Friday, 28 September 2012

The power of prayer?

"A bar called Drummond's (in Mt Vernon, Texas) began construction on an expansion of their building, hoping to "grow" their business.

In response, the local Southern Baptist Church started a campaign to block the bar from expanding - petitions, prayers, etc. About a week before the bar's grand re-opening, a bolt of lightning struck the bar and burned it to the ground!

Afterward, the church folks were rather smug - bragging about "the power of prayer". The angry bar owner eventually sued the church on grounds that the church ... "was ultimately responsible for the demise of his building, through direct actions or indirect means."

Of course, the church vehemently denied all responsibility or any connection to the building's demise.

The judge read carefully through the plaintiff's complaint and the defendant's reply. He then opened the hearing by saying:

"I don't know how I'm going to decide this, but it appears from the paperwork that what we have here is a bar owner who now believes in the power of prayer, and an entire church congregation that does not."

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Church in Wales Review

I don't know whether it is appropriate to include the following on my blog for several reasons:
1. Those reading may not know what I am referring to although I did touch on it in an earlier blog, and,
2. It is my reply to the diocese of Swansea and Brecon in response to their request for feedback, and as such, is intended more specifically for them.

However what I am trying to say is relevant to the Church in Wales at the moment and, who knows, may find resonance with others out there who are feeling a mixture of fear, excitement and deja vu in considering yet another review in a line of reviews over the years. Is this just another repositioning of deck chairs on the Titanic or something more? Time will tell. Until then here - for what its' worth - are my thoughts:

Re Provincial Review.

First ten out of ten for having one as it underlines the seriousness with which the Bench of Bishops is taking the alarming fall in congregational numbers.

With regards to the review's recommendations taken as a whole - without commenting over much on the individual suggestions - I have concerns with regards to the following:

1. The will of the vast majority of the Church population to undertake any change - let alone the ones suggested - without considerable resistance. I have discovered, with many, that if you have a predominantly older and more traditional congregation who, generally speaking, are set in their ways and pay/contribute to the vast majority of the Parish Share, any change is fiercely resisted causing whoever is overseeing them so much hassle - and fear - that the easiest option is to go along with the status quo.

2. A large section of the clergy are nearing retirement and after years of conformity will have very little appetite for change but would rather tread water until retirement. This is understandable and in some ways natural given their years of long service and the pattern of ministry they have practised over the years and which, once, worked."You can't teach an old dog new tricks."

3. Taking the above into consideration I am surprised that the board does not take on board the working models from the Church of England with regards to church plants or beginning new churches? This is based on Jesus' observation that you can't put new wine into old wine skins. Creating new wine skins - new churches - to experiment with new ideas or models of church, using less liturgy, new ways of worshipping and Christians who are open to change and spiritually energised, motivated and engaged. To change the metaphor - it's about re-seeding the church.

4. My concern was always that the average age of the panel was around the 70 mark and so their insight into younger minds and attitudes would have been necessarily limited. It is uncomfortable hearing what young people think about the church - I know I have two at home who will very quickly give me an opinion - but it is necessary if we are to reach out to them in ways that they can relate to and identify with.

5. I suspect that there is something of a hidden agenda in the review that is geared towards justifying the existence of St. Michael's College and the amount invested by the Church in Wales. I disagree with the idea that academic qualification will make better clergy as, quite patently, it has not. The emphasis, for me, should be on calling and gifting and not on how many letters I have after my name. Placing St, Michael's at the heart of our training for the Church in Wales will, I believe, hasten rather than halt our decline.

6. I am all for de-constructing the parish system and with it the notion that one person should do it all (Forder's 'The Parish Priest' should have been drowned at birth and George Herbert assassinated) but wonder about not just the size but composition of the areas that will replace them? For example with regards to churchman-ship. I personally would not be comfortable in a church that practised Benediction or used stoops of holy water at the door etc...

These are just a few thoughts - I could write a book - BUT - and it is a big BUT - I am very grateful that the conversation has started. My hope and prayer is that it will continue AND that there will be action at the end of it. One thing I would add. I would like permission for the more adventurous among us to experiment with different forms of worship and different ways of doing things without the constraints of the petty and pathetic legalities of whether what we are doing is consistent with the orders of services produced by the Church in Wales. That is the equivalent of asking us to box while at the same time tying our hands behind our backs!

I could have added much more about clergy dress, church buildings and the huge burdens they are on our shoulders especially with regards to faculties, CADW, and listed buildings. I could have mentioned the almost utter waste of time pushing for more vocations when there are few or no young people to answer the call in our churches. I could talk about the poor preparation given by theological colleges about how to take funerals and how to prepare people for marriage or baptism. Or how to preach at the aforementioned or use powerpoint and visual aids. But I will save all that for another time. Suffice to say that the Church in Wales AS IT STANDS is poorly equipped to reach out to students and young people and its structures and mindset are not mission minded - or 21 century relevant. But God has not finished with us yet and so despite the negatives I am still hopeful and optimistic.

Nick Pollard and Damaris

This morning spent a very fruitful hour and a half in a meeting of UCCF Wales in the company of Nick Pollard of Damaris international. He is a superb communicator and since the meeting I have returned to his website, ordered a few of his books and am eager to explore a course he has put together called "Culture Watch". His website is:

Below is a video which includes him speaking about Jesus.

Monday, 10 September 2012

R.I.P Jack

Our dog Jack - a collie -passed away today at about 2.15 in the afternoon. He had been getting increasingly more unwell and unable to walk to the extent that in the end when he tried ended up trying to use his front two legs to drag the rest of his limp back end around after him. It was desperately upsetting to see him suffering in this way and we had to put our selfish concerns about keeping him, aside, and take the decision to put him to sleep.

Words cannot express how much we miss him, and to come home to a house with no Jack to greet us is hard to take. He has been our dog, and the family pet, for about 13 years now since we collected him from a private house in Clydach after responding to an advert. He was such a good looking, intelligent dog who would push his plate around if he wanted something to eat and who quickly learnt some doggy 'tricks' at the hand of Hannah, one of our daughters.

We will miss his wagging tail and his bounding around when he was excited. We will even miss the occasional mess on the carpet and the hair that built up in the place he would sleep. He was there when we went to bed and there when we got up. He loved his treats and the biggest treat of all was left over Sunday dinner which he would wolf down in no time.

I think he knew things were bad towards the end as he would look at us and then back at his useless back legs as if to say "its not going to get better is it?" and his usual sad-dog look seemed sadder than ever. In the end when we took the decision to take him to the vet, he went with us without any fuss sitting quietly in the back of the car on his sleeping mat - unusual for him - as we drove down the short distance to the vet. He sat at our feet in the waiting room glancing up occasionally and then allowed himself to be carried into the surgery while the vet spoke about how bad he was. As she left to get her needle and the anaesthetic that would stop his heart, he responded to my wife's words as she desperately tried to stem the tears by talking to him with words like "alright Jack?" and  "good boy Jack" as he looked up and tried to stand up a little on his shaky front legs.

Then as I stroked him with tears stinging my eyes, the vet administered a sedative and after a short yelp as the needle went in, gradually over the next few minutes he got sleepier and more relaxed. Next the receptionist came in to hold him a little more upright as the vet shaved his front leg, found a vein and administered the anaesthetic using first one syringe and then half of a second one. His breathing changed, his body became more limp as his eyes lost focus and and as the second needle emptied he slipped away from us, the vet checking his pulse and his vital signs before leaving us alone with him for a few last minutes.

It was dignified, gentle, with strokes and reassuring words but it left in so many pieces that I think that it will take a very long time to put them all together again. Reflecting on the outpouring of grief later I think several things seemed to compound it for us and cause the floods of almost uncontrollable tears:

First Jack has been with us the longest out of all our animals and so his absence will be more significant than any of our other dogs. His daily presence was a constant in our lives and looking at the place where he slept and the few remaining hairs moulted onto the carpet it is hard to think he won't be there.
Second, as Jack died all our old griefs came in a flood tide of tears as the deaths of both our parents compounded our sense of loss amplifying it's intensity.
Third, it was Jack's inability to communicate with us other than through his characteristically sad eyes and his upward glances that left us unable to know what he was thinking or experiencing. Was he suffering psychologically? How was he interpreting what was happening? What were his thoughts? Did he feel betrayed?
Fourth, there is something very child-like and trusting about animals - dogs especially - and its that sense that you have somehow betrayed their deeply held trust, or let him down, that bites hard at the conscience and tugs at the heart.

We have loved having Jack as our pet. He has much enriched our lives in all kinds of ways and he will never be forgotten by any of us. Do dogs go to heaven? The answer has to be a question. Why did God create them then? Were they just meant to be dispensable and disposable adjuncts to merely decorate our existence? I find that difficult to square with a loving Creator who looked down on his creation and declared it all to be good (see Genesis 1). I am looking forward - God willing -to some interesting surprises come the new creation. Who knows we may well see Jack again.

Holy Instincts?

How does the Holy Spirit speak to us? How does he guide us? Those are the two questions I have asked for the whole of my Christian life - the past 31 years - and more so during my ministry of 25 years. Okay there are the usual answers about the Scriptures, reason and tradition - good stock Anglican answers - but what about particular circumstances like what changes need to be made with regards church services or architectural renovation or sermon topics?

This question came to the fore recently in my parish where I had to decide whether to continue a service that met in the church hall and had been running for several years or whether to move it, change it or stop it altogether. (For reasons of space there were other considerations which would take up too much space). Apart from praying for guidance how else should I proceed?

I remembered a piece of advice given me a long time ago by an older and more experienced clergyman whose wisdom and advice I have always cherished. He said that sometimes you just know something is right and you should run with it even though, when questioned, you can't give any rational or even biblical reasons why. In other words the Holy Spirit can work within us in some kind of inner stirring or prompting that some would call 'instinct'. The difference however is that any inner promptings for Christians can at least be weighed up against the teachings of scriptures, the common sense of reason and the historical guidance of the Holy Spirit through tradition so that any decision does not set us in contradiction to God's expressed will as evidenced in these tripartite counterbalances.

And that is how it transpired. The decision to respond came first and the rationale then became evident as the change was introduced. Not that that guarantees that the decision, in the long term, is the right one, only that it is not biblically, reasonably or 'traditionally' wholly wrong.

But I guess that that is in some ways the nature of faith as seen in the lives of the biblical saints. What prompted Abram to up sticks and leave for the promised land? We are told in the narrative that God spoke to him words of promise and he responded. But how were these words formed? Where they prompts or sounds? Was it some kind of Holy Spirit instinct that formed into words and directions or was it an inward nudge that directed and pointed Abram in the Godward direction? Either way he responded and as he went things began to reveal themselves to him in a way that affirmed he was right to leave home and strike out for Canaan.

I suspect that this 'holy instinct' is more common than expressed words and is fuelled at least by a sincere desire on the behalf of the recipient to want to find out and fulfil God's will in his/her life. That is why, I believe, that a life immersed in the Scriptures - like a tree planted by streams of water (Psalm 1) or a branch connected to a vine (John 15) - is more likely to get it 'right' than wrong and grasp more precisely what the Lord is trying to say.

There are several caveats however to this idea. It MAY be wrong and to live with that possibility is only right no matter how many cast-iron assurances we may crave. For it is the possibility that we may get it wrong that keeps us humble and dependent. It counteracts pride and helps keep the doors of communication with the Lord open so that we keep going back to Him and say "Is this right Lord? Help me keep to the right path? Show me what to do. I need you."

In addition we must place ourselves under authority in the form of a leader/clergyman as that too is only biblical (see the New Testament letters where authority is undermined and leads to disastrous consequences). Jesus knew the need for this and so appointed 12 Apostles who upheld core teaching as a means of ensuring the Church kept to the right path. There is no place in the Body of Christ for cavalier Christian lone-rangers who claim authority without being under authority. And its no good saying that God alone is their authority as the only one who can truly claim that is Jesus himself. All the rest of us have to sit at someone's feet as part of the Body of Christ.

So for all those out there who are struggling with guidance, read your Bible daily, don't look for 100% guarantees, stick with the Church and answer to authority AND then listen to your instincts. Beware pride as it always precedes a rather nasty fall. 

In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity

There is an old religious joke that has been doing the rounds for years which goes like this:`` I was walking across a bridge one day, and ...