Friday, 20 July 2007

Chalk and Cheese

We're about to begin another summer (summer? Hah - it's pouring down outside!) bookended by the 'right and left wings' of Christian conferences in that, for the third year running we will be in Keswick next week during Convention time and going to some of the meetings, and then at the end of August going to Greenbelt Festival in Cheltenham. The history of how we got to this point is complex and can wait for another time, but it is fascinating comparing and contrasting the two events. Chalk and cheese.

We've been to some excellent events at Keswick, but I still find myself getting mildly irritated with what I perceive - maybe wrongly - to be a slightly smug, self-satisfied tone emanating from some meetings and leaders. The emphasis is on personal spirituality to the extent that in 2005, a couple of weeks after the 7/7 bombings, at only one of the meetings I was at was this nation-shaking event or the issues behind it even mentioned! Maybe I was at the wrong meetings. Where is the application of the gospel to where people are itching, starting with where they are at rather than with what we have to tell them? Is the Church as represented here just getting older and more irrelevant?

Certainly the age profile at Greenbelt is much younger and there are all sorts of professing Christians who go there who would not be found at Keswick - e.g. Goths, Gays, 'Emerging' Church, post-congregation (of course the opposite also applies!) so levels of relevance and inclusion would appear to be better. We've been to some excellent events at Greenbelt, but I still find myself getting mildly irritated with what I perceive - maybe wrongly - to be a
slightly 'trendy lefty', 'we're more enlightened and intelligent than all those comfortable middle-class church-goers' attitude. The emphasis is on issues - environment, politics, sexuality etc. However, does Greenbelt go too far in the other direction - right out on the edge, far away from the safety, certainty and soundness of Keswick? It's been said you only find out where the line is by stepping over it sometimes.

In 'The Church After Christendom' Stuart Murray talks about different models of church:
- Bounded-set: fixed core and boundaries. Believe then belong. Secure, but restrictive. Exclusive.
- Centred-set: fixed core values; no patrolling of boundaries, good for belonging before believing
- Open-set: neither boundaries or defined centre. Inclusive but undisciplined.
- Fuzzy-set: ill-defined boundaries; liberal, relaxed. Unstable - liable to go to open-set or bounded-set

Keswick seems to me to be for those of the 'bounded set' type of church, Greenbelt ideally for 'centred set' but I wonder sometimes if it is in danger of going 'open set' in it's desire to include everyone, and so lose Christian distinctiveness... not likely to be a problem for Keswick! Or is that the chance you take when you get out of the boat? This relevance and inclusion thing is tricky isn't it? Needless to say it is another issue I've been reading and thinking about over the last while.

The two conferences are very different (I'm trying hard to think of a speaker who has appeared at both conferences and can't. Anyone know of one?), but its good to remember that both are also populated with people sincerely trying to follow Jesus as best they can and he loves them/us all!

P.S. Speaking of chalk, last year I went to the Keswick Convention Bookshop to buy 'Intelligent Church' by Steve Chalke (ouch) and couldn't see it anywhere. I asked the assistant and she, obviously embarrassed, reached into a box hidden under a table and got me a copy. Apparently the leadership at Keswick were concerned that people would be offended if Steve's books were on display. I was offended that they weren't!

P.P.S. Cartoon from here. Check it out.

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Thursday, 12 July 2007

A busy weekend

Last weekend was a busy one.

Saturday (07/07/07... oo-er) was the annual Fun Day organised by the 'Friends of Swinton Grove Park'. This is a group of local residents who work with the Council's Leisure department to improve and look after the local park. Judith and I are two-fifths of the current regular membership, and the Fun Day is the biggest event of the year, both in terms of people coming and workload. Other neighbours help out on the day with the various activities (though a few more present when we started setting up at 9.30am would have been good) and the Leisure staff provide things like a generator, gazeebos etc. The recent wet weather meant numbers were down this year to around 300-350 (last year it was over 600), though there was actually no rain to speak of during the day.

It was great to see such a mix of people there from many different ethnic groups - a snapshot of our area really - all getting along and having a good time. The only iffy moment was when the bingo went haywire and the game had to be re-started... they take their bingo seriously round here! All in all a nice bit of community cohesion building in these times of 'terror', though due to the nature of our media (in part a reflection of the news we want. Discuss.) the only place you'll hear about it is right here! If you want to see some photos go here.

Sunday - Early Sunday, 7am early - was Alannah's Car Boot Sale to raise funds for her time in Zimbabwe. Thanks to the generosity of friends and folks at church we had a lot of stuff to sell and it was good fun. We couldn't find a sale on any other day than Sunday, so we had to miss church, joining of course with the many others who do so every week. It was our first time running a stall, but the traders either side and behind us were friendly and helpful, and very interested in what we were raising money for. We had some good conversations with them and a number of the shoppers. The regular traders and shoppers all knew each other and all day there was banter and laughter. In other words, a Sunday Morning community, arguably more open and welcoming than some others I could mention...

Something coming through time and time again in my sabbatical reading is the importance of community and relationships, and how they should be modeled by an outward-facing Church as a taster for the Kingdom of God. The thing is community 'out there' at it's best could teach us a thing or two! We shouldn't be trying to replace the positives of community and relationships already happening, or, perish the thought, breeze in saying, 'Watch, let us do community for you'. But we can add into the mix an awareness of the God who is already present and working among, and so make community three dimensional by adding a vertical element to the horizontal.

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Tuesday, 3 July 2007

The 'n' word

I turned on the TV earlier this evening and a prog called "Lenny's Britain" was on. This is a series where Lenny Henry travels around the British Isles checking out our sense of humour, what makes people laugh in different places and in various jobs and circumstances. He was on a ferry to Ireland and then travelled to Belfast. So, I took an interest.

In Belfast he met with some Northern Irish comedians who were talking about the rise of racism that was accompanying the influx of immigrants over the last few years now the locals weren't fighting each other so much. One told a story about the apparently innocent use of the word 'nigger' by older people who had never so much as met a black person. Lenny Henry's reaction, spoken in the commentary was as follows: "I'm not so much shocked by the use of the 'n' word, more saddened. There's always a skip in my heartbeat whenever I hear it. And no matter how well-meaning the people are saying it, no matter how fitting the context, the word for me is still taboo."

As it happens this describes quite well my reaction when a few minutes earlier in a clip from his stand-up routine Lenny had used 'Jesus Christ!' as a comic swear word. I'm sure he meant no offence (it was but one of what my friend Geoff Mann called "a million casual blasphemies" in a song we used to do) and I won't be burning an effigy of him. But it reminded me again of our culture's current measures of political correctness and what will or will not be tolerated, and the marginalisation of Christians. Without in any way taking away from the genuineness of the emotion, or the history behind it, is Lenny's sadness at the mention of the 'n' word more valued than mine at the casual exclamation of the 'j' word?

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Last night was our area Confirmation Service, hosted by Brunswick. All a bit too Anglican for me, but at a basic level a good opportunity to express or re-affirm commitment... and one of those doing so was our daughter Alannah, so naturally we were there to support her.

Of course, as I sat there feeling a bit more non-Anglican than usual, God decided to remind me he can speak through anything!! As people came into the service each was given a small stone. (This is something we have done at Brunswick before, but may have been a bit of a shock to folk from other churches who might have been expecting a hymnbook!) The stone was not a means for us to express our reaction to the sermon (...though, thinking about it... I feel a digression coming on. Must... find... close... bracket...) but for us spectators to also make a fresh affirmation of our commitment by bringing the stones to the front and building a cairn.

As I sat there with my stone I thought, well... I'm part-way through this sabbatical and, as I wrote last time, at a strange stage of having laid everything down as best I can, not knowing what to pick up again or in what way, yet with a head full of inspiring but non-specific stuff and a desire to try to get beyond the 'fishing people out of the river' work to finding out and attempting to deal in some way with the bigger issues of what/who is throwing them in. To cut that very long sentence short, all I can do at this present time is make a marker of my continued trust in God to bring me through this process, hopefully strengthening that trust in that act.

It was as I was thinking this and actually getting up to go down to place my stone that the thought came to me: "It's like I'm shaping up to face Goliath, I've rejected the armour of Saul, and what I need next is the 5 smooth stones". Yowza! Good summary of where I'm up to. I don't think it means I will be given exactly 5 specific actions, but the timing and stone/stones thing was a reassuring God-incidence.

The photo is of our finished cairn at the end of the service. As always, thoughts, comments, chocolate very welcome.

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