Friday, 18 January 2019

Sea & Islands Post 4

Deconstruction is the Beginning of Incarnation

In order to be reshaped in the image of others, first we need to allow for the possible removal of our existing points of security. This is indeed a risk because we must trust that God will meet us in the process. Lesslie Newbigin (4) talks of leaving the hill of the cross to journey towards the stranger. In doing so we risk that the 'other' may hold something of the truth and we must trust that the God of the universe will be with us both in the mission.

This seems entirely Christ-like; the second person of the Trinity didn’t consider the markers of his own identity more important than his willingness to change or become. The letter to the Philippians speaks of this kenosis, or emptying:

‘Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing’(5)

For us then, as followers of Christ, a key component of faith is not professing that our beliefs are right at all costs. In this context our expression of faith is bringing our lives into contact with others, trusting the Holy Spirit to hold our beliefs.

Deconstruction allows every generation to be involved in shaping the church and its mission. It often seems that the voices of the dead carry more weight than the words of the living. Witness the wholesale dismissal of Rob Bell (6) over his declaration that ‘Love Wins’ by some of the very people who feel comfortable quoting C.S. Lewis (7); someone who held equally controversial views.

I am not suggesting that our predecessors should be ignored, but that they should not be so revered that their views cannot be questioned.

For Beverley and I, our journey has brought us to embrace the twin motif of Rooted-Openness. We have spent time looking for that in which we can confidently put down roots. At the same time we have tried to build an environment of openness so that we might love, and learn from, those who see the world in a different way to us.

In this context, deconstruction always starts at a personal level before affecting a wider context.

Having said this I intend to add to this personal journey by looking at the following areas:

Our theology in terms of how evangelicals approach the Bible. In particular, I want to offer an honest assessment of my views on gender and sexuality.

Our ecclesiology and how we have a tendency to create self-fulfilling models of church that miss many of the marks of incarnation.

Our missiology in regard to how we see both the work of Christ and the message of the church.

It is time for incarnation. Let the deconstruction begin…….

Deconstruction is a holy process: sacred, because it mirrors the incarnation

Friday, 11 January 2019

Sea & Islands Post 3

Demolition, Deconstruction, Construction, and Incarnation

In the early days of our family life, before we could afford a purpose built MPV, we had to make do with an old, but loveable, yellow transit minibus. It was in the days before the girls had developed a sense of embarrassment. Back then they would happily hold my hand as we walked down the street. They would run out of the school gates and greet both parents with a hug and a kiss. Well before high school days arrived, however, they had discovered that whenever they saw their parents, a rush of blood would fill their faces and they would blush with a high summer redness.

Our yellow people carrier, for that is what we called it in an attempt to make it sound posh, was fitted with all that we needed. Seatbelts on every seat, tow-bar for trailer or caravan, radio cassette (it was a long time ago) for travelling entertainment and even a 12-volt kettle for refreshments on longer trips. A couple of chickens and a goat would have given us new-age traveller status in most counties.

In an attempt to remove the need for regular shouts of ‘I need the toilet’ we took with us a potty that we kept under one of the seats. I insisted on calling it a 'guzunder' because it is a funny word and I wanted the girls to know some of the words that my mother had taught me. ‘Because it guz under the bed’ I would reply whenever asked and laugh as if I had never heard the joke before. I think it must be a genetic disposition that causes dads to tell, repeat, and continually laugh at the same bad jokes over and over again.

As the bus was longer than the average vehicle the children had to learn hand signals in order to get my attention in the front seat. This would mostly concern the need for a toilet break. On one such trip across the Pennines one of our girls had, having signalled her need, dutifully filled the receptacle with recycled orange juice and my wife was pleading with me to find a safe place to stop so that she could empty the contents. This being the Snake Pass there was very little chance of that happening for several miles, so I gave instructions for her to keep the guzunder steady for another twenty minutes.

She was not happy with this reply and decided to take the matter into her own hands on this sunny Saturday morning. Sliding open a side window she readied herself to empty the potty. Seeing what she was doing in the rear view mirror, I shouted for her to stop because I knew that nothing good could come from this episode.

‘It’s OK’ she said, ‘I will hold it low so that none of the contents will come back into the minibus’. My bride had mistaken the meaning of my outburst, as she had failed to see a gleaming open top car directly behind us. The driver and passenger were enjoying the summer wind blowing through their hair as they travelled through the beautiful Peak scenery.

Ignoring all of my garbled protestations, my wife emptied the guzunder and the contents moved from our possession to the smiling faces of the couple behind.

When I informed my wife of the kindness that she had shown to the strangers following us, she ducked out of sight and screamed ‘go faster’. I informed her that Ford had not fitted this model of 2-litre diesel with go-faster stripes and so I could not travel any quicker, especially as we were going up hill.

I knew that I should have pulled over as soon as the road allowed so that we could have apologised, but you could have fried an egg on my face at the embarrassment of it all!

It wasn’t long before the open top sports car overtook our big yellow minibus and the driver and his companion showed their appreciation by teaching our children several hand signals that were not to be found in the Highway Code.

It seems that it isn’t enough to get rid of things you no longer want to carry, without realising that your actions have an effect on those who are following.

So it is with the journey of leadership within the church. In following the call to lead, one accepts a level of responsibility that is, at times, at odds with one’s own need for full autonomy. There are people following and we are called to be aware of how our lives affect them. Beverley and I have been on a twenty five-year journey of church planting; that is to say, over two decades of deconstruction. It started, as these things often do, with a general dissatisfaction with the status quo. It became apparent that, along with Bono and the boys (3), we still hadn’t found what we were looking for.

Initially, our inexperience drew us to employ demolition tactics in our eagerness to make changes. We soon learned, however, that our response needed to be subtler; perhaps a little more grown up. We knew that we had a responsibility to those who might follow to deal with our complaint in a way that didn’t adversely affect their journey.

Those of a more theologically conservative disposition might see deconstruction as a negative idea; often feeling threatened by any notion that comes close to questioning the basics of their faith. I would suggest, however, that there is a difference between demolition and deconstruction.

In our discussions with others we have often been treated to responses that are versions of ‘we shouldn’t question God – He is sovereign’ as if that would satisfy our curiosity and silence us.

This seems odd given that the very nature of an incarnational faith is life, death and rebirth as the gospel is fleshed out in every new generation; a kind of deconstruction and reconstruction. Even though the death of Christ appeared to his followers as a form of demolition they were soon to discover God’s purpose in the story.

As previously noted, however, there is a significant difference between demolition and deconstruction.

Our local town had a new road built through it several years ago in order to reduce the flow of traffic through its historic central streets. During the project houses were demolished, canal systems re-routed, and farmland was built upon in order to complete the project. A member of our congregation, Bill, worked on the project and reminds me that it is a 'relief road' and not as 'bypass' as most of the local inhabitants refer to it. It seems words matter in all disciplines of life.

This meant that some things were demolished. There was no longer any trace of what had been there previously. It is a permanent change without any reference to the past. The old is dismissed as having no or little value. Other areas, however, were deconstructed and reshaped in order to preserve areas of wildlife habitat. This exercise involves assigning a correct value and meaning to all of the materials and components of the construct. For sure, some of the components will be identified as not having a current significance and duly laid aside, but they will still be treated as having had value. It means taking a different approach and level of care with the landscape. So what might the marks of deconstruction be over and above that of demolition?

It is interesting to note that the rerouting of the canal was a major part of the project. In this undertaking the engineers made substantial changes, but the community was still left with a canal. Rerouting is not the same as removal.

Deconstruction is about dealing with the component parts of our faith and ecclesiology whilst demolition deals with the removal of the building as a whole. Perhaps the fear of those with a more conservative view might be due to any act of deconstruction being misconstrued as demolition.

Friday, 4 January 2019

Sea & Island Post 2

There is no Good Place to Stand

Having four daughters has an effect on both how you see the world and how you live your life. I have probably spent more than my fair share of time on shopping expeditions for clothes and other daughter related products. The majority of these consumerist exploits have been spent outside the changing rooms of various department stores.

I have developed a theory about such things that I feel is worthy of sharing at the beginning of this book. It centres on the idea that on these occasions there is no good place to stand. If you position yourself too near the changing rooms you tend to look a little odd. If, however, you stand too far away, you will not hear your wife calling from behind the curtains for you to exchange one of her items for a different size. Either way, there is no good place to stand.

It often seems like this when considering the key themes involved in leading church. Wherever you stand, there will be those who will criticise your choice; this can mean that sometimes it becomes easier to make no decision at all, rather than risk making the wrong one. We are left with a set of unspoken issues that remain unchallenged, for fear of standing in the wrong place; we are left with a kind of theological dissonance.

A little too close in one direction and you may well be dismissed as unorthodox; move too far the other way and you may well be seen as irrelevant to the community in which you serve. I have decided that it is best not to let the fear of being labelled ‘unorthodox’ stop me from wrestling with some very important questions.

Finding a good place to stand can only be a temporary exercise for anyone called to be a pilgrim

Friday, 28 December 2018

Sea & Islands Post 1

Island 1

Forest Gardens or Victorian Horticulture

Orthodox Belief & the Awkward Question

Everybody is wearing cultural glasses: the problem is that some don't know it

At the somewhat tender age of fourteen and a half I raised my hand during an altar call in a small Pentecostal church in Manchester, England. I hadn’t had a great deal of church experience before this and was struck by both the passion of the preacher, Terry Hanford, and the kindness of the congregation.

In the following few years I was handed a gospel that was well-defined by years of evangelicalism. We knew who was ‘in’ and we knew who was ‘out’. Our mission was to encourage as many people as possible to join us. The church had a list of Fundamental Truths that included things that would later be deemed less fundamental than had previously been thought. Even so, there were some areas viewed as non-negotiable when it came to both theology and practice.

It wasn’t long before I began, with others, to raise questions and although the leaders were kind, they could often only respond by reaffirming the commonly held beliefs of the denomination. I remain grateful to them for trying to respond with kindness, but recognise that they too were caught in a construct that confined them.

During the following four decades my wife, Beverley, and I have continued to ask awkward questions whilst attempting to remain actively involved in church.

Four daughters and three grandchildren later we have found a few answers but we still have many questions that I suspect would make many evangelical leaders feel uncomfortable. I am sure, however, that most of these leaders will have churches full of people asking similar questions to the ones that we continue to wrestle with. Such questions are often silenced under the pressure experienced by the need to feel accepted; very few people want to appear to be troublemakers.

Indeed, I have noticed a trend over recent years when engaging with the Christian blogosphere; it seems that some quarters find it all too easy to shout 'heretic' at even the slightest suggestion that any of the firmly held evangelical beliefs might be open to interpretation.

This is nothing new of course; the ‘H’ word has been used in all kinds of situations to silence dissenting voices, in order that those in power might feel safe in their particular sphere of influence. It is interesting to note that originally the word 'heretic' was used to describe a person who was a free-thinker; as such the opposite must surely be to have one's thinking confined. Thankfully today we are more likely to be roasted on the Internet than burnt at the stake.

It seems that some are afraid of the very idea of questioning current interpretations of orthodoxy, as if God might be offended by our need to understand.

In this regard a watching world would be forgiven for thinking that the creator of the universe is a little insecure if he requires his honour to be defended in such a way. Surely questioning is as much a part of the faith journey as any other spiritual discipline and yet you will be hard pushed to find it encouraged in certain sections of the church.

We would do well to take our lead from the incarnation; this moment when God took the unfathomable risk of becoming human. In this act we see how full commitment to the idea of ‘becoming’ can have eternal consequences.

It is surely necessary that the church, as Christ’s body, should have the same desire to ‘become’ what it needs to be in every generation and to every tribe.

The very notion that the church should look exactly the same in every context seems to ignore the incarnational motif. By definition there needs to be difference: there needs to be change.

For this to happen questions need to be asked; at times the kind of questions that risk the use of the ‘H’ word. It is my belief that in this regard the search for orthodoxy is perhaps subservient to the need for Evangelical Morphodoxy.