Changing times

Whilst at the farm yesterday I stopped the tractor to chat with a local resident who regularly walks his dogs across our land. He’s a good guy, and we often attempt to put the world to rights together. However, on this occasion I was struck by the topic and tone of our conversation. We began with the condition of the crops and the promise of the imminent harvest, which was then followed by a negative comment concerning the recent, unseasonal wet weather. He then bemoaned the fact that the manager of our mutually supported football team Newcastle United had left. Eventually he made it to the topic of the day, Brexit and the political turmoil in which we currently find ourselves! ‘We’re in a bit of a mess,’ he commented, before adding ‘things seem to be changing all around us’.

Things are indeed changing, for the farmer spring has moved into summer and the joyful anticipation of another harvest is coupled with an understandable nervousness, as the culmination of another year’s work is almost upon us. In the political world, Brexit has almost been eclipsed (for the time being) with the race to No. 10 and a new Prime Minister taking centre stage. For many of us, however, the onset of summer is a time to take a holiday, relax, reflect a little and enjoy a well-earned change from the daily routine. ‘Change,’ as someone once famously said ‘is here to stay’!

The summer season can also herald a welcome change in the rhythm of our church communities, as we take a rest from the sometimes frenetic annual programme of activities with which we can easily find ourselves involved - even the children’s workers need a rest sometimes! A church I know of changed the format of their discipleship small group during the summer holidays to include prayer walks, fish and chips at the beach, a barbeque and even a treasure hunt around the ancient walls of the local town. Can I suggest that these changes, far from being a pale imitation of ‘real church’, offer us a wonderful opportunity to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus ‘the pioneer and perfecter of our faith’ (Hebrews 12:2) in fresh and vibrant ways?

Wouldn’t it be good if, instead of wondering where everyone is on a Sunday morning during the holidays, we could creatively embrace the opportunities afforded to us to by this seasonal change and often smaller numbers attending our gatherings? Many of us are fortunate enough to live in beautiful rural areas, so why not take church outside and reflect on our unchanging God’s creative majesty? Perhaps take a walk around your local community, listening to God and praying as you go. Engage Worship have produced some wonderful resources to help and inspire us in their book Outdoor Worship. These include worship stations, a prayer hunt and a guided mediation on The Great Outdoors.

Finally, if you have time off planned for the summer it’s my prayer that the change of focus will be restful and enjoyable; rest is so important in our busy world. As for me, I’ll soon be in the midst of harvest season on the farm, so I’ll have to find my own creative ways to stay connected with the pioneer and perfecter of my faith. I also pray that the next time I meet my dog walking pal we’ll be able to focus on some godly, positive changes together!

Enjoy the season!

Alistair Birkett
Director of Pastoral Care: North

Getting out of the way

Getting out of the way

I've had the story of Naaman the commander of the King of Aram's army on my mind recently. It's one of my favourite stories in 2 Kings 5, the miraculous healing of Naaman and in my experience, when you return to a part of scripture you've not considered for a while, something fresh often hits you and this time I found myself puzzling over Elisha's behaviour.

Elisha barged into this story, and not only does he help the king of Israel out of a major pickle, but in doing so he also takes the opportunity to remind everyone, the king included, that God is still in Israel. Life may be lived out against a stressful and uncertain backdrop of constant political and military turbulence, but God had not abandoned His people. So Elisha took Naaman off the king's inadequate hands with a personal invitation and then proceeded to behave outrageously. First, Elisha denies Naaman entry to his home and then he refuses to see him. Even in our discourteous times this would be considered outrageously rude but, for the Middle East, it was scandalous! Next, Elisha sends out his servant Gehazi with an insulting message. Talk about adding insult to injury!

I've a lot of sympathy for Naaman, who reacted to Elisha's behaviour with anger! It's clear that Naaman behaved with humility from the outset by listening to a slave girl and taking action on her testimony alone. Naaman, the great military leader, had made himself personally vulnerable. Once in the king of Israel's court he discovered his journey didn't end there and he had to trudge on, this time to a strange prophet's modest house. His expectations must have been high, but he'd also have felt very anxious. So, of course, Naaman was angry at his reception! He was hurt by Elisha's discourtesy and frightened by his own suffering, fearful of his fate. Yet again though, he listens to his servants and so bathes seven times in the Jordan and is healed.

Only then does Elisha meet Naaman. Why?

I think we have to go back to Naaman's initial reaction: 'I thought he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy.' v 11. It seems that Naaman didn't just want to be healed, he wanted far more: an experience, a genuine encounter with this God who could heal him. He just had an inadequate view of how this could come about. Elisha knew what he must do though and by removing himself completely from Naaman's encounter with God in the River Jordan, Elisha ensured that Naaman got exactly what he was after all along: a genuine encounter with the living God, proof that there was only one God worth worshipping. Perhaps Elisha could have waved his hands over Naaman and he'd have been healed but Elisha would forever have been associated with this healing and encounter. Instead, Naaman discovered God for himself and by himself. Elisha's role was to point Naaman in the right direction and then to ensure he didn't get in the way of what God was doing with Naaman.

It can be horribly tempting, like Gehazi discovered, to embellish what God appears to be doing; or to get involved to manoeuvre events to go in a certain direction; to manipulate people into responding in a certain way to what is said or done. It can be hard to stand back, leave well alone and let the Holy Spirit work in people's lives, but I am increasingly convinced that our task is simply to find out where God is at work and help the work along, which sometimes means we need to get out of His way. And if we are ever tempted to grab some of that glory and honour for ourselves by inserting ourselves into the story of what God is up to, then running in the opposite direction is the wisest move we can make.

It's my hope and prayer that I am not tempted to meddle in situations that I should leave well alone but I suspect that I have quenched the Spirit on many occasions by blundering in with good intentions when I should have backed away. Over time I have realised it boils down to how much faith I have in God. Do I trust God enough to step away at times and refuse to interfere? Is my faith strong enough to let God be God and be content to live with the consequences? The roll call of the faithful in Hebrews 11 acts as a healthy reminder that although they did not get what they thought they were promised, nevertheless, throughout their lives God was active and at work. Most of the time, like Elisha in this story, we don't have to make grand gestures to help people to encounter the living Jesus, we just have to be willing to point them in the right direction and then get well out of the way to let God get on with meeting them. The steady, ordinary life of an obedient disciple who is humble enough to know their place and do what they are told is exactly what most of us are called to.

Revd Alison Griffiths
Director Pastoral Care: South

Encouraging pioneers

The cultural landscape in the West, alongside our increasingly globalised world, has created a situation where I believe we need to move beyond our over-reliance on past church growth formulae and algorithms, and instead move to explore and pioneer different approaches to missional engagement. I would argue that the rural church in particular needs pioneers; so how might we go about encouraging an environment which is both supportive of those who have a pioneering spirit, but also assist the church to see new ideas as not so much a threat to the status quo? How could we view this as an opportunity to have a ‘mixed economy’ of both old and new?

One of the early steps I would want to suggest, which would be of help to both church and pioneer, is the ability to see the past without destroying it. Pioneers can be very good at critiquing all that has gone before as no longer fit for purpose. However, many of the things that we see as perhaps old and traditional once had pioneers to initiate them — Sunday school, church organ, hymns, seating and service times, to name but a few. The identifying and valuing of the past can also be helpful for existing congregations to see that things were not always as they are now and pioneering new ventures to share the gospel is within the DNA of the church.

For pioneers to be encouraged and truly utilised, we have to give room for failure. I have written before on this topic, so I don't wish to labour the point here other than to say, could we learn to equally celebrate “Let’s try it” as well as “we did it”? Someone once said, “If you get a bullseye every time, you’re standing too close to the target.” If we are not failing every now and again, we’re not trying anything innovative or stepping out in faith.

Isolation can be one of the most significant issues faced by pioneers, especially those within a rural context. Helping pioneers feel accepted as part of the church is so important, even if the initiative or idea will not be outworked in the local church. Some can see pioneers as eccentrics, people who don't fit in. What might it mean for us to create the space for pioneers to experiment whilst at the same time being valued, supported and prayed for as part of a worshipping community?

Pioneers, as well as those who are part of the established church, can be in danger of looking for the quick fix; the sticking plaster to place on the wound. I am becoming convinced that discerning what God is already up to, and how we respond to this as Christians, takes time. The church and pioneers can both have unrealistic expectations of how quickly results might be achieved, perhaps all to used to living in a microwave society where everything is ready at the sound of a ‘ping’. The rural context has so much to teach us in terms of the right conditions for growth, how it takes time, and how there is often a seasonality to this too.

Teamwork and encouragement go hand in hand. This is a simple, but a profound lesson contained within the epistle to the Hebrews:

Let's keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. [God] always keeps his word. Let's see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshipping together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching. [Hebrews 10:23-25 The Message]

Let’s seek to be encouragers of pioneers within our churches over the coming months.


Making disciples of all nations

We all have moments or events in our lives that we look back on and realise they were significant, life-changing even. Occasionally we are aware of their significance at the time. A few years ago on a visit to Barcelona with friends, I went to La Sagrada Familia, a Roman Catholic Basilica still under construction. It was our last morning in the city, and I'd have been happier to have simply enjoyed the cafe culture in the October sunshine. Being far more cultured than me (and less lazy), my non-church going companions dragged me along with them.

As I stood outside with other tourists looking up at the intricately carved Nativity Facade, I was struck by the solemn happiness in the faces of the carved statues representing the people involved in the story of the Incarnation. They seemed more like real people who might step down and walk away at any moment than mere stone reminders of ancient history. There was a welcome on the door of all faiths and none, of all people from any background and tradition. There was a sense we were being invited into the family home.

Then I walked through the Door of Christian Love, from the early morning warmth and sunshine into the lightness of a stone forest of magnificent trees with branches curving high above, their pale grey trunks dappled in jewelled dancing lights from the sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows. I stopped in awe to try and take it in.

It felt as if I'd walked into a part of heaven and, judging by the reactions of people who'd walked in with me, it seemed as if I wasn't the only person who felt this way. Those feelings of wonder and awe have not faded for me even though this experience is a few years old.

I have never been made so aware of how beautiful and magnificent and approachable God is.

Yet all this astonishing structure does is to tell the story of Jesus and his purpose in coming among us using visual imagery and text as well as telling the story of his disciples who responded to the commission given to them by Jesus in Matthew 28: 19 - 20: 'Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Moving around La Sagrada Familia, you couldn't help but be aware of how vital the disciples were to God's involvement in His world and that this includes ALL disciples, ancient and modern, from all church traditions and none. The story of Jesus includes all those who are part of God's family and the story hasn't ended but continues to be written as we walk it and tell it.

This unexpected experience remains alive in my memory, providing me with an anchor when I grieve the ugliness of life, a visual aid when I need to picture a God of wonder and inspiration when I need reminding of the greatness of God. Above all, this is a place I am not ashamed to take people who do not believe. There was no coercion to believe, no guilt trip laid on anyone, no judgement proclaimed. It was quite gloriously and unashamedly a proclamation of the love of God for all that was so compelling it's the only church my friends want to return to. I don't know how to tell the story of Jesus as well as the architect Gaudi has managed to but just knowing it can be done, inspires me to keep trying.

Revd Alison Griffiths
Director Pastoral Care: South