Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Skin in the game

 Mark 10:28-31
Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

When Jesus encountered people, be it rulers of the synagogue,commanders of armies, people who came for healing or women who touched his cloak or met him at the well, whatever their needs or demands, Jesus insisted that they "put some skin in the game." He invited folk to take a risk.
He asked the rich young ruler to sell what he had...
He asked the centurion to go and find his daughter healed...
He asked a blind man: What do you want?..
He asked the woman who touched his cloak to reveal herself...
He asked the woman at the well to go and call her husband...
Risk was simply a given on the journey to wholeness with Jesus.
And we, who proclaim good news today, tend to minimise that risk far less embrace it for ourselves.
We, who long for change, long to see change in others.
Jesus makes it clear that realising the kingdom of God involves us having skin in the game, embodying  the change we want to see.
But we will always find reasons, aka excuses that hold us back from effecting change.
We'll blame the institution of the church.
We'll blame the complacency of those who have gone before us.
We'll blame the shifting culture.
We'll blame - almost anything that stops us facing up to the reality of the task that is ours.
If we won't take risks now, then when?
It is in risking that we make space to encounter.
And we'd rather cloak ourselves in our busyness, sacrificing our wholeness to save the church than risk creating space into which God might speak and through which we might discern God's call and God's purpose for our life.
That call and purpose is not to look busy because Jesus is coming, but to step back from the melee that is often ministry in the church.
To risk not simply alerting others to the need for change but to embrace change ourselves.
To risk that all the things we hold dear, the programmes, the activities, the things that give us worth, without which we will be exposed and vulnerable, yet open to God, can be dropped without fanfare. 
To risk that all that we wrap around us as signs of our awesomeness and productivity are ineffective at best and life destroying at worst,
To risk doing less so that God can speak into our lives and the life of our communities and to recognise that, though we have often acted as though we do, we are not the moderators of the unpredictable spirit of God!
To risk that others may take up some of the things that we lay down - and do them better than we can.
And that some of the things we lay down don't really matter to the kingdom of God and that it Is right to let them go.
In this time of uncertainty and change, there's a call for us all to "put some skin in the game" not for the sake of the church but for the sake of the mission of God.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Forward together

Matthew 11:17-19
‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

As those who serve the church return from General Assembly to all those places they live and serve, it is time to wonder how we proceed with all the tasks of ministry to which we are called in all its different forms. Out of the celebration and commiseration. Out of the hope and the despair. Out of the affirmation and disappointment. Out of the clarity and obscurity. Out of all the emotions we experienced, we are all tasked with being God's gathered and sent people in those communities where everyday life finds us. God's called and sent people, vastly different yet united by a common task - to discern the mission of God and our invitation to be part of that mission where we are today.
I sometimes feel like a broken record continually restating that we need to change the narrative. We need to stop reacting as a church in decline and start acting as a people to whom Christ has given everything that is needed to make a difference in the world today. We need to stop feeling constricted by structures and strategies and start living in the power of the Spirit that knows no bounds or constraints. Stop blaming the institution for our current predicament and rise up as a movement that continually challenges and changes those who serve the institution. We were not created for survival but for flourishing. None of us has all the answers but all of us have some and, together, for the love of God, we can make a difference in the kingdom of God here and now. We don't need to change the rules. We don't need a well written strategy. We do need to join in God's mission and, as we see the evidence of God at work and of the Spirit's power blowing through our church and community, that will be time enough to work out what structures we need to put in place to support the seedlings that push through the soil. This is a time, not to strategise but to encourage experimentation, to try new things, to test the will and purpose of God, to hold lightly to what we are about and to let God be God, the one who brings growth, the One who brings resurrection out of darkness and death, with us or in spite of us! Thanks be to God.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

What do you want?

Mark 10:46-52
The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus
They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

"What do you want me to do for you?" Jesus, asking of a blind man, what he really wants. Not starting with a list of options, not detailing what might be available or possible, but asking, "What do you want?"
In a church planting seminar this week, I was reminded of how often, what we offer, starts with church.
And, for many in our communities, that's a bridge too far to cross. When we in the church imagine how the future might look, it inevitably looks very much like church as we know it. We set the bar of membership and discipleship so high that few are able to attain it when what we see Jesus modelling is invitation, alongsideness, and acceptance of the curious.
But, more than that, it is hard for us to imagine what might be a culturally relevant alternative, often because we're so caught up and exhausted by trying to service and sustain what we know.
I'm grateful that many of the colleagues I've been working with over the last few years have often been able to reflect and articulate in a Star Trek parody: "This is church - but not as we know it!"
Those practising Asset Based Community Development, those hanging out with the marginalised, those who are freeing up time for discernment, those who are being released to listen carefully to the call of the Spirit as she whispers through the long grass in the open spaces, those uncultivated edges of community, are discovering hidden and fertile places where seedlings are struggling but are tenacious.
So how might we learn to really step outside of church, to stop attempting to cajole folk to be like us and, more than that, realising what an alien minority we are, be willing to rediscover what kingdom work looks like today? And to regain confidence in those abundant gifts with which God equips us to do just that?
And how might we support one another in our varied and different callings rather than set up the sexy new innovations and experiments against the inherited model of church that still bears fruit?
How can we get beyond those who would silence the curious before they even get the chance to approach Jesus? In the encounter with Bartimaeus, Jesus stood still, heard the cry of Bartimaeus through the noise of the crowd all around and then invited Bartimaeus to voice his longing. Restoring his sight, he welcomed him as a disciple, a willing learner along the way.
This is a time for us to hear, through the clamour of all the noise around, the voice of those relegated to the periphery AND to hear the voice of Jesus calling us, asking us, "What do you want?" And then, healed in faith, to rediscover how we are called to be disciples, learning new things as we follow, companions of Jesus and of one another. Engaged in Kingdom Work together, starting, not with church, but with Christ.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Pruning the things we love.

John 15:1-2
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.

Last weekend was finally warm enough for us to spend a good chunk of time in our garden. We just moved house last November, so it's been mainly winter in the garden. It's only now that we're beginning to discover what else is there, slowly emerging from the cold or soggy ground. I discovered a herb garden that the previous occupants of the house had planted. It's pretty overgrown but, with some pruning and care, it will be a wonderful addition to our kitchen.

I was sharing with other ministers this week the notion that, sometimes, we have to lay down or stop doing things we love - because it is what God requires of us. It's not that those things are not important - or even fruitful. Rather, it is that God is requiring of us something else for this day. And God knows that is not easy and not without pain.
As ever, I also found that I was preaching/ speaking of something that I needed to learn again and remember. Almost three years on, I still feel keenly the loss of being a parish minister. That is still an open wound among all the good things that have come with this new work that God requires of me. Grounding that in the context of the vine and the branches helps not to lessen the pain so much as to bring the reminder and the reassurance of God's pruning along the way, taking us well beyond the places we love or are comfortable, even where we are making a difference - to be engaged in the Mission of God today. Pruning is painful, particularly when what we have to prune is still bearing fruit, but it is essential in the work of the garden and in the work of the kingdom in every season.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Midwife and Palliative Care Specialist

Isaiah 43:19
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
As a hospital chaplain, the two areas I spent most time in were the Maternity Unit and the Palliaive Care Unit.
As one life was being propelled into the world or as another was ebbing slowly  out of it, I was often called to be present, to wait quietly, with nothing to bring except my presence in beginnings and endings.
Sometimes, in the maternity unit, new life emerged in a wail of protest, sometimes it slipped in calmly, with a sense of timeless wisdom.
And, two floors away, death oft times withstood raging and protest and, other times, snuck in with hardly a murmur.
In the ministry to which I am called today, I often find myself tiptoeing through those sacred spaces of life and death, of birthing and dying. And, once more, I am not sure that I bring much more than a quiet affirming presence. And, having learned in the stark corridors of the hospital environment, the value of that calm accompaniment, I seek to focus, not on the impotence but on the vitality of persistent non anxious presence.
As the church struggles with the throes of death and in the places of new birth, our call requires the gifts of midwifery and of practitioners in palliative care, letting go of one way to take hold of another in the calm assurance that the God of all life invites and inspires us to bring about good death and to make room for new life, sometimes at one and the same time.
Unless we are prepared to sit with death we have no right to expect to welcome new life.
Birthing the new requires letting go,of the old and taking care of the tasks of grief as we do that.
Resurrection demands that we position ourselves by the empty tomb, in prime position to witness new life when it comes.
Midwifery and palliative care - skills required in ministry today.

Friday, 2 March 2018

A right perspective

As I sit looking out at the snow in Londom, in an overcrowded airport lounge, hoping for a flight home today, I'm trying to regain a sense of perspective. 
I'm warm and dry. I have coffee! I have a mobile phone and tablet and can speak to loved ones and catch up with work. I'm also in my own country, albeit south of the Scottish border!!!
This is not the experience of many, in their normal, everyday life, never mind in this snow caused chaos.
And I'm drawn back to these words that I've come to know as the Isaiah vision: 
Isaiah 65:21-22
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.

We pay more attention to refugees or to those sleeping on our streets in extremes such as the last few days, yet tolerate it all the other days. Suddenly the homeless are newsworthy!
Of course there are no easy solutions. Injustice is convoluted and complex and the vulnerable are always the ones who suffer most. But I'm trying to dial back on my first world frustration and regain a sense of perspective on what, in the end, is a mere inconvenience.

Thursday, 1 March 2018


For waters will break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert 
Isaiah 35:6
It's been an inspiring few days at NEXTCHURCH 2018, a gathering of leaders mainly from the Presbyterian Church USA.
Probably the most affirming aspect, for me, was a sense of belonging. Belonging with people who welcome and are prepared to embrace the new thing that God is doing in the world today - and the implications that has for church. Belonging with those who are re-imagining church for today. Belonging with those who value ministry in all its varied forms and who welcome creativity. Belonging with those who are not threatened by others who are called to non traditional forms of ministry. Belonging with those who value the support of an institution and who are not afraid to challenge that institution about its priorities. Belonging with those who are hopeful and encouraged about God's purpose and vision for church today - and who gathered to tell their stories, to share their pain, to listen to God and to one another, to acknowledge that this work in which God invites us to participate is hard and that makes it all the more important that we support one another in it. Belonging with those who believe that the desert will bloom.

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