Truth is told through stories – so here’s mine…

http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/true-storyHow do you tell the truth? By telling a story.

This may sound odd.  We often contrast facts and stories; facts are about truth, and stories are about opinions or perspective.  Inspired by Stanley Hauerwas, amongst others, I want to suggest that truth is conveyed by stories that connect the facts.  Facts alone tell us little; stories that contradict facts are false; but truth is found when facts are connected and given meaning by a story that makes sense.

Think about it.  To describe who you are, the truth about yourself, to a stranger, you may tell them facts about yourself, but these make sense because they are connected to form a story about you.  In science, the most persuasive theories are not just lists of results from experiments, but descriptions of the world that link these results together and give them meaning.  Evolution is a prime example of a theory that gains it’s persuasive power not least because it is a compelling story of the way things are.

No wonder God revealed Himself through story.  The Bible is essentially a narrative of God’s creation and relation with humanity.  And still today, as individuals  we get to know God through our own stories with Him.  These aren’t just ‘opinions’ or metaphors with a ‘deeper meaning’ underneath.  These stories are descriptions of reality and the way things are.  They don’t allow us to ignore factual evidence, but they recognise that facts alone can’t convey the whole truth.

Who is God and how do I know Him? I can only answer that with story.  So I’ve tried writing mine short enough to print, put in my wallet, and share with people.  Here it is…

If God is real, not made up, then we don’t decide what he is like, we discover. 

Life is not always easy.  When I was 6 years old my Dad, a solicitor, had a nervous breakdown and stopped working.  That left a family of five (including Mum and 2 older sisters) with no income for 3 months before health insurance and benefits kicked in.  When I was 15 years old a close school friend of mine died suddenly – he was there on Monday and dead by Tuesday.  For a while after this I took anti-depressants to help me sleep.  To date my Mum has had cancer 5 times and numerous operations, not to mention recently being seriously weak for months following complications from so much surgery. 

Who have I discovered God to be?  He is a provider.  During those 3 months after Dad’s breakdown we had no income and no food.  We prayed for God’s help.  Boxes of food were left on our doorstep and money was posted under our door. 

He is faithful.  After my friend died I was deeply sad and angry with God.  But even in that time, when I was at my lowest, it was in God I found peace and comfort.  He draws close in the hard times, even if we don’t understand them.

He is a healer.  Every time my Mum has had cancer it has either disappeared or been easily removed when we have prayed.  When my Mum was seriously weak she spent most of her day in bed, couldn’t lift even a saucepan, couldn’t wear make-up as it brought a terrible infection.  After a month of this I was praying and felt the presence of the Holy Spirit – God with me.  I began to cry as I thought about Mum and I was asking in my heart for her to be healed.  After a time I felt a sense of peace and that it was done.  I called Mum the next morning and she was out of bed, had been for a bike ride, was wearing make-up, and was back to health.

God is provider, faithful and able to heal.

He is our good Father. I don’t know why He doesn’t always do what I want Him to, but I have a choice to trust God as He is, or reject Him because He isn’t exactly like I think He should be.  I choose to trust Him and have found He is better than I could ever make up.  God doesn’t sit at a distance, but lived as one of us in Jesus.  He knows what it is to suffer, to be rejected and even to die. In fact, He died for us, to pay the price so that we can be forgiven from everything we have ever done wrong that keeps us from coming close to Him.  Because of Jesus we can know God as our Father if we come to Him.  I’ve discovered a Father who loves me, has a plan for me, is with me in every situation, who does incredible things I could never make up, and who strengthens me and gives peace when things are hard.

This idea came from an amazing church I was privileged to be a part of at University – Grace Church Nottingham – and it certainly is something you can try at home!

Who do you think God is and how have you come to know Him? What is your story? Why not share some of it by leaving a comment?

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Shining like very English stars…

ShineMy posts so far have been fairly theological, today I’ve got something a bit more personal on my mind.  Well, personal for the Anglicans amongst us.

What with the appointment of Justin Welby as the new ABC and the shambles of the vote on women bishops, the Church of England has made a number of headlines recently.  Most of these have been somewhat predictable commentary and I’m not wanting to throw out another opinion on women in ministry right now.  I have actually been struck by something quite different.  Something that I feel I should have known, but has hit me afresh like a slap in the face, namely, that people not only see the Anglican church as marginal and harmless, but that is precisely what they like it for.  Anything that rocks the boat is an issue.

A few months ago I began reading The Week magazine (I’d thoroughly recommend it) and a couple of articles grabbed my attention.  In the light of Justin Welby’s appointment a whole page was given over to assessing Holy Trinity Brompton, the church where Welby came to faith.  The general tone of the article was highly critical of HTB and the Alpha course.  Critical because, on Alpha, “people at a low point in their lives” find themselves “love-bombed” by “friendly, smiley, tactile Christians”.  The problem is that HTB flies in the face of the Church of England’s “national character”.  How?  Because, where the CofE is prized for its “reassuring – if marginal – presence in every community”, “HTB’s evangelical charismatic approach, with its declarations of beliefs and encouragement of regular Bible study, is at odds with all that.”  In other words, a church that actively loves people who are in difficult situations, has a clear sense of belief, and encourages study of the Bible, is at odds with what is valued about the Church of England!

Just last night I gained another insight from the same magazine in reference to an interview with Ian Hislop.  He described being ‘born again’ whilst at school in a time when “The evangelical message spread like wildfire through the school.  Membership of the Christian Union swelled from 12 to 300.”  The number of boys having prayer meetings in dormitories and talking about having found faith left the staff “terribly worried.  You know, being sort of Church of England, people want a very quiet and moderate faith.”  The article ends by describing how, today, “Hislop’s faith is of a more traditional Anglican hue. ‘I go through periods of lack of enthusiasm and increasing doubt’.”

I am in no way wanting to criticise the church or to judge someone’s faith – Ian Hislop shared what is personal to him.  However, perhaps because I grew up in a lively and growing Anglican church, I have never really viewed the CofE in these terms.  These articles in a sense put in writing the attitude that I have noticed and suspected is held by many people in towns and communities across the nation (if they even think about the church at all).  My reaction has been multi-faceted….

– On the one hand it is fairly depressing!  That we have a reputation for being marginal, quiet, unenthusiastic and doubting is not the greatest commendation for a people originally accused of “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

St Mary's Church– Yet, there is also an encouragement.  Colours show far brighter against a grey background; words are heard more clearly in a quiet room.  I’m encouraged because the truth of the gospel of God’s love is seen in the way we love one another and faith is seen in the way we step out trusting God to move.  When so little is expected from us, it doesn’t take much for people to take notice.  I’ve seen the power of simple actions even over the last couple of weeks at St Mary’s in Loughton.  We held a Christmas Fayre where everything was given away for free: quality items; services like nail painting, family photos and face painting; food and drinks; and prayer.  A number of people were deeply impacted because they simply don’t experience this kind of love or generosity in many other places.  The next day several people came to church for the first time and one even came to faith.

Simple acts become more powerful and simple words more audible against the background of the ‘national character’ of the Church of England.  What excites me, however, is that this popular perception of the CofE is quickly becoming out of date.  As I look at the members of my local church family, my other clergy colleagues, the leaders in each diocese of which I’ve been a part, I see a multitude of people with strong faith, deep love and a desire to demonstrate and show the truth of the gospel.  The reality is we will cause offence for some who simply don’t want the church to make a sound, but for many who are seeking love, truth and God they will more than want to listen.

We ARE the church on mission… (Talking to Michael Moynagh Part 2)

So, last post I introduced Michael Moynagh’s argument that mission is a task for the Christian community, not individuals alone, and the need to recognise that ‘church’ can be any Christian community in any context – not just Sunday gatherings in residential areas.  This post I want to offer a response….

Yes Michael!

I couldn’t agree more that the Christian community is essential for mission.  I think Hauerwas is spot on that it is in this community that we learn what it is to be Christian, that we learn the language, actions and perspective that shapes us to live faithful to God.  I think Newbigin is totally right that the gospel will only look credible today when people can see a community who are actually living it out.  We can shout opinions all we want, but if we can’t point to a community of people actually living as if those opinions are true then they’re seen to be empty and hollow.

A couple of minor points I’d like to tweak a bit….

For example, Moynagh argues that, although Hauerwas recognises the problem of Christians being isolated in most of their lives by suggesting we should be sent out in pairs, he doesn’t go far enough to see the missional role of community because he is stuck with an assumption of church as the Sunday gathering in residential areas.  Maybe, maybe not.  I would argue (indeed, I have argued in an MPhil where I also strongly stated the missional role of community), that Hauerwas’ thought includes a concept of improvisation (thanks Sam Wells for the terminology).  Part of our character being formed to speak, see and think faithful to Jesus, is that we find new ways of expressing that faithfulness in new contexts.  Thus, new forms of church are not excluded by Hauerwas, they’re arguably a natural progression of his thought…..we should see them emerging!

But that is a minor point…..here are two more significant comments….

1) We are never going to avoid being sent out alone…..from any community.  Moynagh is so right that we need to encourage Christian communities to form in different spheres of life.  But that doesn’t mean we will all be able to have a community in every sphere of our lives.  For one thing, real community requires a level of commitment that simply can’t be spread amongst a work church, gym church, neighbourhood church and pub church…..we’ll form loose networks not real community.  That means we are going to find ourselves sent out from our community at some point…..and I think that’s ok…..

2) …more than ok, I think it may be necessary.  Another unease I felt was the underlying assumption that we all have very different spheres to our lives that are distinct to one another.  The assumption that I need a church at work as well as in my neighbourhood because these are two distinct spheres of life that have little contact with one another.  Now, that may in some ways be true, but one of the concerns I have about contemporary society is our willingness to compartmentalise our lives as if how I am in one place has no bearing on how I am elsewhere.  I may lie at work because that’s what you do there, but I won’t lie ‘in church’ because it’s not right……and I’m cool with that.  I wonder if the church should be a community that challenges the assumption we can compartmentalise our lives, rather than seeking to provide an alternative community in every compartment of it…..

So these two points lead me to end with this thought: does it make a difference if we see our mission as to form disciples rather than to plant churches?  (Neil Cole of the Organic Church movement argues this….it’s not a Sam original!)   Is the greatest need not for Christian communities in every sphere of every individuals’ life, but for Christian communities that form disciples who see their life as a whole and live faithful in every part of life?

The church is not simply a community to which I belong, it is a something of which I am a part – we are the church.  And we are the church everywhere we go.  Wherever and however often I gather with the rest of the community, I will always be the church in every part of my life….there is never a time when I am ‘isolated’ from that community, when the church is no longer with me or relevant to me.  That is not to say I won’t feel ‘isolated’ and there are certainly ways for Christian communities to improve in supporting one another when we’re not gathered together, but we remain part of that community whether we are physically together or not.

This is a thought that may require more space to get more clarity!  I’d value your thoughts….I’m still thinking this through.  In any event, I strongly recommend having a read of Moynagh’s book – it’ll get you thinking and give you some ideas!

Mission: alone or together? (Talking to Michael Moynagh Part 1)

Not cheap, but worth it!If you have any interest in organic church, emerging church, missional communities, fresh expressions, new monasticism or any other recent expression of church and mission READ THIS BOOK: Michael Moynagh’s Church for Every Context written with Phillip Harrold.  He brings together about a decade’s worth of theology and practice around new forms of church and mission.

Chapter 7 piqued my interest in particular as Moynagh poses the question: is mission by individuals or communities?

Reflecting on Stanley Hauerwas and Leslie Newbigin (guess why I was interested?), Moynagh argues that, though we often recognise the importance of the church community for mission, our general model is to gather in a residential area and then send individuals off alone to evangelise throughout the week.

Hauerwas recognises
the importance of church community as the place where Christian character is formed.  This community shapes the language, actions and perspective on the world of its members and thus shapes them to live distinctively.  It is in these distinctive lives, shaped around Jesus, that Christians point people to God.  Similarly, Newbigin argued that the only way the church can faithfully and credibily represent the gospel in today’s society is by a congregation of men and women who believe and live it.

So the church as community is essential for mission….but…

Moynagh argues, both Hauerwas and Newbigin seem restricted by their inherited view of what ‘the church’ actually looks like – they have in mind gathered congregations meeting in residential areas on Sundays.  This means they continue the model we see all over the place of the majority of mission being left to individual Christians sent out into the week on their own.  In workplaces, leisure centers, schools and colleges, Christians are left isolated from the essential community.

The solution? Recognition that mission is the task of the community not just the individual.

Moynagh sees precedent for this in the nature of God – that He exists in community as the Trinity; in human nature – that we were made ‘male and female’ – made for community; in the history of the church – that Jesus formed a community and the early church met as community in homes, public places, shops and other places of life.

Moynagh gives a couple of examples of what he has in mind:

1) Mid-size communities that begin to meet maybe twice a month in a particular place with a focus on mission in that place: maybe an estate, or helping disabled children. These communities can begin to plant further communities from them.

2) Groups of Christians starting to meet in work places to run courses or find ways of serving their workplace.  They could invite other people in by simply explaining what they do: “We discuss how to serve our workplcae, then read and discuss a story about Jesus, then play some music and those who believe pray quietly”.

There are a myriad of examples, but the point is to find simple and practical ways to form Christian community wherever we are.  We need to recognise that a community living faithfully to Jesus, demonstrating His love, and being easily accessible for those who don’t believe, is extremely effective for mission. (Point of interest: I concluded my MPhil with a very similar sentiment.)

In my next post I’ll share some of my reflections on this, but for now what do you think?  

Is mission a call for communities or individuals?  

If you’re a Christian, do you feel isolated during the week with a pressure to ‘do mission’ on your own?  

Do you have other ideas for how to form Christian community in different spheres of life?

Post a comment and let me know…