Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Loving God with heart, soul, mind and practice.

Gazing at my bookshelves looking for the book that has influenced me most is not easy. Some, which felt influential years ago now seem less so. Others authors continue to be important in shaping who I am (Eugene Peterson and Stanley Hauerwas for example).

Of the books, I’ve read in the last year, one that is worthy of mention is Tony Jones’s ‘The Sacred Way’. I read it whilst on the train to London and Didcot last autumn and have suggested it to a number of people in church since. The book, subtitled ‘Spiritual Practices for Everyday Life’ looks at different approaches to spirituality along with some pointers to help integrate them into our daily lives; contemplative approaches such as the Jesus Prayer, Sacred Reading and the Daily Office; bodily approaches such as pilgrimage and fasting together with some thoughts about developing a Rule of Life.

For those who have experience of these different approaches the book may seem lightweight but for those with little exposure to them it may be just the encouragement you need. Jones grew up in a church-going family and went to a Christian college in the US. As he puts it, “by the time I was 25, my views of God, prayer, the Bible, etc. were pretty screwed up.” The shallowness of this eventually provoked him to look at how people had connected with God in past generations, whereupon he discovered, “the incredible richness in the spiritual practices of ancient and modern Christian communities from around the world.”

This is a book for those whose prayer life and walk with God has become stale. It is accessible without being lightweight, insightful but generous, practical because it is about God and about the practice of daily living. Buy a copy, read it and then give it away to someone who will need it more than you.

As Julian of Norwich wrote:

“Therefore we can with his grace and his help persevere in spiritual contemplation, with endless wonder at this high, surpassing, immeasurable love which our Lord in his goodness has for us; and therefore we may with reverence ask from our lover all that we will, for our natural will is to have God, and God’s good will is to have us, and we can never stop willing or loving until we possess him in the fullness of joy.”

Friday, March 27, 2009

Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant

Back in the nineties, a couple of years into my ministry in a local church, I had something of a personal crisis. I found myself seriously questioning my call as the minister of that church, and indeed my call to Baptist ministry.

I’m glad to say that I survived the crisis, and this was due to at least three factors. The first was the wise and calm influence of my Regional Minister, who in the process introduced me to the insights of Family Systems Theory. The second was the support and prayer of some excellent friends. And the third was the writing of Eugene Peterson, and in particularly his trilogy for pastors: Working the Angles, Five Smooth Stones, and Under the Unpredictable Plant.

While I feel very un-trendy, I still hold to his emphasis upon the three basic pastoral acts which determine the shape of everything else: praying, reading Scripture, and giving spiritual direction. I resound to his statement that ‘The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God.’ (Working the Angles)

However, it was the third of these books, Under the Unpredictable Plant, which helped save my life! Using the Old Testament book of Jonah, Peterson clarifies the pastoral vocation in terms of helping to recover what he calls ‘vocational holiness’. I’ve returned to this book on countless occasions; I’ve recommended it to many; and I’ll continue to do so.  But let Eugene Peterson speak for himself:

‘It is necessary from time to time that someone stand up and attempt to get the attention of the pastors lined up at the travel agency in Joppa to purchase a ticket to Tarshish. At this moment, I am the one standing up. If I succeed in getting anyone’s attention, what I want to say is that the pastoral vocation is not a glamorous vocation and that Tarshish is a lie. Pastoral work consists of modest, daily, assigned work. It is like farm work. Most pastoral work involves routines similar to cleaning out the barn, mucking out the stalls, spreading manure, pulling weeds. This is not, any of it, bad work in itself, but if we expected to ride a glistening black stallion in daily parades and then return to the barn where a lackey grooms our steed for us, we will be severely disappointed and end up being horribly resentful.

There is much that is glorious in pastoral work, but the congregation, as such, is not glorious. The congregation is a Nineveh-like place: a site for hard work without a great deal of hope for success, at least as success is measured on the charts. But somebody has to do it, has to faithfully give personal visibility to the continuities of the word of God in the place of worship and prayer, in the places of daily work and play, in the traffic jams of virtue and sin.

Anyone who glamorizes congregations does a grave dis-service to pastors. We hear tales of glitzy, enthusiastic churches and wonder what in the world we are doing wrong that our people don’t turn out that way under our preaching. On close examination, though, it turns out that there are no wonderful congregations… I don’t deny that there are moments of splendour in congregations. There are. Many and frequent. But there are also conditions of squalor. Why deny it? And how could it be otherwise?… Ordinary congregations are God’s choice for the form the church takes in locale, and pastors are the persons assigned to them for ministry…’

Monday, March 23, 2009

Seeking God and Benedictine Spirituality

In 1984 I bought a small Fount Paperback. It was called Seeking God, by Esther de Waal. It was an Archbishop of Canterbury Lent book, an exposition of the Rule of St Benedict intended to encourage non monastics to live by the key principles of the Rule. This wasn't as odd, quaint, daft, as some people thought at the stime. Nor was it an attempt to make the Saul's armour of monastic spirituality fit spiritual striplings facing their own Goliaths in the culture wars of the eighties!

Instead De Waal presented a sensible, attractive and simple set of ideals that had helped transform the outward direction and inner temper of Christian spirituality. By placing several spiritual practices at the centre of community life, the Rule aimed to create a balance between individual and community, to provide liturgical rhythm and equilibrium, and to establish Christian community as a stable commitment of covenant relations intended to last for life. I'm on my third copy of De Waal's book - the first turned brown and the glue on the spine cracked leaving me with a collection of ad hoc pamphlets held together with a rubber band - cannae be daein wi' that! The replacement second copy I lent to someone about 1997, and I hope they still enjoy it (I'm not bitter, honest). My current copy has also now been read and used enough to show signs of wear and tear - but it's still in print. And I'm not surprised because it is a life enhancing and life affirming book - and completely transformed my understanding of what that journey we call seeking God is like. It also provided a short list of essential virtues for pastoral work, and a framework within which virtues grow out of values by being practiced with disciplined regularity, as habits of the heart lived out in relationship with others.

Listening, to God, to each other, and to God through each other, and listening as alert docility before the text of Scripture; stability, that commitment to people and place that does not see walking away as an option; change, as conversion of life, the transformative shaping of the Spirit through the sacrament of community; balance, avoiding those excesses and extemes so characteristic of overspiritual drivenness, opting instead for moderation in all things bu the love of God; material things, to be enjoyed and gratefully recieved, and also to be enjoyed and generously given away; people, those whom God gives to us to be part of the community in which we live and move and have our being - not our choice who God sends, just our requirement to love; authority, in Benedictine terms under the Abbott, and while I resist the idea that one person has authority over another's spiritual life, I do recognise the wisdom of willing submission to the wisdom and guidance of the trusted friend, even the trusted community; prayer as way of life, as daily rhythm, as lectio divina, as the offer of praise and intercession, love for God and others enfolded in the love of God.

All this and more, distilled from the Rule opf St Benedict and written in accessible style by one who herself practices the Rule in a lay context. As one example of the pastoral wisdom of the Rule of Benedict:

Your way of acting should be different from the world's way:

the love of Christ must come before all else.

You are not to act in anger or nurse a grudge.

Rid your heart of all deceit.

Never give a hollow greeting of peace,

or turn away when someone needs your love.

Imagine reading that, and committing to living it, on a Monday morning at the beginning of whatever your week looks like - how transformative of workplace, community and home if that ideal of the monk were the reality of Christian daily practice..........hmmmm?
Jim Gordon.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Christology by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Apologies that this is a day late.

There's a lot that is inspiring about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, so much so, in fact, that he has often been referred to as a 'protestant saint'. Bonhoeffer was born in Germany in 1906, and had a doctorate in theology. When the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany, Bonhoeffer was offered several oppourtunities to move to the USA and work there, but chose to remain in Germany. Bonhoeffer taught and preached against Hitler's regime and was involved with a secret group that helped Jews escape into Switzerland and plotted to kill Hitler. Bonhoeffer was banned from preaching, imprisoned and finally executed in 1945, aged 39.

Bonhoeffer writes in an accessible way that I think anyone can read, and this may well be one of the reasons he has become so popular. I think most of us are put off theological writing because it's so often written in dense, difficult language. Christology is about 100 pages long and the dimensions of my copy would enable it to fit into a shirt pocket. This is no dense tome, then, and it's style is immensely readable.

The reason I have chosen Christology to write about is two-fold. The first reason is simply because I think it is a book that anyone can read. I think too often theology is too removed from the Church. Theologians write for other academics, and for these ideas to affect the Church, we either have to wait for someone to write a book that summarises their thoughts in easier language, or we have to wait for a generation of teachers who teach a new generation of church ministers with these ideas in mind. Theologians can often forget that the purpose of theology is to inform, help, build up or sometimes challenge the Church, not just the university.

Which leads me on to my second reason. Bonhoeffer moves the Christological discussion on in an important way. Christology, typically, has been concerned with the question of how Jesus can be both God and human. There have been many complex attempts at answering this question throughout Church history, the earliest authoritative example being the Chalcedonian Definition. Bonhoeffer argues that we should move the discussion away from the traditional 'how?' question, and focus instead upon a new question: 'Who is this God-Man?'

This is important because it shifts our theology out of purely intellectual realms and into real-life. The question 'who?' demands relationship, in this case, demands relationship with Christ. We can't really say who someone is, after all, until we get to know them personally. For me, Bonhoeffer's Christology reminds me that theology without a relationship with God is pointless, and acts as an encouragement for me to try and go deeper in my faith as well as in my theological studies. I think this book, more than any other, has impacted my life and thinking.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Eugene Peterson, Run with the Horses

It was good to read the previous post about Eugene Peterson's The Jesus Way. I have been nourished by another of his books called Run with the Horses. It is much older, written in 1983 but, along with much of his work, has a sense of timelessness about it. I first read this book when I was doing a correspondence course on the prophet Jeremiah about 9 years ago. The insight Peterson gives combines theological and pastoral commentary. He delves into the interior life of this notable Old Testament prophet and lets his ministry speak into the heart of contemporary ministry today.

What I particularly found nourishing was the way he wove the themes of exile, hope and imagination into his interpretation of Jeremiah's life. I will briefly mention three sections of his book under these three headings.

Exile (based on Jeremiah 29:4-14)

Peterson comments 'Exile is traumatic and terrifying. Our sense of who we are is very much determined by the place we are in and the people we are with. When that changes, violently and abruptly, who are we?... We don't fit anywhere... We are extra baggage... Israel was taken into exile in 587BC... leaving home, temple and hills' (p147).

But Peterson draws out the benefits of exile, highlighting the spiritual growth that it offers. Jeremiah told the exiles to stay rooted in exile, to make their home there, to get their hands into the Babylonian soil, to settle down and marry and seek the city's welfare. Peterson says 'The result was that this became the most creative period in the entire sweep of Hebrew history. They did not lose their identity, they discovered it' (p154). He ends this chapter by saying 'Exile is the worst that reveals the best' (p156).

Hope (based on Jeremiah 32:9-10, 15-17, 24-27, 42-44)

This is the story of the prophet buying the field at Anathoth, a thoroughly practical act. Peterson makes the point that his action was also intensely prophetic. Buying a plot of land at the very moment the invading armies were camping on it does have the mark of folly about it and exposes Jeremiah to ridicule. Theologically and practically, it was an investment in God's future. "Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land" (Jer 32:14-15). Living lives of hope in God's future may look incomprehensible but is a mark of buying into what we believe. Peterson concludes 'It takes courage to act in hope. But it is the only practical action, for it is the only action that survives the decay of the moment and escapes the scrapheap of yesterday's fashion' (p178).

Imagination (based on Jeremiah 18:1-4)

When Jeremiah visits the potter's house he is exercising his God-given imagination. I love the concept of imagination as a gift from God. It's so easy to think that God is only interested in our reasoning-power and intellect, but it is often imagination that fires us forwards to new creative initiatives in God's kingdom and saves us from a cerebral faith. Peterson believes Jeremiah had an artistic imagination which served his vocation well. He says 'The great masters of the imagination do not make things up out of thin air; they direct our attention to what is right before our eyes. They then train us to see it whole - not in fragments but in context, with all the connections. They connect the visible with the invisible...' (p75). Jeremiah was able to see God as the divine potter, making a people for his glory. He concludes 'Being a Christian is very much a matter of the flesh - of space and time and things. It means being thrown on the potter's wheel and shaped, our entire selves, into something useful and beautiful. And when we are not useful or beautiful we are re-shaped. Painful, but worth it' (p81).

(Andy Scott)

Monday, March 16, 2009

Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way

A book that has had a profound impact on me over the last year is The Jesus Way- a conversation in following Jesus (Eugene Peterson). We have been using it as a basis for study in the evening congregation I am a part of. I have learnt so much and seen many things anew since starting to read it, but one chapter stands out for me in the journey.

Even as I committed my life to God (aged 7) I had a deep sense of my own sinfulness and my need for God. At best, this can be a strength which keeps me humble and reliant on God. In weaker moments, this always spills into a cycle of setting unrealistically high standards for myself, inevitably failing to reach them, then condemnation, new resolve, new standards, etc. In my teenage years I heard many sermons unfolding the simple 3 points to a more effective passionate Super-turbo boosted-Christian life which I could only copy at best for a few days. And so the cycle continued…

Although I felt like I had gained some understanding of this “thorn in my side”, reading the chapter on David was a revelation to me. Peterson defines the way of David as “…from start to finish, the way of imperfection.”
It was all too familiar to me as I read his descriptions of perfectionism: “It is a way of perceiving Christians in two categories: carnal and spiritual Christians…Perfectionism has a way of claiming the term “spiritual” for itself- some Christians are spiritual, and by implication the others are not.”

He states in the strongest terms: “Perfectionism is a perversion of the Christian way. It is responsible for disabling countless sincere Christians for common usefulness in the company of their neighbours on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.”

Peterson underlines that fact that David, despite flashes of brilliance- e.g. slaying Goliath, cutting Saul’s cloak instead of a revenge killing- was continually messing up. David did some pretty terrible things. And yet not only is he recorded as a man after God’s own heart but Jesus was not embarrassed to be called the Son of David.
The big lesson David has to teach us is not his good acts or his great faith, but his relationship with God and his honest desire to be close to God through confession and repentance. Many of his psalms contain such prayers.

As Peterson says in the chapter, “The story David lived and the psalms he prayed provide us with an imagination that is capable of understanding the operations of God to do his perfect work in us, not our capacities to perfect ourselves.”

For me, this chapter not only gives a healthy framework with which to view sin and imperfection- where there is plenty of conviction but no condemnation- but it is also extremely salutary in thinking of what we communicate to others. We all have the responsibility to encourage our fellow believers into the freedom of relationship with God- to understand how to journey with “God working with the raw material of our lives as he finds us”.
Let me never by my words or example disable my sisters or brothers but let me live and pray and model a life which gives God space to be God and do his perfect work in me.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Jeremy Begbie, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music

I’ve chosen this book because it’s a book I eagerly awaited and, when it was published at the beginning of 2008, it would be an understatement to say that it didn’t disappoint. I knew what to expect having read some of other Jeremy Begbie’s writing, and having heard him speak on a number of occasions.  He is an accomplished musician, a theologian of substance, and an excellent communicator, and the way in which he has brought music and theology together has sounded a deep resonances in me.

Jeremy is part of a movement which calls itself, ‘Theology Through The Arts’.  Theology of the arts asks what theology can bring to the arts. But theology through the arts asks what the arts can bring to theology: how can the arts help us think and re-think the gospel that we hear?  ‘Resounding Truth’ focuses especially upon music, an area which has been hugely neglected.

At the start the book he spends a fair bit of time bringing clarity to what music is, and in the process providing a hugely useful map of the current musical landscape.  He goes on to look at music in action in biblical times, before moving rapidly through church history, hitting on prominent thinkers in relation to music. A chapter on JS Bach leads into a chapter on three musical theologians, Schleiermacher, Bach and Bonhoeffer; and then two theological composers, Messiaen, and James MacMillan. There is superb material in these chapters, but the study expands in the next section of the book.

Jeremy Begbie puts forward ‘a Christian ecology’, ‘ecology’ in the sense of ‘a guiding framework’ but also in the sense of a doctrine of creation asking what kind of world does God create and relate to, and what might our role be in relation to the created world at large?  Having laid this foundation he asks this question: ‘Where might music find a place in the ecology sketched in the last chapter? In the purposes of a Triune Creator who has created and gathered up all things in Jesus Christ and now perfects all things by his Spirit – what can music contribute? In a world crafted out of freedom and love that praises God in its goodness but is never divine, a world made to flourish toward its end, a world of ordered openness and diverse unity – where do the sounds of singing and playing belong? And in the human vocation to focus and articulate creation’s praise, to discover, respect, develop, heal, anticipate, together – how might music play a part?’

I can’t do justice to the answer to these questions that he pursues and develops in the rest of the book, except to say that I’m still exploring them!  So, if this flicks your switches, go read! But in the meantime, try this nugget, ‘The church is the song of God – God’s “breathing out” of his own trinitarian polyphony.  It is the way the world hears the music at the heart of God and joins in.’

For me, this book is absolute gift, because it brings together the two worlds I know best. And I confess to frequently drawing on the creative thinking that I’ve found here and will continue to do so. Thank you Jeremy!

Friday, March 06, 2009

Books Half Remembered

One of the challenges of serving a small, mainly elderly congregation whose outreach work is mainly to another 70 or so elderly people is that sometimes they get sick or die. In recent months they seem to have decided that at any one time no less than three of them will need to be visited in hospitals scattered across the county, hence opportunities to read are few and far between. So, what you have is more an account of ‘books half remembered’ and I crave your forgiveness and indulgence.

The brief was ‘choose a book that has made an impact on your life or thinking’ – which in itself made me think, which are these books? In the forty or so years I’ve been able to read, to which books have I returned because in some small way they inspire me? I identified a whole heap of storybooks and novels and I don’t think that’s a bad thing; after all countless theologians use fiction – film, drama, poetry and prose - in their work, and my own research has uncovered people using anything from Sleeping Beauty to Bridget Jones as resources for reflection.

My earliest recollections are the Happy Venture (Dick and Dora) and Beacon readers (Old Dog Tom and Briar Rose come to mind) and they are important because they taught me my love of reading – whole worlds waiting to be explored and ideas to be discovered. I also recall blagging my first reading lesson – a full two terms younger than the rest of my class, I had not yet done letters never mind phonics (as they’re now known) so I listened carefully to what the children ahead of me said, and casually repeated it when my turn came. I still recall my fear of being found out as illiterate and my joy at this new ability; fortunately I quickly learned to read!

The first book I read ‘over and over’ was Ladybird Sleeping Beauty. Something about love that overcame ugliness (from Beauty) and the love that would let its beloved go free (from Beast - who looked more like a chimpanzee than a monster) struck a chord I guess. Having tracked down and bought a copy of it to re-read ahead of this post, I discovered that forty years on it doesn’t work as it once did – not only have I grown (much) older but the world has changed: the language and pictures are of a bygone age. However, I like to think that my memory of the book’s significance outweighs its merits in the present.

A book to which I do return every few years is Jane Eyre and the yellowed pages of my well-thumbed Dean and Son Ltd (abridged) edition have accompanied me since I was ten. As a child I guess it was the young Jane with whom I identified, and over the years, in some ways, I probably grew up with her, reading the book through different eyes. The assumed backcloth of Christianity of this book and of others I read at the same age – Tom Brown’s Schooldays (same edition) springs to mind – undoubtedly shaped my thinking in some way but it would be as an adult revisiting these beloved tales that I spotted it.

Teen years saw me devouring Christian biography and autobiography – Corrie Ten Boom (The Hiding Place), Brother Andrew (God’s Smuggler) and Gladys Aylward (The Small Woman) stand out, and I even named my first car ‘Corrie’ in honour of the first of these! In each of these accounts was evidence of struggle as well as triumph, of human nature as well as divine calling, and, although I never seriously entertained the ideas of overseas mission or active Bible smuggling, these people’s lives impacted on my thinking.

Adult life has been filled with reading – from thermodynamics to theology, nuclear fusion to pneumatology, mathematics to missiology; along with any amount of fiction, classical and pulp. Choosing significant books is not easy but I do recall one of the oft derided ‘Kingsway paperback’ genre. Today’s Christian Woman by Ann Warren, published in 1984 and costing the princely sum of £1.60, was the book that gave me permission to explore my Christian vocation in ways the church (in many denominations) had failed to do, and showed me that it was, after all, OK for women to be ordained. I’d hesitate to re-read it in case, like my Ladybird book, later learning and more sophisticated theology break the spell, but I’m glad I read it when I did because its effects were liberating.

So, finally to books that shape my current thinking. There are too many to name, but I’m very glad to have read Paul Fiddes’ Participating in God and David Bosch’ Transforming Mission whose relational Trinity and authentic missional diversity respectively underlie so much of my understanding of ministry and mission.

I apologise again if this is mere self-indulgent waffle but I am still left wondering if, after all, the most transformative book was Dick and Dora Book 1?!

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Evangelicals in Exile

I first read Evangelicals in Exile (DLT, 1997) by Alistair Ross in 1998/99. I was at the time in my final year of A-level studies. The book is an account of Alistair's spiritual journey from a child to training for baptist ministry, being a church minister and pastoral counsellor. It was the honesty of Alistair's account and the questioning of faith, and specifically as the title suggests, an evangelical faith, that grabbed me. Around the same time I had also read Clark Pinnock's book on the openness of God, which was in a different way a questioning of the generally accepted evangelical theology.

Reading it again this last week, the chapter about Alistair's time at a baptist theological college was particularly interesting, as I saw how training for ministry has both changed since the late 70's/early 80's and in some ways some of the experiences (perhaps obviously) are the same. On one particular, and hear I cannot speak for the other colleges, but it does feel as I am currently training that spouses and families are still often left on the fringes of 'formation' process, despite the fact that they are experiencing everything you are feeling. Colleges I think must do more to recognise and find ways to engage with and support the families of students - what does it mean to be married to a minister? what does it mean to a child or a young person who's mother or faith is a minister?

The book's real strength is its integration of biography and theology. Another book that made a similar impact on me was Frances Young's Face to Face. I firmly believe we need more theology like this, theological reflection that arises out of and engages with one's life story and experiences. Evangelicals in Exile is a book that deserves repeated readings, the other book, I look forward to reading again and again is Under the Unpredictable Plant by Eugene Peterson, which incidently Geoff is blogging about later. The repeated readings remind us of important truths and differente sentences to stick-out.

I haven't got to the end of the book on this current reading, so here's a quote
from early on: there is an appalling danger in the Church, especially in the
evangelical tradition, of 'splitting' between theory and practice and between
good and bad. We affirm the good and deny the bad. We work hard at clarifying
the theory and in doing so somehow assume that practice will just happen. [Me -
Interestingly I think that the reverse is also true, we get stuck into
practice and hope that the theology grounding will just emerge, sometimes
what feels like thin air!]. Real life has a way of blasting holes, like rock from quarry, in our careful archaeological dug-out theology. (p.52)

Alistair Ross is a Baptist minister and is currently a lecturer in counselling at Birmingham University, where he is also pursuing doctoral studies. He is the author of several books beside Evangelicals in Exile, including Understanding Friends (1993) and Counselling Skills for church and faith community workers (2005).