29 April 2013

Men, women and children

Prompted as I wrote a reply to a blog post, I felt I needed to write at greater length on some principles of leading and following. Men, women and children all have a place in leading us in following Jesus. But is it men, women or children who do the best job of leading?

The simplicity of a young child
Felicity Dale, writing recently about women as leaders, asks, 'What is God about to do?' (It takes both men and women, Simply Church).

As I began to write a reply to her post, I felt the Holy Spirit leading me along a track I'd not considered before.

I'd had hints of this from time to time over the years but I hadn't put it all together in my mind.

Here's my response to Felicity's post.

If we define kingdom as the realm in which the King is obeyed, then wherever men, women and children are following Jesus - that is the kingdom.

But let's remember the children in all this. Believing children have some wonderful advantages over us adult believers. Everybody agrees that men can lead, a growing number agree that women can lead too, but who has considered that children can lead? Sometimes they do so in the most natural and unselfconscious way. And sometimes, as men and women, we just need to swallow our pride and follow them!

What is Father about to do?

I have a strong hunch that he is beginning to show us that all should lead and all should follow. What I mean by that is that we don't need to recognise particular people as leaders and others as followers. Instead we will be recognising leaders in the moment. Who is leading right now? Who is leading by their words, by their actions, by their love, by their compassion, by their joy, by their wisdom, by their humility? If Christ is revealing himself through a particular person right now, follow that person!

I'd like to develop this a little more.

Leaders - What do we mean when we think of leaders and leadership? A leader is clearly a person who leads, someone who goes in front. Leadership extends the idea to suggest someone whose role is to lead, someone who is skilled at leading and is expected to lead often, even always.

But I'd like to ask the question, 'Which way is a person facing when they lead?' There are three possibilities.

Looking forwards - Someone who is looking forwards is looking away from the people who are following. Such a person is looking at Jesus and following him. If I follow such a person I will also be following Jesus. Jesus goes where he chooses to go, the person who is looking towards him follows where he goes. I follow the follower so I go where the follower goes - so I go where Jesus goes. This is good, this is safe, this is what someone who leads should always do.

Looking sideways - I think we often do this. Such people are not looking at Jesus but nor are they looking at those who follow them. They're going off at a tangent. Follow them at your peril!

Looking backwards - Is this what we sometimes mean when we talk about leaders and leadership? Is the focus on the listeners and followers, not on Jesus?

Don't misunderstand me, I'm not talking here about someone speaking to a group of people. You can do that with your eyes firmly focussed on the King. I'm talking about someone who is focussed on the listeners and followers, someone who cares more about being followed than about following Jesus.

Another name for people who do this is 'false shepherd' (or 'bad shepherd'). These people want to feed on the sheep rather than lead the sheep to good pasture. Jesus shows us what a good shepherd is like. He is the Good Shepherd. He told Peter, 'Do you love me? Feed my sheep'.

Perhaps most of us, most of the time, look in all three directions. We gaze partly at Jesus, we glance away to the side, and we look to see who's following us.

Men, women and children - Remember, we're talking about believers here. So now ask yourself, can a man play the part of any of these three kinds of human leader? Yes, he can.

Can a woman play any of these parts? Yes, she can.

Can a child play any of these three parts? Well, perhaps. But in my experience believing children tend to look forward towards Jesus. Young children, in particular, tend to be much too naive to look sideways or backwards. So what does that tell you about the right kind of person to follow?

Jesus wasn't kidding when he told us that unless we come like little children we won't even see the kingdom of heaven.

Questions:

  • Do you know people who lead looking forwards, sideways or backwards?
  • Would you trust a child to lead you?
  • Depending on your answer to the previous question, why? or why not?

See also:


27 April 2013

We need a new approach

SpaceX is solving a fundamental blocking problem in spaceflight. This is a great example for the church where a similar blocking problem needs to be addressed. As with all such problems we need a new approach, a new way to see the problem and find a solution.

Grasshopper landing, 5th test flight
Sometimes good examples help us to see our situation in a new light, and great examples can even encourage us to do something about it.

Here is a truly great example from SpaceX, the Californian commercial spaceflight company owned and run by Elon Musk.

First the example, then we'll take a look at how we might apply it to the church.

Spaceflight? Church? There seems to be a disconnect, perhaps. Well no, actually. But more on that later.

Spaceflight is expensive - Here's the situation as Elon found it. Spaceflight is extremely expensive; launch costs for placing a large communications satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO) are typically £150 million or so.

This is what I call a blocking problem. It blocks further progress. Spaceflight cannot become routine on a large scale with launch costs of this order. For decades these high costs have been regarded as unavoidable. What might be done to reduce them?

By carefully designing the company's Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets to be as efficient as possible, both in terms of manufacture and deployment, Elon Musk has been able to trim the launch cost considerably. But it's still too high, much too high.

Not being one to give up easily, he realised that the fuel costs are less than 1% of the cost of the rocket, so if a rocket could be reused over and over again (like an aircraft) the cost per launch could fall very dramatically.

Grasshopper - So this is what SpaceX has been attempting with its 'Grasshopper' project. Grasshopper is a test version of the company's standard Falcon 9. It has flown five times so far, higher each time. The recent flight to 250 m is amazing to watch. It goes up, it hovers for a while, and then it returns to the launch pad and lands!

Watch Grasshopper do it's stuff in this SpaceX video. Don't miss it. It's truly astonishing!

On the next cargo flight of Dragon to the International Space Station (ISS), SpaceX intends to 'land' the first stage on the sea as a trial run. They don't expect to succeed on the first attempt (though I suspect they may do better than most people think). But they will persevere and when they are comfortable with the process they will eventually return an intact first stage to the launch pad.

And then they'll work on minimising the refurbishment and refuelling so that the same rocket can be flown several times a week, perhaps even several times a day. And they plan to work on returning the second stage as well.

I'm sure you can see how this will change everything. Space launches will become far cheaper and new markets for launch services will develop as a direct result.

And the church? - Ah, the church! You see the church has a similar problem, something that has been taken for granted like high launch costs in the rocket business. Church in the West has seen falling numbers, falling influence, falling relevance to ordinary people.

All sorts of programmes have been organised involving better music, excellent teaching, novel forms of meeting, cafe church, simple church, exciting children's programmes, house church and more. None of these things in themselves has made a fundamental difference.

Like Elon Musk and SpaceX we need a new way of thinking.

And we already have one! Alan Hirsch has put his able mind to work and has identified six key elements that are essential but sufficient for explosive and continuing growth. Taken together (and he makes it clear that they must be taken together to be effective) these six elements can make a dramatic difference.

The first key element is 'Jesus is Lord' and that should surprise none of us. But what are the other five?

You'll have to wait for a later post to find out. But if you can't wait, get a copy of Alan's book, 'The Forgotten Ways' and start reading. It's excellent stuff, illuminating, exciting, and carrying a real hope for the future of the church in the West.

Questions:

  • Does it seem to you that church in the western world is advancing or retreating?
  • Why is the western church not growing explosively like the church in China or India?
  • Have you heard Alan Hirsch speak, or read any of his books?
  • Is Jesus truly at the very centre of all you do and say and think?

See also:

24 April 2013

Space, a new era

A new age is beginning in space commerce. After a little history this article considers where things may go next in timescales of ten, twenty and a hundred years. This is no longer purely science fiction, it is becoming technological fact. It's possible to foresee voyages to the stars a hundred years from now.

Apollo 4 on the pad
Yes, we really are at the beginning of a new era in spaceflight. Until recently almost all efforts in space were the preserve of governments or multinational bodies like the European Space Agency (ESA).

In a few areas private companies were able to play a role, but the funding was mostly government based.

The only real exception has been for communications satellites, and even these had to be flown on rockets designed and built for governments.

In this article we'll look at how the situation has been changing, especially over the last five years.

Early history - I was nine-years-old when Sputnik 1 was launched by the Soviet Union in October 1957. I remember hearing its bleeping tone on the radio and noticing how anxious Mum and Dad seemed that the Russians rather than the Americans had achieved this feat of engineering.

Of course, America wasn't far behind; though early European cooperation in rocketry failed.

In April 1961 Yuri Gagarin flew on Vostok 1 and before long orbital trips seemed almost routine. The Americans landed Apollo 11 on the Moon in July 1969. Today we can add many more nations, an international organisation (ESA), and even a private company (SpaceX) to the list.

Commercial satellites - Commercial space businesses began with government contracts to construct rockets and build satellites. But the first businesses to make a profit from space were broadcasting and telecommunications companies.

Since then direct broadcast TV, weather satellites, earth resources, mapping, messaging, delivery tracking and global positioning (GPS) have become mainstream commercial applications. And military satellites, although not commercial in nature, are widely deployed and used by many national governments.

The space launch industry - With so many commercial satellite operators, it was clear that there was a  market for a commercial space launch industry.

Until recently those launchers have been funded and specified by governments, but now SpaceX, a number of other companies and some cooperative ventures such as the United Launch Alliance (ULA) are looking to make a profit by selling launch services. This includes provision of the launch vehicles, payload integration, fuelling, pad infrastructure, and managing the launch itself.

Virgin Galactic - Virgin is close to providing sub-orbital short hops into space. They plan to cater for space tourism as well as offering research flights. For the first time scientists and engineers will be able to fly with their experiments regularly and return them reliably. This service may replace throw-away sounding rockets.

Other companies are working on sub-orbital flight too, but Virgin are very close. Their spacecraft (SpaceShipTwo) is about to begin powered test flights.

SpaceX - Elon Musk's company already offers two sizes of commercial launcher (Falcon 1e and Falcon 9) and is close to testing Falcon Heavy for even larger payloads. They are also using their Dragon cargo ship to fly regularly to the International Space Station (ISS), are working hard on a crewed version of Dragon.

DragonLab is a free-flying commercial venture to provide a weightless platform for science and technology. Any organisation can book space on DragonLab knowing that their payload can be recovered and flown again as often as required.

A further project (Grasshopper) is developing the technology to safely land and re-use Falcon 9 rocket stages. And in the more distant future SpaceX has ambitions to see a viable human colony established on Mars.

Bigelow - Bigelow Aerospace has two prototype inflatable space habitat modules in orbit, is planning to attach one to the ISS for testing by NASA, and plans to offer orbital accommodation for science as well as for tourism.

Mars OneMars One is a non-profit foundation based in the Netherlands. They hope to colonise Mars and pay for it by a combination of donations, sponsorship and TV contracts. The plan is to send four people to Mars in 2023 with four more arriving every two years after that. These are one way trips. Mars One is now open for applicants and is signing contracts for initial design studies.

Asteroid mining - At least two companies have been created recently with a view to the commercial exploitation of asteroidal materials. Asteroids are rich in rare and precious metals as well as volatiles in the form of ices.

Where is it all leading? - This really is a special time in spaceflight. We are progressing from state funded and controlled projects at relatively small scale and high cost, towards commercial operations taking humankind and our machines further and doing so profitably.

The immediate future offers the prospect of short hops into space for anyone with £20 000 to £30 000 to spare, a reusable Falcon 9 first stage substantially reducing the cost to orbit, and commercial access to low Earth orbit (LEO) for both crewed and uncrewed spacecraft. This is likely to include small capsules like SpaceX's Dragon and much larger volumes such as the Bigelow inflatable modules. Much of this will happen in the next ten years.

In the longer term we can expect commercial operations to develop raw material supplies from Asteroids, as well as small colonies on Mars and perhaps the Moon too. For this we may be looking at a twenty year timescale.

But make no mistake, once this process has begun there will be no stopping it. We are probably heading for a Solar System wide civilisation within the next century. Children born today will find it quite normal to watch and read material created on a different planet or in orbit elsewhere around our local star.

And once the outer planets have been reached it will be only a matter of time before our descendants start to consider how best to reach other stars. Perhaps they will send out self-sufficient colonies based on and inside modified asteroids.

Questions:

  • If humans colonise space, how will that affect society, faith, and the future?
  • Are you going to sign up for Mars One's one way trip to Mars? (I'm not!)
  • How would you feel if your children or grandchildren were living on Mars?
  • If the cost comes down enough, would you fancy a sub-orbital hop into space?

See also:




23 April 2013

To Egypt and back

Leaders in the church, Part 7
< Herod and the astrologers | Index | John the Baptist >

Joseph takes his family to Egypt to escape from Herod, and later they return and head for Galilee. This shows us how important it is to lead from obedience. But what do we do when the information is incomplete? And what does this say about leaders and about followers?

A painting of the escape to Egypt
When I began my trawl through the New Testament for information on leadership, I had no idea that by the seventh article I'd still be in the second chapter of Matthew!

But that is right where we are, looking at Joseph and Mary's escape to Egypt and then their decision to settle in Nazareth in Galilee. (Matthew 2:13-23)

Once again, dreams are an important feature. I've occasionally been guided by dreams in the past, I wonder if you have too? This time, the angel in Joseph's dream instructs him to take his family to Egypt because Herod is going to hunt down the baby to kill him. As before, Joseph was obedient, he got up and set off in the night for Egypt.

Later, when Herod was dead, he was told to return to Israel (again by an angel in a dream) and was finally guided (in another dream) to settle in Galilee in the town of Nazareth.

Leadership - What can we learn from this about leadership? Right away we  can see the importance of acting on what we hear from the Father.

Leading is not about following our own plans and visions, it's about following the Father's plans and visions. In other words, leading is about obedience. It's not about my wisdom, it's about Father's wisdom expressed in whatever way he chooses.

In Joseph's case the Almighty's will was expressed in dreams, it may sometimes be the same for us. However, the Holy Spirit may choose to speak in many different ways. It's up to us to be alert and notice his communication - whatever form it takes.

Acting on incomplete information - Something else we can glean from this story is that leading through obedience is not always easy.

'Escape to Egypt and stay there until I tell you' meant that Joseph's obedience would be open-ended. Not only would they go to Egypt, they would stay there for an unknown period of time. Presumably he would have found work as a carpenter and there was a large ex-pat Jewish community in cities like Alexandria. Should they settle, build a house and set up a business? Or would it be better to do contract jobs and find temporary lodgings?

Similarly, 'Go to Israel' is incomplete information; apparently Joseph was not told what part of Israel to choose or how long to remain there. Guidance and obedience don't always result in the clarity we might like.

There's also the important matter of using our own brains, wisdom and experience. When guidance lacks detail we may need to depend on our own resources to fill the gaps. Joseph decided for himself that it was unwise to go to Judaea. In a further dream he was warned again and decided to settle in Galilee in the small town of Nazareth. He worked the rest of his life and died in Nazareth without seeing what Jesus would eventually do. We rarely see the end from the beginning.

For us and for others - Leading implies followers. We have responsibilities to others and to our heavenly Father. Here is Joseph having to make decisions that also affect Mary and the infant Jesus. Here's the One who has come as Emmanuel ('Elohim with us') placing his safety in the hands of a carpenter! Even those with great authority (even Jesus) must learn to put their trust in the hands of other leaders.

This is true in the church, isn't it? Christ himself is the head of the church yet he has entrusted his body to the leading of ordinary men and women, not because he needs to but because he chooses to. And it's the same for us.

One of the primary ways leaders come off the rails is when they begin to think people should follow them. Demanding to be followed will never be effective because true authority is always given freely, not demanded. If people don't want to follow you no amount of cajoling or threatening or persuading will change their minds. But if you are worthy of respect and trust they will follow you without hesitation, even without conscious thought.

Joseph was followed into Egypt, back to Israel and on to Galilee because Mary respected and trusted and loved him. And the infant Jesus, the fullness of the Most High in tiny, helpless, human form was also entrusted to his care and to that of Mary. Have you ever thought how truly awesome that is?

And have you ever thought how awesome it is that the Father trusts us to lead one another? Jesus lives in every believer, he has planted his Holy Spirit and nature in us individually. If you lead you are leading people who are filled with the presence of the King of Kings! So be very careful and ever so humble in all you say and do and think.

This is why we are told that few should teach (James 3:1) and none should be called Teacher (Matthew 23:8). And it's why Paul wanted the churches to recognise elders who would be true and faithful (Titus 1:5-9). Much depended on it. Much depends on it still.

Leading by doing - Notice how an angel was sent repeatedly to show Joseph what to do next. He was given dreams that showed him the need to journey and provided clear destinations. There's a clue for us here if we are willing to see it.

If anyone aspires to lead the body of Christ they must lead by their actions, not merely by talking. If the lesson is to love one another then leading will involve practical and sacrificial loving. Isn't that how Jesus did it? If the lesson is sharing the good news in every day life then leading will involve inventive ways of sharing it daily.

Unlike Father, we can't insert a dream into a sleeping person's mind. However, we can insert a dream by demonstrating it in our own lives, by acting it out. In the church we are, I think, surrounded by many, many sleeping people (certainly in Western society). So go and show them the dream, reveal it to them by your actions. You are a leader, in many ways we all are. So get to it!

Questions:

  • What would have happened if Joseph had ignored the dreams in his leading?
  • Can you think of examples of local leaders in your own life who show the way?
  • How might you lead, or lead more effectively?
  • Had you considered that when you lead you are leading people who contain Christ?

See also:


< Herod and the astrologers | Index | John the Baptist >

21 April 2013

A walk along the river

A walk along the riverbank and a sight of the old castle mound spoke to me about church. We consider the story of the castle and what it tells us, how church can go bad, and some pointers as to how it might be redeemed. There's a useful list of links at the end.

Castle Hills in Eaton Socon
Yesterday morning Mo and I went for a walk. I headed across to his place, we had a coffee and chatted.

Then, as it was a beautiful morning, we walked down to the river, crossed over, headed upstream to the Rivermill pub, then back to Mo's for a second coffee and a bit more conversation.

On the way we had a great view of Castle Hills and it struck me that this place has much to say about the church. I've seen this view of the old castle site in Eaton Socon many, many times, but never before have I sensed that it was a powerful illustration of some spiritual principles.

The history of the castle - First I need to give you a bit of background information. The land around the river is very flat. It's flood meadow, there's a deep layer of river gravel covered by rich soil, and the river itself would have moved slowly back and forth across this flat area over the ten thousand years since the last ice-age ended. The higher ground you see in the photo is man made.

There is a story, perhaps true, that the castle mound was constructed and a wooden castle built on it
during the Norman period. But the nobleman who built it didn't ask for the king's permission, and he was later commanded to pull it down again.

Certainly there is no castle there now.

How does this apply to the church? - Just consider that the church is a holy temple built of living stones. We, the people of Christ the King, are those living stones.

In 1 Corinthians 3:8-17 Paul writes that the foundation of the church is Jesus Christ, but whether the building survives or falls also depends on whether it's built of the right materials and how skillful the builders are.

The castle was built on its mound by a Norman nobleman. But it was built of wood, not stone, and it was built unwisely because it was built without the king's permission.

How about the local church where you live? Has it been built with or without the permission of King Jesus? Was it built at his command? And is it made of materials that will last? We need to ask ourselves what other foundations and materials might sometimes be erroneously used.

It might seem strange to suggest that we need permission from Jesus to begin church. But remember, he said, 'I will build my church'. In everything we need to listen to the Holy Spirit and do what he calls us to do. If I branch out on my own I may come unstuck.

As a general rule it's OK to just meet together because we are his people, that is always a good thing. But what is not necessarily right is to create structures to manage and control the direction, the finances, the policies, and the work of the local body. For those we most certainly do need to hear and obey the King. That's what I mean by 'build' in the context of church life.

Clearly, if a local expression of church is built without the King's permission it is not built on the foundation of Christ. It might instead be built on greed, for example, created to turn in a tidy sum in offerings with the intention of creaming some off into someone's pockets. We have seen this with some TV ministries over the years. Or it might be built on business management principles leaving no room for the Holy Spirit to guide the work. Or perhaps it might be built on faulty doctrine or wrong practice.

And what about the materials used, the living stones? Even if constructed on the true foundation of Christ, a church might still be at risk if the people lack wisdom, or the ability to hear the Spirit well, if there is wrong teaching or unforgiveness or a clinging to materialism.

But perhaps the most dangerous situation of all is one where the church is led in a way that doesn't encourage active participation, where people expect to be 'fed' instead of coming to feed one another.

The way forward - There are many potential pitfalls, but beginning in simple ways and  making it difficult for people to be mere pew sitters will always help. Transforming a situation steeped in traditional ways is much more difficult, but by no means impossible.

Material designed to help church grow in healthy, Christ-centred, missional and loving ways is produced abundantly by people and organisations like Neil Cole (Church Multiplication Associates), Alan Hirsch (Forge Mission Training Network), Tony and Felicity Dale (House2House), Steve Addison (Movements that Change the World) and, here in the UK, Peter Farmer (NewForms Resources).

There are also many, many other sources of inspiration, information, ideas, and good teaching - far too many to list here. Consider Paul Young, Lyfe, Austin-Sparks.net, Nomad Podcast, Olive Tree, Be the Light.

Questions:

  • What is good about your local church environment?
  • What is less good?
  • Are there ways you could help to improve things?
  • Are you reaching others, encouraging the church family, loving those around you?

See also:

17 April 2013

Five ideas about stories

Josh Reeves shares some great ideas about 'knowing the story'. The idea is to make us more effective in what we already do, not add extra stuff to our schedule. In a fuller article at Soma, Josh provides more of these useful lists of ideas in other important activities.

Josh Reeves writing on VergeJosh Reeves, writing at The Verge Network, considers 'Five Practical Ideas to Know the Story'.

He explains, 'Much of what we do is not meant to add things to the schedule, but bring intentionality to the things we are already doing'. And then he provides a list of practical ideas.

  1. Practice telling the story to your kids and spouse
  2. Listen to others tell the story
  3. Have a night where each person shares their story in 10 minutes.
  4. Identify and write down the 4 major stories you see people believing.
  5. Host a get to know your neighbors party - with artifacts.
He suggests we consider these short extracts from the Bible... Genesis 1:1-2, John 1:1, Psalm 1 and 2 Timothy 3:16-17

Josh also provides links to some very helpful resources. Don't miss out on these, read his article and follow the links.

In his Verge post, Josh is summarising part of a fuller article on Soma's website. If you want to know more I recommend you take the time to read that. In it he offers five practical ideas for a whole range of other activities - to help us listen, celebrate and suffer, bless, eat, rest and work.

Maybe you could consider working through Josh's lists with a group of friends?


Questions:

  • Jesus often used parables - why?
  • Why do you think telling stories is so powerful?

See also:

15 April 2013

What if ... creation was a myth?

April's Synchroblog asks how we'd be affected if part (or all) of the Bible was myth. I chose to consider the creation accounts in Genesis. Whether these are myth or true history does matter, but perhaps it doesn't matter as much as the division it sometimes causes in the church.

Created or evolved?
This month's Synchroblog invites us to speculate. (Other contributions to this month's Synchroblog are listed at the bottom of this post.)

Here's an extract from the instructions...

Try to imagine that some or all of the Bible narrative is not necessarily true history, but is myth of one sort or another. What sort of effect would that knowledge have on your faith? What effect might it have on the larger church? How would it change you? Would it change you and how you view the world?

Of course, a great deal depends on what part of the Bible I select. Assuming that the visit of the magi to Jesus' birthplace is a myth would make relatively little difference, but assuming that the birth of Jesus is a myth would change things rather dramatically.

I'm going to choose the creation accounts in Genesis. Let's suppose these are myths. How would it change things? I'll follow through with the questions from the Synchroblog. But first, let's have bit of a think about the idea of a myth. What do we mean by 'myth'?

Myths - Perhaps we think of anything mythical or mythological as false. A myth is an invention, imagined creatures in an imagined land - isn't that myth?

Well, no, not necessarily. Imagined creatures in an imagined land are fiction, like 'The Lord of the Rings' or 'The Narnia Chronicles'. Bear in mind that those stories contain a great deal of truth even though they are not true. But myth is more than fiction. To be precise, traditional fiction with a meaning is not a myth but a fable.

We'd do better to think of the Greek legends, the Norse sagas, or the Irish ballads. These are truly mythical. Rather than fiction they are meaningful and explanatory stories based (probably) on real events far back in time before anyone could remember and passed from generation to generation. They have, no doubt, grown considerably in the telling.

So now to the creation accounts in Genesis.

What would be the effect on my faith? - Zero, nada, zilch. There are a number of reasons for this. Perhaps the major one is that I do regard the creation story to be myth. But I'm confident it's myth with a clear purpose. I was trained in biology and for many years worked as a professional biologist. I'm no more inclined to accept the creation stories as history than I am to accept that the Moon is made of cheese.

Let me distinguish between creation and the Biblical accounts of creation. I accept that the Almighty created the universe. It's really hard to think that the universe just is, that it sprang out of nothing all by itself. I am sure that it was somehow caused. It's here because it was intended and spoken into existence.

On the other hand the biblical accounts of how that happened and in what order make little sense to me. What I mean is that they make little sense as history, as an account of the process that took place. As myth, as allegory, as a description of truth, they make perfect sense. The truth is that the Almighty is the ultimate cause of the universe, he is holy, pure and powerful, his original purpose for us is that we would be in community with him, but we are weak, willful and sinful and threw away that opportunity for community.

My opinion that the creation stories are myths doesn't affect my faith in any way. I believe in the Creator, that the universe came into existence because Yahweh spoke, Jesus acted, and the Spirit hovered. The power of the Presence of the three-in-one was enough, a baby universe was born and has flourished ever since. I know that I have a sinful nature, I know that the Son came and by his death paid the price and opened the way for freedom. I know there is a place waiting for me in his kingdom, that my name is written in the Lamb's book of life and on the palm of Papa's hand.

What effect does it have on the wider church? - Now things get more serious. Part of the church thinks it makes little difference whether the creation accounts are factual or mythical. Part of it cares enough to fight a civil war over the issue. And this is a serious problem.

You see, the church that Jesus commanded, 'Love one another as I have loved you', should never, ever be at war with itself. The problem is not that I or anyone else has this or that opinion about the creation stories in Genesis, the problem is that we cannot bear for there to be more than one such opinion.

Some say 'Myth with a message' and others say 'Historical record of real events' and we think that endless argument and dispute is a suitable way to resolve it. Or rather, that our need to be proved 'right' is sometimes stronger than our urge to follow Jesus' command to accept and love.

In a bleeding, dying world we don't have time to fight a civil war. Not only that, we risk bringing the name of Jesus into disrepute. So love one another, love your neighbour, and love your enemy.

In Egypt, the traditional and non-traditional believers are fervently praying together for revival instead of discussing who is right about their many differences of interpretation. If you are an Egyptian and you believe in Jesus you are a brother or a sister. It's that simple. But don't take my word for it - watch the video.

What is the lesson here for us? The issue need not be the creation accounts, it might be ... (fill in the blank for yourself). The church is divided over many, many issues when love should surely conquer all of them.

How would it change me? - If I'm willing to avoid the divisions outlined above, then would my understanding of the mechanics of creation make any difference to me? I don't think so. Whichever way I view the creation accounts I can believe Jesus and follow him. I have a new and fuller life in him now. I have eternity in his presence. I can love my brothers and sisters fully and freely and allow them to understand creation in whatever way they see fit.

The nature of creation is only an issue if I allow it to become one in my own heart. The universe exists! The Almighty brought it into being and holds it in existence. Without him it would all vanish. What more do I really need to know?

Would it change you and how you view the world? - This is an 'over to you' question, is it not? How do you stand on this matter? And whatever you may believe, are you willing to allow it to separate you from your brothers and sisters in Jesus?

Questions:

  • How do you, personally, deal with conflicts of understanding?
  • Is truth more important than accepting one another? Always? Sometimes? Never?
  • For you, is being right essential or just 'nice to have'?

See also:


Synchroblog links:

10 April 2013

Herod and the astrologers

Leaders in the church, Part 6
< Miriam and Yoseph | Index | To Egypt and back >

Herod is typical of hierarchical leadership, the eastern astrologers are typical of inspirational leadership. In church life we desperately need to avoid the first and encourage the second. Why? We take a careful look at Herod and the astrologers to find out.

Frankincense resinHere in Matthew 2:1-12 we see two very different kinds of leadership at work. It's interesting to see the two described together in these twelve verses.

Herod is described here as a king. Under Roman rule he would not have had complete autonomy, but within his region he would have had freedom to do more or less whatever he wished.

Providing the Romans received their payments of tribute and taxes, and as long as Roman law was respected and the  region remained peaceful, they would leave a client king to manage things any way he liked.

Faced with the birth of another king in his domain, and one foretold by the prophets at that, and the possibility this was even the promised Messiah who would rebel against Rome, Herod felt he needed to act to protect his authority and maintain the status quo. We are told that he was troubled, as was the city of Jerusalem.

He called in the religious authorities and quizzed them. They confirmed his worst fears but also told him that the birth would be in Bethlehem. Then he called the astrologers secretly to learn about the timing of the star and sent them off to find the child.

Herod - Let's take Herod first and see what we can learn about his methods and motives.
  • Herod was clearly anxious to prevent any rival king from arising in Judaea. And it's true that hierarchical leaders often want to protect their position and their power. They will try hard to prevent rivals challenging them. Look no further than the world of politics.
  • Herod used both the religious authorities and the visiting astrologers to provide information. But he had no use for them beyond his own needs.
  • His secrecy is interesting. He was devious and astute. He knew that keeping his intentions hidden would prove to be an advantage.
  • Herod 'sent them to Bethlehem'. He was not king of Media where the astrologers came from, but he ordered them about is if they were his subjects. Leaders of this kind will act as if they have authority even where they have none. Swagger and confidence can be very effective.
In summary, Herod was jealous of rivals, protected his position and power, used people to provide the information he wanted, was secretive, devious and astute, and used arrogant self-confidence when he thought it was to his advantage.

The astrologers - There is much here for us to consider. These men are often called the 'wise' men in English translations, and in many ways they did think and behave very wisely indeed.

  • The astrologers travelled a long way to find the king of the Jews, and they clearly assumed he would be in Jerusalem. As it happens, Bethlehem is quite close to Jerusalem.
  • They had seen his star rise and had come to worship him. They were observant and knowledgeable. They knew this king was very special, even a god, worthy of worship.
  • They appeared before Herod and listened to what he had to say.
  • These astrologers were over the moon when they found out where the Messiah was.
  • When they saw Jesus with his mother they fell down and worshipped him.
  • They offered him precious gifts.
  • They received and respected a dream warning them to go home by a different route.
Again, to summarise, we can pick out the following facts about the astrologers. They were willing to travel a long way to find Jesus, and they came specifically to worship him. They had enquiring minds, following the star, listening to Herod, heeding the dream. They rejoiced enthusiastically when they found Jesus. They worshipped him and gave him precious gifts.

Leadership qualities - Now for a little thought experiment. You have a choice of Herod or one of the eastern astrologers to lead you in following Jesus. It's a bit of a no-brainer, isn't it?

Right here in the second chapter of the New Testament we have some broad hints as to the kind of leaders we need in the church. Herod-like characters are best avoided. Humble, hard working people who want to worship Jesus are far more likely to be suitable. Right here we see the difference between a wolf and a good shepherd. So be very careful which kind of leader you choose to listen to!


Questions:

  • Take the apostle Paul as an example. In what ways was Paul like Herod?
  • In what ways was he like the astrologers?
  • What do you think the primary motive of Herod was? And the astrologers?
  • What is your own primary motive in life? (Be honest with yourself.)

See also:


< Miriam and Yoseph | Index | To Egypt and back >

07 April 2013

Hopeful signs of liminality

Alan Hirsch uses the terms liminality and communitas. I was interested to check how much 'liminality' I could find in church life today, particularly in and around my own local area of west Cambridgeshire. I found more than I had expected which is really rather encouraging.

Big hearted lyfe
Recently, I've been working my way through Alan Hirsch's excellent book, 'The Forgotten Ways'. Amongst much else he explores what he calls 'liminality and 'communitas'.

Liminality is being involved around the edges of what we consider normal in western church life. It's a matter of taking risks, pushing the boundaries in terms of reaching the hungry, the abandoned, the spiritually lost.

For those in places like China or the Muslim world it may mean facing danger or even death. Alan Hirsch uses terms like ordeal, danger, marginality and adventure.

Communitas is the sense of comradeship that comes from sharing liminal experiences with others. It's deeper and more urgent than the typical community life we have in the western church. We cannot achieve communitas just by drinking coffee together or going to meetings.

(Scroll to the bottom of the post for short extracts from the book defining these two terms.)

This sparked my imagination and I wanted to identify examples of liminality in my own life and the lives of those around me. Here's what I came up with (in alphabetical order). Some of these examples are very local, most are from the UK, all but two are things I've been involved in personally.

Be the light - Chris Duffett provides a list of ideas for creative evangelism. Many of these involve some degree of liminality by getting us out of our comfort zones. Take a look through the list, are there some ideas here that you and a small group of friends might try?

Ben and Catherine Taylor - Not content to just sit around and let the world go by, Ben and Catherine in the West of England are involved in church life with a difference, lots of liminality here I think!

Ben and Hannah Dunnett - Hannah is an artist, Ben is a musician. They challenge and encourage us all by making the most of their talents. Take a look at what they have on offer and ask yourself if you might buy some material to use in inventive ways to reach those around you.

Beth Foster - Beth lives in the USA and used to have a great blog. She seems to have removed it (I hope temporarily). In it she described how she had been led to review what she did as a believer and to slim it down to the real essentials. She made some notes on how this was going. Although you can't  now read these for yourself, she also left some great comments on several of my posts. Take a look at this one (you'll need to scroll to the bottom to see Beth's comments).

Big hearted lyfe - Some great material and helpful suggestions for doing Bible study and personal development in a public place. This could be one way to experience a form of liminality! Have a go, see if you can encourage others to join you. This idea comes from the Bible Society.

Donna and the children - Donna lives in Nottingham and amongst many other things has explored church with children. This was not an obvious or easy thing to do, but she saw the need and the opportunity and just went for it. Another good lesson for all of us.

Ffald-y-Brenin - This community is pushing out the boat with houses of prayer. Read part of their story here on Journeys of heart and mind. This is no ordinary retreat centre, liminality is not in short supply!

Food bank in St Neots - There are plans afoot to start a Trussell Trust food bank in the town. Many of the local churches are cooperating. It's a great thing to do and will bring together people from different backgrounds as well as increasing contact with people needing some help. I've begun collecting and have delivered a first donation to a local church that's already passing on help to those in difficulty.

Free hugs - Some friends, Tendai, Mark and others, have been trying out some of those 'Be the Light' ideas at the top of this list. I joined them once for a 'free hugs' session in the Market Square and will be getting involved again.

Krish Kandiah - Active in work with students, as an author, pastor and as a sought-after speaker, Krish Kandiah is different. He is inventive, active, and always willing to push the boundaries and take risks.

Newforms Resources - Pete and Marsha Farmer are involved in a lot of hard work, much of it centred around Newforms Resources. This is an organisation they created as an umbrella for training, meetings and books aimed at encouraging missional expressions of church in the UK and, increasingly, Europe and beyond.

Paul and Jenny Shortman - Jenny is an old friend from years ago. She and her husband Paul have been very helpful in a Free Church not far from here. They encourage, work at all sorts of jobs, and Jenny often writes for their magazine. It's always good, edifying stuff. Maybe this is not so much on the liminal side of life, but it's way beyond the normal range of what we'd call community. Humble work done well and done for love. They are a good example to us all.

Pete Stamford - Pete runs annual camps for ages eight to sixteen. From small beginnings using scout camp grounds he is now running multiple camps and other training events each year from a dedicated site at Moggerhanger in Bedfordshire. Everything depends on CRB-checked volunteers - lots of them. Missional in nature, aiming to reach young people and their parents, Pete has faced and overcome many difficulties along the way.

St Michaels Without - This Anglican church in Bath, Somerset, has changed itself in interesting and delightful ways. Both the physical structure and the lives of the people have been adapted to better serve the local community. Take a look at their website to find out what they're been up to.

TryPraying - This idea began with a group of ordinary people in Edinburgh, Scotland. Now they are publishing booklets encouraging non-believers to experiment with prayer. The whole thing is imaginatively and beautifully executed. Who would not want to be involved?

Conclusions - Few of these ideas are fully 'on the edge', but most of them have elements of liminality significant enough that I can share them in this article. There may be other people in St Neots getting out there and engaging in the great commission. I certainly hope so.

Taken together, these may be early glimmerings of life and growth in the church in the UK. And as people engage in these ways and involve their friends, so communitas may start to develop. I imagine a time, not far off, when church will be completely transformed where I live. Yes, Father, bring it on; we are so ready for this!

Liminality and communitas - Extracts from 'The Forgotten Ways', Alan Hirsch's definitions of liminality and communitas.

Liminality ... applies to that situation where people find themselves in an in-between, marginal state in relation to the surrounding society, a place that could involve significant danger and disorientation, but not necessarily so.

Communitas ... happens in situations where individuals are driven to find each other through a common experience of ordeal, humbling, transition and marginalization. It involves intense feelings of social togetherness and belonging brought about by having to rely on each other in order to survive.


Questions:

  • Are you taking risks in your life as a believer?
  • Do you agree that shared danger can lead to a marvellous sense of togetherness?
  • Can you find needs and opportunities in your village, town or city?
  • What are you doing about those needs and opportunities?

See also:

02 April 2013

Felicity Dale on women and church

Felicity Dale is currently writing extensively about women and their role in church life. It's a topic that needs to be re-examined, and Felicity has taken hold of the task. Or, perhaps more correctly, the Holy Spirit has taken hold of Felicity to approach the task in a new and effective way.

Felicity Dale
Tony and Felicity Dale live in Austin, Texas and have been a huge and beneficial influence in the thoughts and lives of many, especially those engaged in simple and organic forms of church life. They have many gifts, both of them are effective teachers, for example.

Recently, Felicity has been writing a great deal about the place of women in the church. She has many wonderful insights into an area that has often been problematic. I believe she is being used by Papa to open doors that have been closed far too long. I know Tony will have been right there with her, quietly oiling the rusty hinges for all he's worth!

I want to commend Felicity's efforts to all my readers. To the women amongst you because she is speaking release and empowerment. To the men because you can all help by encouraging the women in your lives to receive the truth she is sharing. And to those (men and women) who are unsure about the place and function of women in church life because there is much wisdom and truth in Felicity's writing on this topic.

I believe Felicity's work on women and church is of huge importance. What she is doing is fundamental to the next step in Papa's plan for his people, worldwide but particularly here in Western society where women have long been sidelined, particularly in church circles.

Reading Felicity's articles - Perhaps the earliest of her articles on women is 'A phone call to remember' back in April 2010. The latest (so far) is 'Women in Leadership: God's punishment?' published just yesterday. You can view the entire series  as a growing set of pages, seven of them so far. They may eventually form the basis for a new book.

You will need to follow her blog (Simply Church) because she is turning out more good writing on the topic every week at present. She is on a roll! If you like you can sign up to receive future posts by email (visit Simply Church and look for 'Subscribe' near the top on the right hand side of the page - or just use this link).

Questions:

  • Have you considered the Bible's teaching on women for yourself?
  • It's easy to think that the way things are is the way they must continue. What are the dangers in doing this?

See also:

01 April 2013

Miriam and Yoseph

Leaders in the church, Part 5
< Leading, Matthew 1:1-17 | Index | Herod and the astrologers >

Life will throw us curveballs from time to time, it's inevitable. Let's follow the example of Yoseph (Joseph) in paying attention to what we are told and basing our leadership on obedience. We may receive some explanations as well, and they can give us great confidence as we step out to lead.

A pregnant womanThis time we're looking at Matthew 1:18-25. This little section is so human, so ordinary. It's easy to read it as a family event (which, of course it is). But it's also easy to miss what it shows us about leadership.

Before we go any further let's be clear that these verses are not about the roles of men and women in the church today. They are about a Jewish betrothal two thousand years ago. There were traditional rituals and the bride and bridegroom had to play their part and follow the customary ways.

Because Miriam (Mary) was inconveniently pregnant it seemed clear to Yoseph that something had to be done. Miriam was not permitted to ask for a divorce, Yoseph would have to do that. And if he didn't do it carefully and quietly she could be stoned to death as an adulteress.

Reading between the lines we can sense his disquiet (even horror) at the possibility of her death and his desire to ensure her safety if possible. But the harder and better choice, to marry Miriam despite the pregnancy, had escaped him or he had rejected the idea. He might have done so from perfectly worthy motives.

The Almighty's messenger (the angel in Yoseph's dream) interrupted the process he planned to put in place. When he woke up he went ahead and did what he'd been told. This is obedience.

Leadership - But what has all this to do with leadership?

We need to see that Yoseph's part was to lead in this matter. This was required by tradition, social custom and the religious expectations of family and friends. He couldn't get out of it. He had to make a decision.

Let's look in a bit more detail at what he was told to do.

  • 'As he considered these things.' - It is important that we chew things over and consider our options. We must explore all the possible avenues and alternatives. It may be that the Holy Spirit will speak to us as we do so. This state of 'not yet decided' is not one we should move on from too quickly. Yoseph had 'resolved to divorce her' but was clearly still considering. As we consider, let's also pray. And as we pray let's expect guidance.
  • 'Don't be afraid.' - When the Spirit of the Most High speaks to us he will always encourage us.
  • 'Take Miriam as your wife.' - Here is some good, specific guidance. He will give us all the detail we need. Sometimes it might not seem enough, and then we need to trust him. Perhaps he will give us more once we've taken the first step.
  • 'Call him Yahshua'. - Guidance in advance, jot this down or store it in your heart. Yoseph would need this information later.

Action, not debate - Yoseph did what he was told. Notice that the angel gave him more than this; in addition to instructions he was also provided with some explanations. Expect explanation as well as instruction but do not confuse the two. Explanation may not always come, but when it does we are greatly encouraged by it and can obey with a great sense of purpose. Papa loves to encourage.

This passage shows us clearly that if we are to lead we must do so informed by what we are shown. If I lead I must do so in obedience to what the Almighty tells me. I must be prepared to hear and obey. Anyone who leads on a basis other than the will of the Father will lead others astray and undermine Yahweh's purpose. No wonder James writes that few should teach; that is a fearful responsibility indeed. (James 3:1)

Yoseph, faced with a dilemma, needed to hear, obey, and lead on the basis of what he heard. We will do well if we follow his example.

Questions:
  • When you hear from the Spirit, how do you distinguish instruction and explanation?
  • Can you think of other examples from the Bible of people who heard and then led out of an obedient heart?
  • Are there Biblical precedents for leading without hearing and obeying?
  • Is it enough to plan to the best of our ability and then do what seems best?

See also:

< Leading, Matthew 1:1-17 | Index | Herod and the astrologers >

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