Baptist Assembly 2012

There’s already been quite a bit of blogging about the Baptist Assembly in London, which finished on Sunday.  For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts about it.  If these make no sense whatsoever, then please bear in mind they’ve been dulled by the long drive back from London yesterday, extreme tiredness from all the walking in London I did, and the cold I appear to have picked up from my wife (we have a very sharing marriage!).  So please forgive me if the following is utter rubbish!

I came away from the closing celebration with mixed feelings.  Lots of people came away with smiles on their faces and had obviously found it to be a significant, faith-affirming and celebratory weekend; indeed, Jonathan Edwards said as much in his remarks at the end of the weekend.  And there was much to celebrate: 400 years of Baptist history in the UK – what better reason to celebrate than that?

Yet this didn’t quite work, at least not for me.  Partly this was because we didn’t actually mention our history very much, aside from the (very good) video clip at the start of each evening session.  I know, I know the point was “Beyond 400″, that this was as much about looking ahead to where God might be leading us now than back and where God has led us in the past.  But still it might have been good to have had some efforts, within the “all together” bits in the evenings, to have engaged with this?

And this “Beyond 400” focus raises another point for me.  The future at the moment for BUGB is unclear: not, as Malcolm Broad reassured us in the Sunday afternoon discussion, that the whole thing is about to come collapsing around our ears, but that we do face significant financial difficulties and bigger issues that these raise.  Yet, aside from the Sunday afternoon debate (of which more later) there wasn’t a whole lot of engagement with this.  We had rallying cries from Tony Campolo and Agu Irukwu on Saturday and Sunday respectively.  But where were the voices speaking directly into our situation?  Where were the addresses addressing the problems we face, from people (whether inside or outside the denomination) who were familiar with our situation and could bring a word from God about it?  To have any real talk about the future limited to a 2 1/2 hour debate on Sunday afternoon (when people are tired and many were surely beginning to prepare themselves for the long journey home) felt like a wasted opportunity.

That said, I found that debate one of the best bits of the weekend and was really grateful that time was found to include it.  It was good to hear people’s voices about the process so far, those who were supporting it and those who had concerns or real, painful issues to raise with it.  The debate was well-chaired by Chris Ellis, especially when he decided to allow one person to run over time when she spoke movingly of the pain many black and ethnic-minority Baptists are feeling with the process so far.  Jonathan Edwards said he wanted the process and eventual outcome to be inclusive of all, but little more than that – these words now have to be turned into action.  The debate was worth having but it needed more time!  If people were hearing these things for the first time (and I accept Phil Jump and Rowena Wilding’s points about ministers’ lack of passing on information completely) then they needed time to digest and process it.

The main innovation towards this goal, the Saturday conferences, were a good idea.  I went to Chris Duffet’s “Pass it on” session about mission, which was interesting and challenging.  It was good to have the time to explore the issue more fully, rather than just a short session that stops just as it’s getting interesting, so more of this, please!  Also, Chris embodied his idea of the “Big-Hearted God” so well in his wonderfully generous and enthusiastic responses to people’s questions and comments and ideas.  The examples of mission we heard about were inspiring and challenging (that word again!)… but, as well as the fantastically innovative projects that we do need to hear about, it would be nice if the “ordinary” churches taking their first steps in mission were given centre stage as well as these exciting new projects.

The worship… well, I’m finally coming to terms with the fact that the “Sing lots of choruses together, and repeated” model isn’t my cup of tea – I’ve known this for a long time and it really hit home this year.  So it’s a shame that, Communion aside, this was the only form of sung worship we had during the whole weekend.  I’m not saying it shouldn’t have been there at all – but is it not possible to have some more variety, especially when there was no “Prism” or similar?  It just felt like there was no variety at all, that many of the songs we sung sounded the same (I’m beginning to sound old now!!) and there were few spaces for silence, reflection, corporate prayer amongst it all.  And in a collective event of Baptists from around the country, the fact that nearly every song was an “I/me” not an “us/we” song was unfortunate. This sort of thing seems to thrive on everyone feeling and expressing a particular emotion, and if that’s not how you “work” (and it isn’t for me) then you can feel left out, or like you’re doing something wrong.

The communion service was different and much the better for it.  Aradhna, who led the music, were excellent.  The theme that connected much of it, hands, was very worked in providing many different ways of praying and worshipping.  Jane Day’s sermon was the best talk of the weekend: much less rabble-rousing, but reflective, working with the Bible passage and connecting with the theme of the Assembly and the situation of BUGB.

Chris Duffet’s presidential address was warm-hearted and generous, hopefully encouraging and challenging us to be more evangelistic as churches and Christians.  It was best when he felt able to stop looking at his cue cards and simply speak what was on his heart and mind and I wished he’d done it more often!  As for the other two address, I’m not sure.  Neither of them, as Andy Goodliff points out, engaged in any way with the texts from Hebrews that were read just before.  There were some good one-liners and some serious points in Tony Campolo’s address, but… it was clear he didn’t have much of a handle on the context for the Assembly (mixing up BUGB and BMS) and so failed to address these points in the most superficial of ways.  This made the decision to allow him to to contribute to Sunday afternoon’s debate baffling: he got some good cheers, especially when he talked about how mission was so much more important than the structure (yes, but that matters too) and how BUGB and BMS should simply merge, as if that was the easiest thing in the world.  But I didn’t think he had much that was of huge value to say, nothing that provided a keen insight into the debate.

Pastor Agu’s closing address was thought-provoking in some ways, but seemed to rely on stereotypes of the “secularisation debate” that has been going on (as far as I’m aware, prayers haven’t been banned in Parliament, and given how often the Coalition government speaks of the importance of Christianity to this country, to accuse them of being anti-Christianity, something that I keep hearing, was just bizarre).  Again, though, I didn’t feel like he said much that was specific to our situation as BUGB, he almost ignored the Bible text (Hebrews 12) and the theme of “Beyond 400”.  An address by Jonathan Edwards might have been much more necessary.

And so it was the strange mix of the superficial (the worship in the evening sessions, two of the addresses) and the much deeper (the Day Conferences and the Futures Debate) that left me with mixed feelings.  I felt much more drawn to the latter, which seemed to explore faithfully and openly the problems ahead of us and which allowed us to contribute, than the former, which seemed to skate over the issues with a “Trust in God – He is faithful”: yes He is and yes we should, but that’s easier said than done and doesn’t do away with the difficult questions that maybe God is asking us as Baptists.  At this important, vital moment for Baptists in BUGB, I think we do need to stop and think and to have space made available for us.  Perhaps combining the AGMs with the Futures Debate and allowing these to take up the bulk of Sunday, finishing with the Communion service, might have been better (though I appreciate the practical problems this would’ve raised with Methodist Central Hall’s regular Sunday service – could we borrow Parliament, it’s only across the road!).  Perhaps we need to sacrifice some of the “feel-good” worship, not to wallow in self-pity or to deny that we need to worship and celebrate God even in the hard times, but that we need to take those times seriously.  There were hints of something different and better within the Assembly – let’s build on those and maybe something good and profound will emerge.

(Oh and finally, finally, thanks to everyone who organised it and made it happen!)

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Lenten Blogging – day 2

(In case you’re wondering how day 1 and day 2 can appear on the same day, I’ve not gone mad (or at least not for that reason), nor have I fallen into a TARDIS.  Day 1 should’ve appeared yesterday but, er, didn’t.  So hopefully after this we’ll be back up to date and on track and everybody will be happy.  Or something like that…).

Today’s passage is Mark 1:21-45, with a specific focus on vv21-28.  I’ve recently been preaching on these passages as they’ve been the Lectionary passages, so much of this has probably been blatantly cribbed from those sermons.

(SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT: You can read more about these on my Greenfield Minister’s blog – please go and have a look!)

Anyway, the passage that Tom Wright suggests we particularly focus on is Jesus’ awesome demonstrations of His authority, both in His written teaching and His driving out of the evil spirit in the Temple in Capernaum.  By the end of all that, the crowds’ jaws are on the ground: “What is this?  It’s like nothing we’ve seen before!!  Incredible!”  And it’s Jesus authority that has them eyes wide open, mouths agog, babbling like our one year old.

Which can seem odd to us.  Authority can be a bit of a dirty word.  We don’t like being told what to do.  “The Authorities” are, in many people’s eyes, not to be trusted, sticking their nose in where it’s not wanted at the best of times.  At the worst of times, “the Authorities” are the governments of countries like Syria, using sheer brute, murderous, blood-shedding force to try and impose their will.  Authority down the barrel of a gun, with no regards for the people they’re supposed to be protecting.

Authority sucks, apparently.  And it’s not just teenagers who think that.

But here, authority doesn’t suck.  I doubt the people of Capernaum liked being bossed around any more than anyone else does.  Yet they’re amazed at Jesus’ authority!  It seems to put Him much higher in their estimations than the religious teachers who’ve gone before.

Huh?  What gives?

Firstly, of course, there’s something unique about Jesus’ authority in His teaching.  It’s authentic, it’s real.  It surely comes from His unique relationship with His Father.  And perhaps it touched the people in ways they’d not known before, in ways that even the wisest, most learned, most pastorally-hearted teacher could not touch them.

But not just that.  Jesus’ authority here brings freedom.  Jesus most dramatically displays His authority over the evil spirit that’s possessing the man who interrupts so violently Jesus’ teaching.  Jesus is “stern” the NIV says, in His dealings with the spirit.  He silences it, then orders it to come out.  You can imagine how dramatic that coming out must have been, how frightening for the people watching it.

Yet it worked.  The spirit did come out.  The man was free – free at last!  Jesus spoke and set this man free from what had been possessing and controlling Him for all that time!  You can imagine the slow dawn of realisation on his face, then the look of speechless gratitude to Jesus, before he dashes out in excitement and wonder, almost not knowing what to do with himself now that he can do something with himself and for himself.

Jesus’ authority here doesn’t put down the man, doesn’t seek to control him.  In fact, those are the very things Jesus frees him from.  Jesus’ authority is exercised over all those things that control this man, that over-ride his own hopes and dreams and desires.  Jesus’ authority sets him free.

Too often, religion is seen as controlling,  Us religious leaders are seen as people who want to tell others what to do, how to live and so on.  We’re seen as people on a power trip, insecurely working out our need to control and manipulate others.  Jesus shows a different way: authority that liberates, that sets free, that allows people to become all they want to be.  Authority that is as far as it’s possible to get from the dictators and authoritarian leaders of our world, secular or sacred.

What controls us?  What stops us from being all that God wants us to be?  What comes disguised as freedom, but is in fact killing us as it takes control of our lives?  Doesn’t have to be “dramatic” – almost anything can have that power over us.  Whatever it is, Jesus longs to free us from it, longs to show His power and authority to bring true freedom and true life.

Lenten Blogging – day 1

As you no doubt know, we’re into Lent now (day 2) in fact. Now, I’m normally rubbish at Lent, I have some vague idea that I’m going to do “something”, but it never amounts to anything more than that. I’m also (you can’t fail to have noticed!) that I’m not so hot at blogging regularly, either.

So, my plan is to try and blog at least once a day throughout the Lent period (I have no idea whether this includes the Sundays or not – I’m just going to go for it and see where we end up by Easter).

But I also figured that just seeking to to blog about “anything” won’t do me much good. So, instead I’m going to combine this with my Bible readings for Lent, which are based on the Big Read 2012, using Tom Wright’s divisions of the book of Mark.  These posts based on the readings aren’t supposed to be deep, profound thoughts, nor will they come laden with huge scholarly insights (I wish I had the learning to do that!).  They will just be my reflections on the reading in question for you to take or leave as you wish.

So, here we go!

The first reading is Mark 1:1-20, focussing especially on vv.1-9.  Here we have the opening of Mark’s Gospel, his account of how this all began.  And already we’re in full-on mode here, Mark wasting no time in getting going and getting us into the thick of the story as soon as possible.  In the first 20 verses, we’ve covered John the Baptist, Jesus’ arrival on the scene, His baptism & temptation, the beginning of His ministry and His calling the first disciples.  Phew!

But what grabbed me about this was more than just the speed with which Mark moves us around the story.  He seems quite happy to play with our expectations and, rather than confirming our preconceptions of Jesus, he almost seems to want us to be left scratching our heads and saying “Oh… right… hang on… so he’s going to… nope, no he’s not… oh…”.

Jesus, apparently, is vastly superior to John the baptiser – He has the power to baptise with the Holy Spirit.  Yet here He comes, asking John to baptise Him with a baptism of repentance.  Huh?

When He comes up out of the water, Jesus’ unique status as God’s own Son is confirmed (and conferred?) in the most public way possible.  We’re all set for a glorious beginning to Jesus’ ministry.  Then suddenly, we’re in the desert – at the Spirit’s insistence – facing temptation and wild animals!  Sorry, Mark, did you get this right?

Yet this, it seems, is the way it has to be.  Whatever the specific reasons why these things had to take place, Mark seems to want to throw us on to the wrong foot straight away.  Whatever else this good news is, he seems to be saying, it’s not going to make everything straight-forward and easy.  Jesus is coming with His and His Father’s way of doing things and these are not our ways.  The Kingdom of Heaven has come profoundly near in Jesus.  But if we want to enter it, then it’s going to mean reconsidering all our preconceptions of what life’s about, about what’s important.  We’re going to have to allow God to turn everything upside-down in order that, just maybe, we can begin to see things the right way up again.

Different is good…

On my blog for Greenfield Church, I’ve linked to the new site that’s been set up to discuss how the future may look for the Baptist denomination in Britain, Being 400.  This was originally going to be a comment for the second of the contributions to that site, but it became a wee bit unwieldy.  So here it is on here instead, in the vain hope somebody’s reading this blog…

For some reason, I’ve been looking back over an essay I had to do as part of my ministerial training on the Declaration of Principle (OK, it wasn’t the greatest piece of theology ever written, but maybe that was something there…) and at the Declaration itself.  Thinking about that and about Juliet’s question about what from our roots makes us distinctive, I’m wondering whether it’s somewhere in the tension expressed in the Declaration between the local church and the Union.

One of the parts of the “Basis of the Union” is the “liberty” granted to each church to “interpret and administer His [Christ’s] Laws”.  This comes after the authority Christ and Scripture have, but is still there.  The Union is built, in a large part, not on its own authority but on the authority it recognises amongst its constituent churches (if that makes any sense).  It recognises, accepts (and welcomes?) the differences that this liberty will inevitably bring – in fact, it makes it a key part of its structure.

This acceptance of difference can make life difficult.  But it can, if we continue to learn to live with it, show one of the key distinctive features of our way of being and doing church.

The UK seems to be a place which, although perhaps more diverse than ever before, seems to struggle with that diversity.  There are huge tensions around areas such as immigration and whether living in a multicultural society is a good thing (for the record, I 100% do).  Political parties and the media that commentate on them seem unable to handle dissent to any great degree: if anyone disagrees with the leaders, it’s portrayed as a damaging split, or a threat to the leader’s authority, rather than healthy, mature debate.  Our high streets are becoming more and more the same in appearance, with the same shops lining up next to each other.  (This next one may be a bit naff): regional television has been done away with in favour of corporate brands.  Although we live with difference perhaps more than ever, we struggle with it.

I wonder if one of our distinctive features is that we welcome and embrace that difference.  I said in my essay that one of the most significant things about the Declaration of Principle was that it deliberately maintained a loose theological framework, refusing to be creedal in nature so as to allow for the unity of churches and organisations with quite different theological outlooks.  This continues today.  For us, difference isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a problem: it is the basis of how we live together, recognising that God can be at work in as many different ways as there are different churches that call themselves “Baptist”.

Where’s all this going?  How does all this work out?  I’m not entirely sure; perhaps it’s something we do really well already.  One possibility is that our emphasis as a denomination (family/movement/whatever) shouldn’t necessarily be on a professional, media-savvy central Union (nice though that is) but on helping each of the local churches to perform that function in their own situations (I’m trying so hard to avoid jargon here!).  To boast that what we are, primarily, is not the central structures in Didcot, but the churches and regional associations throughout the country that seek to live out the Laws of Christ in their own context.

To show, as one of the CBeebies songs that sticks in my head from time to time, that “different is good“.

Preaching on Back to Church Sunday

September 26 is Back to Church Sunday 2010 – but preparing the sermon at present is proving to be a distinctly frustrating experience…

The text is John 1:35-43, the story of the first two disciples (Andrew and A N Other) meeting Jesus, and Peter’s first encounter with Jesus. But it all seems to be so elusive. Although it’s focussed on Jesus, He’s a very strange and elusive character in the story:

  1. At the beginning, He’s just walking by – we don’t really know why, or where He’s going (does it matter?)
  2. He only says 3 three things in the whole passage: a) asking the disciples why they’re following Him; 2) inviting them to come and see where He’s staying; 3) telling Simon that his name was now going to be Peter.
  3. We don’t know what He said to the two disciples when they stayed at His house – John doesn’t tell us. We also don’t know the effects of their time together (though the disciples kept following Him, so whatever happened, it must have confirmed to them that John the Baptist was right and He was the Messiah).

My only thought at the moment is to get people to put themselves in the disciples’ shoes, since they too have been invited to "Come and See". What were they expecting? What’s the idea in their head of this Jesus fellow whom we Christians talk about and worship? What would it mean to them to meet Him – what do they think would happen as a result of this?

Perhaps the elusiveness is part of the point: we’re so keen to try and be certain about Jesus, to try and talk about the facts and persuade people by our arguments, talking about the reliability of the Gospels, the reasons why we can be sure the resurrection happened and so on. And I’m not saying any of that’s wrong, far from it: I think it’s crucial that our faith has a basis in history.

But what I mean (I think) is that, ultimately, knowing facts is not what following Jesus is about. It’s about encountering Him, meeting Him, being ready to have our expectations blown out of the water, finding that this Jesus is a lot more mysterious than we imagine. Sometimes it feels as if He can be elusive, hard-to-grasp. And as they follow Him, the disciples will find the same thing: just as they think they’ve got a handle on Jesus, He wrong foots them again. Not because He’s devious, but because He’s simply far more than we can imagine.

So perhaps the point of this is to get people interested, to present to them this fascinating, elusive Jesus who wants to spend time with us, to show us "His place" and who, ultimately, wants us to follow Him.

Hmmmm… maybe I am on to something here…

Cover to Cover Complete: Through the Bible as It Happened

I’ve just posted a review of this on Amazon (though it’s not shown up yet).  I tried reading it for 6 months (which I think is long enough to give something a proper go), but have, after much debating in my head, given up on it.  Not on the Bible, oh no! – just on this.

Why?

Well, firstly because of the way it treats the Bible and what’s in it: not as texts and stories to be read in their wholeness, but as verses to be chopped up and moved around to fit in with the extreme "chronological" approach the editors decided to take.  So, for example, not just chapters but whole verses appear out of place and sometimes follow verses they’re supposed to immediately precede.  The stories of Samuel and Samson are mingled up together, meaning you lose the plot of both of them (also, how chronological is that?).  It’s quite easy to lose the thread of a story and have to go back and pick it up again when the editors decide to re-visit it. I don’t, actually, think this respects the Bible at all.  I think it’s part of a modern view of the text that we can just chop it up, take verses out of context and do what we will with them, losing all sense of why they were there in the first place.  It’s why proof-texts get thrown around all over the place to support people’s particular views on anything from the meaning of Christ’s death, through abortion to whether the UK should be in the EU (according to one letter-writer in the Baptist Times a few years ago, we should leave because the Bible clearly shows that a small country should seek God as its protection – huh?).  It’s a poor way of treating the Bible,pays no respect to those who, under God’s inspiration, wrote these texts and makes for a frustrating reading experience. (Plus, it means that where parallel passages are put together, it’s easy to skip over the second passage as "I’ve already read that").

Secondly, the end-of-the-day comments for "thought and contemplation" really, really annoyed me.  They rely on catchphrases and cliches, make no attempt to engage with the texts in any way and offer no illumination or any real food for thought.  Some really rather tenuous links are made to Christ which do no justice to the OT texts themselves.  The stories of Israel in the desert are nearly all accompanied by messages that can be reduced to "obey God – or else": is that really the God we serve?  What might have been better was some kind of explanation of what was going on, especially for tricky books such as Leviticus.

Thirdly, the chronological approach means you have to wait for ages to get to the New Testament.  Now I appreciate that most people’s knowledge and appreciation of the Old Testament (including my own) is not what it should be and a lot of people treat it merely as the bit before Jesus, trying to interpret everything as point to Him (which this book doesn’t help with).  But as a different BT letter writer said, we follow Christ, who is found primarily in the New Testament.  So in a way it’s natural that we should tend towards that part of the Bible.  Many other Bible in the year plans pair OT and NT readings each day; this seems a much better way of doing it.  I missed reading the New Testament (apart from my sermon preparation). Finally, I’m not sure about the whole concept of reading the Bible in a year.  Yes, it’s good discipline and can help to bring to light parts of the Bible we’re unfamiliar with (which my 6 months in this book certainly did).  But it can become almost a virility test, as if there’s something better about you for having done it.  Plus, it can reduce the Bible to being the same as any other book, which we read from beginning to end.

But the Bible isn’t like that: it’s a book, not just to be read, but to be listened to.  It’s a book to be savoured, like great food or wine.  It’s a book to think about, ponder on, meditate on, argue with (!).  We don’t just read it: we take it in, we make it part of our lives.  We allow God to speak to us through it, something which can mean reading the same bit over and over again, for several days or even longer.  The Bible-in-a-year format can work against that: in the pressure to get through the book within the time scale (particularly when the book concerned encourages you to catch up of you’re behind), you can easily read a passage just to tick it off; it’s easier to not spend time with the passage and really think about it as you’ve got to get on to the next bit.

There is a lot to be said for broadening our knowledge of the Bible and reading the bits we don’t know or don’t like.  But this isn’t the best way of doing it (in fact, it provides a perfect excuse for skipping over those bits or only giving them a cursory glance, as you’ve got to "keep up").  God doesn’t judge us on how much of the Bible we’ve read, though I’m sure He’s disappointed that we don’t treasure it more.  But treasuring it means more than reading it in a year; it means making it the very centre of our lives and living out its message.  I don’t think this way of reading it helps do that at all. It took me a while to make the decision to stop reading it and it’s meant I’m left trying to find a new way of doing my daily devotions.  But I’m glad – and relieved – I did stop!