Posted by: Postordinandy | August 25, 2010

The British liturgical language

While discussing the issues of community, mutuality and accountability recently, it occurred to me that potentially one of the main reasons that such things can be problematic for many of us it our use of the British Liturgy.

Not sure what I mean? Here’s perhaps the primary example:

Opening: Hello, how are you? (meaning: Hello).

Response: I’m fine, thank you. (meaning: Hello).

(Approved varieties include the addition of such phrases as ‘this fine day’ in the opening structure; and the addition of supplementary phrases such as ‘How are you doing yourself’ in the response – depending on the season and time of day).

Breaking these conversation conventions and boundaries is costly, and sometimes painful or even dangerous. How many of us have answered with the (now illegal I believe) response: actually, I’m not doing so well at the moment… only to see an expression of disappointment or confusion in our neighbour’s face, or to experience of hearing them explain how they’d love to chat, but have to be off somewhere ?

The church community plays this game (no better, no worse) in the same way that everyone else does. We take the time for social niceties, but often do not wish to hear of the messiness, uncertainty or even chaos in the lives of those we meet. Frankly, we are usually too concerned with dealing with, or actively ignoring, the same in our own lives.

The church is a group of messy people led by messy people. Our God is fully aware of this, yet calls us together, and expects us to learn to lean on one another and Him. This is not to say that we should spend our time telling everyone we meet about our woes and troubles, but we cannot expect to thrive until we can be honest with at least some others about the reality of our lives.

Posted by: Postordinandy | August 20, 2010

Changing as a community

Our final engagement with Tim Chester’s book on change found us looking at a chapter entitled “how can we support each other in change?

We looked at Ephesians chapter 4 and were reminded that it was written to a community, rather than an individual. This is a key point, often subconsciously neglected by many of us as we engage with the Bible. It is so tempting to read the pastoral letters in particular as some form of ‘self-help’ guide, and how we love them; but, mostly, these letters were written to one or more church communities – to be read and mulled over corporately.

This emphasis on the communal over the individual is one we must not loose site of. It is quite right that as individuals we examine our inner motives, strengths and weaknesses, and put as much effort as we can into changing from what we are to what we desire to be. But, God has always principally been a God of the people rather than simply God of a person – something we perhaps are prone to forget in our modern, privatized, lives.

So, our response to sin and weakness in our own lives must always have a corporate element to it – change as a community project/venture is change that has some hope of being sustainable. Change that is only individual will always be fragile, and ever flirting with denial. Knowledge of this is one of the reasons that organisations such as AA stress the corporately accountable nature of their endeavours.

There are other reasons that we must be honest with each other. Concealed sin often has consequences for not just those immediately affected (perpetrator and any victim), but also for the wider community. See the story of Achan‘s stealing after the fall of Jericho. Perhaps the consequences of our own sinfulness will not be so dramatic, but when we try to actively deny the reality of sin in our lives our hearts become hard, and our actions reflect our inner pride.

The genius and grace of God is that He loves, interacts with, and works in and through all people: including the awkward, difficult, sinful, annoying and foolish.

Tim Chester uses the picture of a bag of stones to illustrate the church’s communal nature:

Imagine a strong bag, full of stones of different sizes and shapes. Now imagine taking that bag in your hand and shaking the stones around. Sparks may fly, shards may fall off, much noise and discomfort may take place – but, after enough time, the result is that each individual stone is made smooth as it bashes and bounces off the others.

Change does take time. It is a daily and conscious activity. Each of us needs others to help us see where we need to change, and sometimes to show us how such change is possible. God has given us each other, to live as a community of grace, so that this change is not just possible but (with His help) probable – just not as instant as perhaps we would like it to be.

Posted by: Postordinandy | July 31, 2010

Heaven is full of amputees.

We had another look at the Change material this week looking at strategies to ‘reinforce our faith & repentance’.

It occurred to a few of us that often we can be resistant to such strategies if they feel like they have been imposed on us from another source, (except, possibly, when that source is verifiably God Himself!)

For various reasons, we often need to feel like we are the instigators of change in our own lives, not responding to the whims and ideas of others. Of course, one simple definition of sin could be this very thing – that we constantly seek to wrestle control from God, thinking that we know better – that WE can be the masters of our own destiny.

But we are weak, and give in to many of the manifold temptations that face us each day – and do so all too often knowingly.

Jesus was pretty clear about what we should do, albeit in a pretty macabre fashion. Look at yourselves honestly, he says in Matthew 5, and if you cannot remove the temptation – remove the part of you that gives in. CS Lewis, writing in The Great Divorce, likens the removal of sin to having an amputation, or being (self) maimed. And this is where we really struggle. Removing ourselves from a situation is one thing, but removing ourselves from a facet of our character, a friendship group, an internet site… These things are genuinely costly, and have a real and lasting impact on the shape of our lives.

One of the problems for us in the present-day is that the incentives that Jesus’ first listeners would have been thinking about just don’t seem to impress the same urgency upon us. Jesus offers a choice between two clear options: 1) carry on sinning, and end up in hell; 2) go through a very painful process now, but receive eternal life. Effectively, Jesus is saying: listen, it’s better to enter heaven as an amputee, than to miss out on the party altogether, no? But most people these days, perhaps even in the church, are uneasy about the idea of eternal separation from God – be it in a specific hell or some form of knowing annihilation.

And it is not even as simple (or dreadfully complicated) a matter of discerning the reality of hell. Christianity is occasionally pitched as “Jesus solves all your problems”, but this stuff suggests at least the very real possibility that “get involved with Jesus & you might lose an arm”.

So, where do we go from here? Sin, and the temptation to give into it, surround us on all sides. We all know our regular weaknesses – what can we do? One of our church members is a dietitian, presently involved in running programmes to help parents of children who struggle with their weight to understand the wider issues and offer solutions. On the programme, one of the most helpful things for both the parents and children is to meet others who have faced the same struggles and overcome them. Christians have the same champion in Jesus – a man who faced temptations and struggles as we do, yet was not defeated or owned by them. And we also have a support group – the church, full of people like us – who stand with us, encouraging us to stay tough as we wrestle with temptation, help us see the sometimes painful truth, and sooth our wounds.

What strategies will reinforce our faith & repentance? Honesty with God, ourselves and others; a willingness to be held mutually accountable to our fellow sinners; the ability to receive and give forgiveness; and the courage to take long-term decisions over short-term comfort.

Posted by: Postordinandy | July 27, 2010

Cosmic plagiarism

Occasionally, we dip into teaching programmes that the wider Parish are following, and at the moment we are looking with them at the idea of change, joining the series at chapter 7 of Tim Chester’s book “You can change”: ‘what stops you from changing’.

Tim’s book deals specifically with the struggle that all Christians face with respect to recognising, and dealing with, our own sin. We all find this stuff difficult to speak about honestly, even with those we trust, and it can be painful to admit even to ourselves where our failings are. We are usually happy enough to recognise and highlight others’ areas of weakness and frailty – but Jesus reminds us that this is simply not an acceptable way to prioritise things.

Chester argues that the main reasons we don’t change our sinful behaviour and patterns are “pride, closely followed by hating the consequences of sin, but actually still loving the sin itself” (p.127). He adds that pride is “part of the definition of sin”, that we can go so far as to make sanctification our own “achievement and glory”, something that CJ Mahaney calls “cosmic plagiarism”.

Pride, as we all know, comes before a fall. But perhaps so does self-denial on other levels. When we spend so much of our energy trying to convince others of our own worthiness and saintliness, we may begin to believe our own press. But many of us are just as crippled by a sense of our own unworthiness and inherent sinfulness – we don’t change either because we don’t believe we have to, or because we believe are too much of a lost cause for it to be possible.


A search on Amazon for “you can change” type books gave me a result of over 8,500. Even allowing for multiple versions of the same book this suggests that there is a massive market out there for self-help guides in this area. We all want to change, preferably in 3 to 5 easy steps. But the Bible hints that, ultimately, successful and lasting change can only take place with the help of the Holy Spirit, and by a humble self-submission to the God who truly knows and loves us – faults and all.

Meaningful change is a hard, often painfully slow, process. The Christian community should be a place where each of us can come to the other for help. This takes us back to the issues of accountability, a subject that seems to be haunting us a little at the moment. I’m not sure that we are quite ready to ask each other the kinds of questions that Wesley demanded his followers engage with,  but certainly we would benefit from consciously finding ways of sharing our struggles with each other in ways that help, rather than hinder, our individual and community walk with Jesus.

I’m not ready to confess all on here – suffice to say that I fall short of where and who I desire to be.  But I do need to find people with whom I can be painfully honest with, and who I can give permission to challenge me to recognise and deal with my sin.

With respect to mission, the challenge is relatively simple. We need to recognise that ‘we’ are not fundamentally better than ‘those people’. It is (usually) not appropriate for us to highlight the sins of those who do not profess Christ – although of course we need to work for justice, reconciliation, peace, etc. But we can certainly be ready to talk to those who ask us why we believe change is indeed possible, and have the courage to share with them some appropriate part of our own journey.

Posted by: Postordinandy | July 16, 2010

Progressive fruit production?

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23)

We have come to the end of our time looking at the Fruit of the Spirit. Hopefully, we have discovered some new stuff to engage with, been challenged to re-engage with some principles to a greater depth, and been encouraged to increase the evidence of each attribute of the fruit in both quantity and quality.

Here is one last thought about the list that Paul created all that time ago: perhaps the order in which the individual attributes are listed is pretty significant?

This is not to suggest that Paul made a purely progressive list – stages which need to be achieved before one can advance to the next level, like a computer game, or a recipe:

  1. Spend some time learning to love more.
  2. Once you have mastered this basic level, advance to the next one – put a little joy in your heart!
  3. Mix together an equal amount of love and joy, wrap in a damp cloth and leave in a warm place overnight, then you can start to engage with some peace…

No, it is clear that each attribute cannot stand alone, is not independent of each other. Even so, on a number of occasions over the past few months it has struck us that having a measure of the attribute mentioned immediately before will help us to nurture each successive one. This is not a strictly linear relationship, each of us has a natural, God-given ability to grow and display any of the fruit, and instinctively understands some more than others.

So, the Spirit gives us all we have, even love. Without a measure of love, it is hard to be truly joyful. Loving joy provides a fertile soil for peace to flourish. And so on.

There may be nothing in this, of course. It is certainly true that each attribute feeds into others, contributing skills, experience, tendency, space… for the others to be embraced and practised more firmly. The important thing is undoubtedly to remember the source of each, and to allow the Spirit to work in our lives to create a nicely balanced, productive and attractive branch of the vine, wherever we are and with whomever we find ourselves.

Fruit of the Spirit T-Shirt, available from Zazzle.co.uk

As Christians, we know God to be one who demonstrates each of the fruit impeccably, so – ultimately – to grow in the characteristics of the fruit of the Spirit is to grow into the likeness of the source of all things Himself.

Posted by: Postordinandy | July 14, 2010

Self-control: a gift to others.

Our final visit to the fruit of the spirit finds us wrestling with self-control.

Like so many words in the bible, the translation from the Greek to English loses some of the depth of the original. The English seems so, well, negative. It suggests holding back, resisting, saying no, denying oneself. None of these interpretations are wrong of course, or even necessarily unhelpful; but they are not the full measure of it.

The Greek, enkrateia, can mean at least the following:

Possessing power; having mastery, or possession, of; to be disciplined or self-restrained; having good judgement; to be strong or sensible; to have wise discretion; to hold in the hand passions & desires; the product of a sound mind… (phew).

While most English bibles translate it to self-control, there are notable exceptions. The New King James uses “temperance”; while the Message speaks of being “able to marshal and direct our energies wisely”.

So, self-control moves both forward and backwards. To exercise self-control requires first of all that one is self-aware, concious of both strengths and weaknesses – knowing both who you are and where you are going.

While denial will always be a possible aspect of self-control, there are plenty of ways that this benefits more than the individual. Think of Daniel and the others refusing to eat the kings food (which would have been offered to idols) – growing stronger, giving a positive witness to God and serving the king well at the same time; Joseph resisting the advances of Potiphar’s wife – challenging inappropriate behaviour, showing loyalty to Pharaoh… longer term rewards (read more of the story to find out); David refusing to react to those cursing him – principle benefit? Those cursing him kept their lives! And of course, the prime example of self-control of Christians is that Jesus remained true to the path towards death on that first Easter.

While the above examples are mostly alien to our own experiences, we are asked to exercise self-control in other ways. Holding back from saying: “I told you so!”, or from offering a solution when what is required is a kindly listening ear; using discernment and godly patience to wait for the moment to act or speak, rather than trying to tell people something that is true when they are not able to hear it as such; wrestling with the realities of living in a consumer society… all these and more are real opportunities for us to demonstrate the reality of God beyond ourselves.

This is the essence of self-control: that we remain faithful to our moral code, our sense of calling, our desire to see the best for others and for God. When we are faithfully self-controlled in the small things, aware of our limitations and experiences, we build up the capacity (with the help of God’s Spirit) to do likewise in more testing situations. Self-control is ultimately a key tool in the mission toolbox.

Posted by: Postordinandy | July 1, 2010

Asking the “Big Questions”, or not.

I was recently asked to write a ‘guest blog’ article for Share – a site dedicated to help practitioners in the field of emerging church / fresh expressions. Below is the text. If you have comments to make, feel free to make them here and/or on the Share site.

We keep loose records of the conversations we have: conversations that cover subjects from the weather to advanced ecclesiology. Specifically, we have wanted to record those conversations that touch upon the so-called ‘Big Six’ (see Croft, ‘Evangelism in a Spiritual Age’).

These 6 are loosely held under the following headings: Destiny, Purpose, The Universe, God, the Spiritual Realm and Suffering

I have no doubt that for many people these are important questions that require answers, but our experience appears to paints a different picture. Relativity few people ask us to provide answers to one of the ‘big questions’ – instead, we have regular conversations with people about general issues of spirituality, relationships, prayer and politics. The people we meet, it seems, are less concerned with intellectual answers to the great issues of life – ‘why’ they should believe in and follow a god of any kind; and more interested in ‘how’ a life lived following the Christian (or any) God may be led in a meaningful way.

Over two thirds of those we meet with would be classed de- or non/un-churched. We meet some who describe themselves as atheists, but the majority are those who are not particularly pro or anti-God. They are usually open to the idea of a higher being, and frequently very supportive of us and our work. According to the research behind the Big Six, they are the very people who should be asking us those questions – and yet, so far, this is not the case…

I find myself wondering which of the following possibilities are more likely:

1) The ‘Big Six’ are wrong: these are no longer the questions people outside the church are principally interested in;

2) We are having the wrong conversations: perhaps we are still gaining peoples’ trust, or they want to explore more general issues and come onto specifics in time;

3) We are speaking to the wrong people: those who we speak to are somehow not representative of the wider population.

My gut says that most of the deeper conversations we have are about the issues that genuinely concern or interest people. I can recall talking to people for whom intellectual evidence for God – while not a waste of time – is certainly secondary to discussions about the impact of choosing to adopt a religious world-view. I am yet to meet someone who is offended by the beliefs that I own and express, even when they themselves cannot subscribe to the same.

What is your experience of talking to people in a missionary context?

Are you compelled to brush up on sound theological answers to the Big Six?

Are there other questions that you find yourself revisiting time and again?

Should we abandon or revise the assumptions that we continue to make about ‘where people are’ with God?


Posted by: Postordinandy | June 24, 2010

Nothing stronger.

And so we come to the penultimate fruit of the spirit: gentleness.

(this is meant to be a butterfly!)

Gentle is a funny word, bringing with it as it does a variety of meanings and interpretations, depending on tribal affiliation and custom. It is associated with words like meek, mild, soft, and caring. It is joined to other words, like ‘man’, to indicate implicit or explicit codes of conduct, manners and consideration: in years past, a ‘gentleman’ was someone who had earned the right to such a title by his social standing and behaviour. “A gentleman would be ashamed should his deeds not match his words” (Kong Fu Zi).

We found a definition for gentleness that we considered to be helpful, that of active kindness, and reflected that often gentleness is manifested when one is able to combine appropriate restraint with kindness. Gentleness is not standing back and hoping for the best, nor is it to simply cave to the others’ demands and opinions; rather it is a state where compassion and action combine. Gentleness nurtures the goodness in a situation; it finds the space and time to allow others to grieve; it corrects and challenges in ways that highlight the best in the other, while showing alternative perspectives and possible actions.

“There is nothing stronger in the world than gentleness.” – Han Suyin

‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’, (an image of Christ that is popular, if not entirely accurate), was the same Jesus who turned the tables in the temple and used strong language when refering to some of the religious leaders of his day.

So how can we be gentle?

As with our reflections on the other fruit, it is obvious that we can only hope to grow in this area with the help of the Spirit itself, and also that growing the other aspects of the fruit will create an environment where gentleness can flourish: gentleness is best expressed when one is patient with, and has love for the other, for example.

To exercise gentleness is to take risks: it is easy to be hurt by being gentle, others do not always respond in the same way. It is not fashionable – our society demands and expects us to be hard edged in our relationships with others, gentleness is often mistaken as naivety. To offer gentleness often means to take the initiative, to make a pre-emptive strike for peace in a hard situation, or to offer compassion to the unloved and unlovely.

Perhaps most challengingly for some of us, gentleness demands that we are aware of the plank in our own eye and think of others before ourselves.

The great news is that God is incredibly gentle with us; and patient, and kind, and…

He is a true gentleman, never forcing His way on us; allowing us time and space to explore the true implications of a relationship with Him; nudging us in the directions He would like us to go, rather than pushing.

Posted by: Postordinandy | June 18, 2010

“I do not pray for success, I ask for faithfulness”.

Looking at the next fruit of the spirit, we come to ‘faithfulness’, sometimes translated as simply faith, in the Message paraphrase it is listed as: “being involved in loyal commitments”.

Faith and faithfulness are qualities much admired throughout the Bible. Both Testaments are littered with stories of, and calls to demonstrate them:

Abraham faithfully follows God to a new land, making some pretty tricky decisions along the way; Moses discovers that faithfulness is one of God’s key characteristics; It is something rewarded; there are almost 50 references to it in the Psalms; Jesus tells parables to illustrate it’s importance, and criticises the religious leaders of his day for their failings in this area; John writes with almost childish excitement to Gaius, enthusing about his; and Paul commends Timothy to the Corinthians with praise of his faithfulness.

We asked ourselves what we consider the nature faithfulness to be, and here is a selection of our speculations:

  • Faithfulness is demonstrated when we remain with something or someone we have made a commitment to.
  • Some tenacity, discipline, commitment, and concious choice is needed for faithfulness to flourish.
  • Faithfulness is something that grows, but in what way? Principally, it feels, faithfulness is something that grows by being put into practice, like the weight-lifters’ muscles, or the footballers’ silky skills.
  • Faithfulness is something that has many facets to it.
  • Loyalty and truthfulness are intimately connected with faithfulness.
  • Rewards can motivate faithfulness, are maybe a key in many situations (Christians usually believe that they will receive a reward for faithfulness in some form or another).

Faithfulness and St Luke’s:

We reflected on the fact that Jesus often gave his disciples opportunities to escape if needed, faithfulness was demonstrated by their willingness to remain in the situation, following the call, in difficult as well as more straightforward times.

What are the rewards for us? Is there some kind of criteria of success?

We wondered if those we encounter at the Farmers’ Market see faithfulness in us. Perhaps our consistency, presence and acts of generosity are received in this way – the small things we do for people, expecting and wanting no reward or service in return from them. Some of the regular visitors to our stall, and the other stall holders, have encouraged us by telling of how positive their experience of us has been. Some individuals have moved from a place of distrust of all things religion based, to a place of warmer feelings, simply by seeing us each week, drinking coffee with us and chewing the fat about issue large and small. Their perspective of us was of a consistent kind and generous presence.

This encouragement is always welcome, but was especially timely as one of our members reported a conversation with someone in the wider parish of Walthamstow who considered that our ‘little experiment’ at St Luke’s to be one that ‘is failing and weak’. Certainly we are not causing any church growth statistician to have heart flutters, (although numerically we have grown by almost 50% in the past year); but this person was judging us on criteria that we do not recognise – certainly as key at this stage of our community life. This caused us to reflect on a wider question of faithfulness: how can we encourage others to be faithful to us?

Our conclusion was to revisit a reoccuring theme for us: telling our story.

Faithfulness makes sense in the context of story, and stories are a great way for churches to grow in any number of directions. For our story is not principally about us, but the ever-faithful God who provides for, nurtures, and guides our existence and purpose.

  • We must tell our story to ourselves – for these tales remind us of things we otherwise might miss, and encourage us to keep going.
  • We must tell our story to those in other churches – for their encouragement and support, and to enthuse them to help us in our mission at the Farmers’ Market, and/or to keep working in different ways to reach those outside of themselves.
  • We must tell our story to those outside of church communities – so that they can hear the good news of a faithful God.

Perhaps ironically, we found ourselves encouraged by this negativity – intended or otherwise. We found the comments about our perceived failure were the very things that raised our shackles and helped us to put into focus on what it good and growing about what we do and who we are – and encouraged us to remain faithful to our call at this time and in this place. Our call is to be on the high street, to grow and nurture an accessible Christian community, to be consistent in all if this, to ‘hold out hope’.

The title of is blog entry is attributed to Mother Teresa, and I think it neatly sums up our stated position on the matter.

Posted by: Postordinandy | June 10, 2010

Generosity, goodness & benevolence.

Continuing our tour of the fruit of the spirit, we reach goodness. Or is it generosity. Or maybe benevolence…

The first thing we noticed was that different translations of the bible have pretty different words here, (at least on an initial reading). The bibles we all had immediately to hand all used ‘goodness’, (which seems to be the dominant translation in the more ‘modern’ versions – biblegateway.com, for example, only seems to have this [or immediate variations] in the versions it has access to).

We spoke at some length about the strengths and weaknesses of each. Generosity, and more especially benevolence, can steer us towards thinking principally in monetary terms – although scripture talks clearly about the benevolence of God, meaning his extravagant goodness and generosity towards his creation.

Goodness can too easily steer us to acts of general, non-specific, non-committal kindness, and ‘good’ is often used as a rather weak word – like nice – see goody two-shoes, for example.

But the goodness that Paul speaks of is anything but weak, it is powerful – strong enough to bring the most stubborn of situations to its knees. True spirit-inspired goodness seeks the benefit of others, at no recompense.

We wondered if the three usages could be held in tension. Is generosity a part of goodness, or are they distinct? What is the relationship between passive & active expressions of goodness or benevolence? What about the relationship between the quantity and quality of such fruit? Are we good willingly, or sparingly?

If we’re honest, we can easily kid ourselves that we are generously good, when we are more readily begrudgingly benevolent. God, on the other hand, is consistently and persistently expressive (even aggressive) in his generosity and goodness. We must resist the temptation to give, (of our time, resources, whatever), not simply from what we have left over once we have completed the ‘ordinary things’ of our lives.

Goodness thus becomes a proactive characteristic, rather than a passive one. The fruit of goodness/generosity is one that seeks opportunities to bless others; to develop it one must practice it (as is true of each of the spiritual fruit); to produce it in others, we must demonstrate it in our lives consistently; to receive more, we must be willing to give more. Ultimately, the source of this goodness depends not on us, but on the unlimited and unfailing goodness of God, through the work of the Holy Spirit.

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