paul had to revisit  and reinterpret traditional understandings in his letter to the Galatians.

Meanwhile those bishops should reflect on how they have sold out to the god of this world and turn back to God in repentance.