Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Fire and Rain on Just and Unjust Alike: Zadok autumn 2020 column

IMG_8485

I am a columnist for Zadok, an Australian publication focused on Christian engagement with Australian society. The latest issue (Autumn 2020) is on climate change and is packed with articles on plastic, zero-waste lifestyles and theological themes of creation and hope. I provide a short (860 words) reflection on the use of “hell on earth” to describe bushfires. It is a fascinating phrase to use in societies claiming to be secular and somehow becomes a detour through apocalyptic language to the Sermon on the Mount and the church as nurturing the art of conversation across polarised communities and that fascinating line from U2:

Choose your enemies carefully, ’cause they will define you/
Make them interesting, because in some ways they will mind you/
(from Cedars of Lebanon, in U2’s No Line On The Horizonalbum)

You can order the magazine here.

Posted by steve at 01:17 PM | Comments (0)

Monday, May 25, 2020

KCML Bubble courses: Lockdown special? Or the sign of a #newnormal?

A short piece I wrote for the Knox Centre for Ministry and leadership website, also cross posting it here.

SM BUBBLE BANNER

‘Stick to your bubble’, the Prime Minister announced on Tuesday 24 March. In response to the first cases of community transmission of COVID-19 in Aotearoa, New Zealand was entering bubble time.

Bubbles can be beautiful, sparkling red, green and blue as sunlight touches their fragile surface. Equally, bubbles can be delicate, a thin film so easily broken.

Entering our bubbles, Aoteroa was forced into new ways of living, working and playing. Worshipping on lounge room sofas, running businesses from a kitchen table, learning from our laptop soon became the new normal.Wanting to resource the Presbyterian church during the lockdown, KCML offering “Bubble courses.” KCML Faculty with expertise in preaching, leadership and Christian formation went online during Level 3 to offer sixty minutes of evening input. How to preach in a pandemic? How to lead in change? How to build a community online?

For six evenings, ministers, session clerks, paid and voluntary church leaders, found themselves learning together online. New connections were made across diverse Presbyteries as lay and ordained were sent to online break rooms to share experiences.

Every Bubble course attracted between 30 to 45 participants. Sessions were recorded, and those unable to attend can access these through the KCML Living library.

While advertised to Presbyterians, the wonder of social media meant that participants were logging in from England and Australia, keen to learn from the calibre of Faculty at KCML.

“Thank you for allowing me to participate from ‘across the ditch’. This has been truly helpful already. The high-quality input and interactive nature are making it accessible and interesting.”

Each session was co-hosted, with social media strategist Tash McGill coming on board to welcome participants, provide technical support and enhance the conversation. Co-hosting was a way of modelling to churches ways to build online participation. Tash commented ”
As a specialist in digital transformation and online community, this was a venture into hope casting. The participation, active reflection and safety created demonstrated ways to build very present and real learning experiences in digital ways.”

This was new terrain for KCML Faculty. For Geoff New “What struck me was the deep level of trust and transparency. Participants engaged immediately, opening up to people they did not know. A college of preachers was created. Wonderful!”

For Steve Taylor, “It was wonderful to scan faces as people returned from online breakout small groups and see the range of people. Overseas ministers, Presbytery and local church leaders, LOM and NOM ministers were all learning and sharing together.”

The feedback from participants has been heartwarming. Words and phrases like “goldmine”, “excellent”, “stimulating” and phrases like “impressively well run”, “great service to the church”, “beautiful and interestingly presented” were used.

Is Bubble learning limited to a lockdown? Could online learning that is timely, thought provoking, conversational, engaging be part of a #newnormal for the Presbyterian church? The feedback certainly included requests for a sequel. One participant wrote

“I hope they can continue in some form – I think we need these to extend our “local church bubbles” to connect, interact and grow.”

KCML is seeking further feedback and working to discern future directions with the Leadership Subcommittee.

Steve Taylor
20 May 2020

Posted by steve at 01:46 PM | Comments (0)

Friday, May 15, 2020

public theology conversations amid the ups and downs of Zoom

I co-presented at a University of Auckland Business and International Relations research seminar, with Associate Professor Christine Woods on Thursday. We were offering an interdisciplinary focus, a conversation about social innovation in church contexts, building on our work over the last 3 years with the Lighthouse encouraging innovation at grassroots across the Presbyterian Church. It felt like a real moment of public theology, as Hebrew Wisdom literature, Paul and Jesus became conversation partners in a business research context.

slide

Given the COVID-19 lockdown, the seminar was entirely by Zoom. It was great not to have to think about travelling from Dunedin to Auckland, but simply walk downstairs and log on. However, any feelings of up rapidly descended down into panic.

The down was losing my co-presenter mid-presentation. We were taking turn about through the presentation, each speaking to our area of disciplinary strength. So I was doing Jesus and Paul, while my colleague was making the social innovation connections, including offering a new reading of an economist called Josef Schumpeter. Just as she prepared to compare the 1911 1st edition in German and the 1934 3rd edition in English, her screen froze. In horror, I realised she had gone. Here was I, a theologian, about to try and explain an economist to a room full of business lecturers and students. I stumbled through, recalling what we had rehearsed together. Sure enough, just as I finished, Christine came back on line. Just in time to grin and let me pick up on the next slide, the connectional theology of Paul Fiddes.

The up. I wonder if Zoom opens up different, and more conversational style. Christine and I have co-facilitated for three years, so we know each other well. We have been writing up this piece of research for about 6 months. We spoke without a full script, working our way through different slides. It felt conversational and dialogical. But I wondered what it would have been like face to face. The two of us standing at the front. The awareness of body language, paying attention as the other spoke. In contrast, Zoom switches speaker. I am no longer as visible if I need to turn over my notes or take a sip of water. What I am wearing is no longer as important. Our conversational style felt much more suitable to the technology, enhanced by Zoom.

Despite the ups and downs, it was a great experience. About 40 folk were present, which is the largest research seminar I’ve ever been to. Lots of expressions of thanks for our excellent presentation. And some great questions. I try and take notes of questions, to help my ongoing processing and checking the clarity of our argument. Here is what I recall (I might have missed a couple):

  • Innovation is defined as including both novelty and value. Where is the value in social innovation?
  • How did we assess the outcomes of what we did at Lighthouse?
  • How does the church respond to these ideas?
  • Entrepreneur or Entrepreneurship? Are you advocating a hero model of entrepreneur or a process model of entrepreneurship

All great questions as we put the finishing touches on a journal article submission.

Posted by steve at 06:40 PM

Friday, May 08, 2020

Building community and increasing participation online

During lockdown, in order to resource the wider church, I’ve found myself offering two evenings of online input on building community and increasing participation online. It is part of Bubble courses – a KCML experiment – in which we are seeking to offer some timely, conversational, thought provoking. Given the move to online that much of humanity is being forced into, I chose to focus on building community and increasing participation online.

This is a good idea in theory.

Bubble Courses2

But in practice it means I have to practice what I preach! I have to model building community and increasing participation online.

Break out rooms are an easy option. They allow processing but don’t give me as a facilitator much idea of what is happening. In addition, meeting strangers is always a bit awkward, particularly online.

For the first week, I wanted to gain a much more direct read of the group. I decided to do this through the use of chat and polls. I carefully crafted questions and then gave short periods of silence and encouraged the intentional use of Zoom chat function to record responses. I also offered an online poll at the start, to gain feedback which was woven in at a three different points during the 60-minute session, to generate comparison and discussion.

This is all greatly helped by teaching with a co-host – meaning together there are two sets of eyes reading every comment, troubleshooting as possible, giving each other time to think, providing different standpoints from which to respond.

The next day, I did some analysis of the chat comments. There were 148 distinct comments in chat, an average of one every 25 seconds over the 60 minutes. 31 different folk provided chat comments. Given that 43 people turned up on Zoom, this meant that 73% of folk had participated through chat. Of that 73 %, the gender balance was exactly even, with 15 females and 15 males participated (along with one user who was unknown).

It is interesting to ponder what would have happened if I’d run a 60-minute session face to face: would 31 participants have been able to provide direct responses to me over a 60 minute first lecture? I suspect not.

For the second week, with community starting to form with and some shared data (all those lovely 148 comments), it allows us to explore other forms of participation. So yesterday, I emailed participants – to thank them for the engagement and to offer them feedback on some of the comment data. But also to seek their participation in shaping our second week. Again, this involves a simple poll.

polling

Each participant is asked what they want more of – more theology? more research into online spirituality? more practical tips? This data will shape the second week, as together we work to build community and increase participation online.

Posted by steve at 08:55 PM

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Jesus as a socially (ir)responsible innovator research seminar

I’m committed to interdisciplinary research. As Paul Fiddes writes, Christian theology needs “to keep a conversation going with others outside the church, and to occupy a public space alongside late-modern thinkers” (Seeing the World and Knowing God: Hebrew Wisdom and Christian Doctrine in a Late-Modern Context, 2013, 13).  As a result, I find myself co-presenting – via Zoom – at a research seminar on Thursday 14 May, with Dr Christine Woods, at the Faculty of Business & Economics at the University of Auckland.

Christine is Associate Professor in Entrepreneurship and Innovation. We began working together three years ago, with the Lighthouse weekend, which sought to encourage mission and innovation, primarily among lay leaders nationally across the Presbyterian Church. 

Unknown-8 We’ve both found the interdisciplinary relationship quite engaging and co-presented (OK, Christine presented, together we wrote) at the United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship 2020 conference in New Orleans in January.

Now, with the wonders of technology, I will find myself talking Hebrew Wisdom literature, Jesus and Paul at the Faculty of Business & Economics at the University of Auckland on Thursday. Here’s our abstract.

Jesus as a socially (ir)responsible innovator: seeking the common good in a dialogue between wisdom Christologies and social entrepreneurship

Abstract:

Within Christian academic circles discussion on entrepreneurship has included the notion of missional entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship. This produces a challenging set of discussions around the relationship between market capitalism and Christian belief. In this paper we specifically extend the discussion on social entrepreneurship and suggest that Jesus can be read as a socially (ir)responsible innovator.

A connectional theology is used to develop an interdisciplinary contribution between theology and social entrepreneurship. The work of Schumpeter, who argues for innovation as social change through a mechanism of creative recombination is brought into creative dialogue with Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible and Christian Scriptures.

The potential of recombination is developed first in Pauline literature, particularly in 1 Corinthians as ministry is understood as serving, gardening, building, resource managing, risking and parenting. Each of these six dimensions can be theorised as recombinations in which Paul seeks social change, including in family life, in ways that in fact are socially irresponsible, challenging existing hierarchical patterns. The potential of recombination is further tested in analysing Jesus as a socially (ir)responsible innovator. This begins with examination of wisdom Christologies and Jesus as the fulfilment of God (Matthew 5:17). What emerges is recombinations that again seek social change, including in gender patterns, and hence are socially irresponsible as they challenge existing hierarchical patterns.

Theoretically, we argue that Jesus the socially irresponsible innovator is an act of public theology. A dialogue between academic disciplines of theology and social entrepreneurship is possible bringing together the three domains of church, academy and world. Practically, this is grounded in educational contexts, in which we have engaged in interdisciplinary praxis. This includes developing Innovation Canvas and Next Step resources to encourage social entrepreneurship among grassroots religious communities. The result is an envisioning of the church as a player in innovation, the world as locus of activity for agency of God and a wisdom innovation that inhabits an ethically coherent narrative.

Posted by steve at 11:17 PM

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Bubble courses: a KCML innovation

An educational experiment I’ve been working on for the last few weeks, seeking ways to facilitate learning and community in the context of a global pandemic.

During Level 3 in Aotearoa, Bubble courses provide input for leaders, elders, ministers and whole people of God. They are timely, conversational, engaging, thought-provoking.

  • Geoff New The Practice of Preaching in a Pandemic – Thursday 30th April and Thursday May 7th
  • Nikki Watkin Leading in change: conversations and creativity – Monday 4th May and Monday 11th May
  • Steve Taylor – Building community and increasing participation online – Tuesday 5th May and Tuesday 12th May

7:30-8:30 pm (NZT) evenings.  To register and get a zoom link, contact registrar@knoxcentre.ac.nz.

Bubble Courses2

Posted by steve at 01:54 PM

Saturday, April 25, 2020

communities of practice as action-reflection tools

It’s been an extraordinarily generative week for me.

  • First, I found myself offering a closed facebook group to bring practitioners of innovation in digital worlds into contact with research. That has generated 38 members and over 200 comments as people interacted with research on faith formation.
  • Second, I hosted an online video conversation in which 25 folk from 4 countries engaged further around their experiences of innovation in digital worlds.
  • Third, I’m potentially offering a community of practice, in which folk wanting to experiment can meet with peers for support and reflection. This is still forming and might not yet materialise – life is so fluid for so many people. However, it is astonishing to realise this wasn’t even on my radar 7 days ago.

Companies of friends in the journey of innovation.

There is action, and there needs to be space for reflection. Reflection can be individual, as I write and journal. Reflection can be individual, as I read and engage with the experiences and insights of others, and so see my actions more carefully. Reflection can be communal, as I share my intuitions and half-baked processing and gain wisdom simply from those who give the gift of listening; even active-listening, which draws me into free speech. Reflection can be communal, the conversations that result from sharing, the connections that get made.

So I’m offering a Community of Practice for those innovating in digital faith. It is for active people already doing stuff this is a space to reflect, to process with peers. And I have this hope, this pleading, that it won’t be my last. I dream of multiple Communities of Practice, in which unique projects (actions), by those facing a shared challenge, are enhanced by the space to reflect – individually and communally.

 

COP

Posted by steve at 12:51 PM

Thursday, April 23, 2020

5 practices for cultivating safe and prayerful space online: #ministry in isolation4

A resource – video and written summary – I produced this week. It is part of a series of interviews I am doing, called #ministry in isolation, which is spotlighting ecclesial innovation in the context of external (lockdown) restraints:

Jill McDonald #ministryinisolation4 from JaneThomsen on Vimeo.

How can God build a tapestry of love online through skilled leadership?

“Going online felt better. Being part of the river of God’s healing love. It felt profound. Lifegiving … A tapestry of prayer and love across Aotearoa,” concludes Jill.

Steve Taylor, from KCML, interviews Jill McDonald, from St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Hastings about her leadership of Sacred Space Whakamoemiti. Why did she take this short midweek prayer service online, and what was the result? What has been learnt?

The interview outlines five practices for cultivating safe and prayerful space online.

Such experiences require skilled leadership. Here are the five tips for creating sacred space online.
1. The value of a pre-gathering bidding question. Prepare people to participate by sending out prior a question you will be inviting response to during the online experience. A bidding question clarifies purpose. It communicates an ethos of participation and gives people space to prepare. This is likely to enhance the depth of participation and a sense of meaningful engagement.

2. Guiding the conversation through a focused question. Rather than offer an open space for anyone to answer, call people by name. It could be clockwise around your screen, or top of the land to the bottom. Being directive lets people know when and how they will be able to participate.

3. Modelling through drawing first on those familiar with the culture. Begin asking focused questions of people who have been before. They have experienced the culture of the group and the length, depth and type of responses.

4. Create a pass. Give words that allow people to pass. “I’m going to go around and call people by name. If you don’t yet have a response, just say “pass.”” Giving a specific word reduces a sense of forced participation.

5. Work to a settled rhythm. In the familiarity, there is safety. People can settle into their work. Good liturgy has call and response which gives direction. A pattern of welcome, a settling question to ensure folk have heard their voice, a sound to start and end a period of silence, a repeated ending ritual. It means that participants are more likely to settle into prayer if they are aware of where they are heading.

Steve Taylor and Jill McDonald
21 April 2020

Posted by steve at 07:34 PM

Monday, April 13, 2020

seeing faith: art and theology in Christ in the Wilderness

Christ in the Wilderness: Reflecting on the Paintings of Stanley Spencer by Stephen Cottrell has been a wonderful Lenten 2020 companion.

Art opens up the imagination. Cottrell reflects on the paintings of British painter, Stanley Spencer and in particular a Lenten series of paintings done by Spencer in the 1930′s. The book begins with a wonderful introduction to the spirituality and life of Spencer. Then there are 5 chapters engaging with 5 different paintings.

Cottrell is a brilliant communicator. The clever interweaving of stories from his life and experience, along with Biblical text, theology and the life of Stanley Spencer make for an accessible, yet at times profound engagement. Paying close attention to the imaginative work of an artist makes a space for stillness and reflection. At the same time, there is constant engagement with the life of Spencer, which adds layers of insight.

A picture a week made for a paced Lenten. Each picture is reproduced and in colour. The week began with a few days of my own contemplation on Spencer’s art. This was followed by reading slowly, a page or two, of Cottrell’s insights, as the week progressed. The result was fresh insights and a more contemplative Lent.

Posted by steve at 09:41 AM

Friday, April 10, 2020

limit your palette: radio ZB Easter Friday interview notes

jeremy-chen-b3hedAc21B0-unsplash

I was interviewed on radio ZB on Easter Friday morning. Here were the questions asked, and my rough notes in preparation.

Introduction: When we think about church and traditions around Easter, we might think of quite traditional churches, but there are church movements that have been wrestling and exploration different ways of expressing and meeting together. Steve Taylor has been leading and observing some of those new approaches to community faith practice for 20 years.

Question: What’s the opportunity for churches to explore new ways of doing things in the time of Covid-19 and how do you think that might actually benefit churches and their communities?

“Limit the palette” (David Sheppard). So not being able to physically gather is a limiting of the palette. It can benefit churches by sparking new imaginations. I’ve seen the creation of DIY walk the local community Stations of the Cross. I’ve seen folk realise that being home alone is a bit like a monastic experience and so offer contemplation and isolation spiritual practices. So limiting the palette has produced fresh forms of spiritual practice.

Question: What have you learned about what to focus on and what not to stress about when it comes to changes to the way we might traditionally worship – are people likely to be sitting around singing hymns on Zoom calls?

Don’t sing on Zoom! Technically the lag times make it awful.

First, stick to your strengths. If you’ve been good at technology, do technology. If you’ve been good at care and connection, do care and connection.

Second, use the tradition. Christian history is rich and deep. There are people before us who’ve been locked down, who’ve explored ways of doing worship. The letters of Paul were written from prison – a lockdown experience. So how might that help us respond.

Question: There are people for whom, big festival celebrations like Easter and Christmas, weddings and funerals are the only time they engage with a collective spirituality. Now that the doors of those buildings are closed, how can communities think about connecting with and serving each in new ways?

There are reports of online attendance increasing in the first week of lockdown. Perhaps it was ministers watching their friends but it will be interesting to see what happens. There are reports of first time visitors online. It is easier to check out a church by clicking on a link than it is to dress up the kids and be a first time visitor. So there is opportunity.

But please use the online space as it is made to be. Remember that online is a ‘making and doing’ space, not a ‘sit back and be told’ space. So explore ways to care and connect online.

Credit: Photo by Jeremy Chen on Unsplash

Posted by steve at 07:26 AM

Monday, March 30, 2020

contagion – a theological review in a time of pandemic

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 140 plus films later, here is the review for April 2020. Touchstone have kindly given permission for me to place it online prior to print publication, given the extraordinary times in which we find ourselves

Contagion
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Contagion was released in 2011. It is available on iTunes and Google Play and at prices cheaper than a movie ticket. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, a “stay-at-home” theological film review seemed appropriate.

“Get ready for the future, It is murder,” sings Leonard Cohen in 1992. The song would make an apt soundtrack for the movie “Contagion.” The film, released in 2011, has in the last week, become the second-most popular movie on iTunes. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the movie dramatizes a medical apocalypse that has, in recent weeks, become our present reality.

A mystery virus, originating in China, is swiftly carried by airline travel around the world. Highly contagious, able to survive on door handles and drinking glasses, a global pandemic ensures.

In this future vision (and unlike our present reality), the United States takes the lead. Central to the drama is the team at the Centre Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP). They are researching (Kate Winslett as Dr Erin Mears), communicating (Laurence Fishburne as Dr Ellis Cheever) and testing (Jennifer Ehle as Dr Ally Hextall; Demetri Martin as Dr David Eisenberg). A vaccine takes months. Distrust of science, mixed with the conspiracy, accelerated by social media results, results in looting, panic and vigilante action. As Cohen laments, the future indeed is murder.

“Contagion” has two emotional palette’s. A cold and fearful first half, as initial heroines (Gwyneth Paltrow as Beth Emhoff) collapse and masked medical professionals seek (unsuccessfully) to contain. A more empathetic second half follows, as romance blooms and sacrifices made for the greater good.

The movie cleverly pairs characters – wife (Beth Emhoff) with husband (Matt Damon as Mitch Emhoff); CDCP scientists’ female (Dr Erin Mears) with male (Dr Ellis Cheever). One sex will die, while the other will find creative ways to care for the next generation. Why, even in a pandemic, do gender stereotypes remain?

“Contagion” becomes an important watch amid the COVID-19 pandemic. What is made visible is the interplay between an unseen virus and a palpable human dread.

In the face of fear, we can choose anxiety. Believe social media. Distrust science. Surrender to conspiracy theories. Or we can choose to re-imagine. Open ourselves to love our neighbour as ourselves. Find different ways to care and connect through times of turbulence.

Churches have historically played an essential role in loving the sick. Basil of Caesarea in the fourth century, founded what historians consider was the world’s first hospital. At Basil’s funeral, the hospital he founded was praised as an institution of mercy in which “diseases are studied, misfortune made blessed and sympathy put to the test.” Such is Christianity. Science is valued, and research is respected. Kindness is evident, and greater love casts out fear.

We find ourselves in an unprecedented time in human history. Might the images of “Contagion” and the lyrics of Cohen accurately portray our emerging present? Or will the compassion of Mother Teresa and the innovation of Basil, mark the church as visible in the face of an invisible virus? Get ready for the future, it becomes our choice.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He is the author of First Expressions (2019), Built for change (Mediacom: 2016) and The Out of Bounds Church? (Zondervan: 2005) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 04:23 PM

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Annunciation in a time of Isolation

I write from home on lockdown eve. A national state of emergency has been enacted, and at midnight on the 25 March 2020, all of Aotearoa New Zealand has been ordered to isolate for the next four weeks. All over my nation, people are returning home. Parents are becoming teachers. Kitchen tables are now work desks, while fridge doors have new daily routines and economic fear gnaws.

Aotearoa New Zealand is not alone. As I write, more than 1.7 billion people worldwide, over a fifth of the world’s population, are secluding themselves at home.

In the calendar of the church, the 25 March is a Principal Feast. Hence on this 2020 lockdown eve, the lectionary texts revolve around the annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

In Luke 1:26–38, the angel appears to Mary, announcing good news. God is conceiving life, in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. In the tradition of the church, this announcement of God’s activity is in the context of seclusion.

This is beautifully portrayed in The Annunciation, an artwork by Filippo Lippi (1450s), that hangs in Room 58 of the National Gallery in London. Mary is (humanly) alone. She is seated inside a house, isolated from the outdoors by a stone wall. Behind her is stone stairs, suggesting further layers of enclosure. In front of her is the garden, although even that is enclosed. This is a woman alone and physically separated. Whether this was reality, we do not know. How much of this is patriarchy, with Mary entombed by external prejudices and cultural bias, whether from century villagers or fourteenth century is also unclear.

What is clear is that in this isolation, Mary is surrounded by Divine activity. She stares at an angel, who has slipped over the enclosed garden wall to kneel in respect. Above Mary is the hand of God, a motif present in so much baptismal art. Filippo Lippi presents the hand as breaking through the roof, a foreshadowing of the paralytic who will descend through the roof to be forgiven and healed by Jesus in Mark 2:1–12.

A bird hovers in front of Mary’s womb. The detail is extraordinary. A spray of golden particles issues from the beak of the dove. It is common in Annunciation art for the dove to be located above Mary’s head. Filippo Lippi provides a new intimacy, as the Spirit draws near to the womb the angel is blessing. Annunciation thus offers a theology of isolation.

First, what is clear is that a home is a place of encounter. Much of religious activity is centred on the church. We expect the Spirit to be present Sunday by Sunday as the faithful gather around the body of Christ. In the annunciation, God is present in the home. This is good news for the millions of humans currently in lockdown. As we gaze longingly at our gardens, God’s hand can enter our rooms. As an external virus entombs us, God’s Spirit draws near.

Blessed are the secluded
For they will experience God

Second, the house protects. The womb of Mary will house the son of God. God’s Spirit’s draws near, proclaiming favour on the womb of Mary. This womb will house the son of God. In the flow of blood and the bodily tasks of eating and drinking, Divine life is safeguarded. This is what makes Christianity radical, for in God, bodies matter. This is the genius of Filippo Lippi. Mary’s womb, that human body that will house the divine body, is inside a house. Do the stone walls enclose? Or do they protect?

Blessed is the home
For protecting of divine encounter

Third, in seclusion is new life. The word “conceive” is used twice (verses 31 and 36), as is the word “birth” (verses 31 and 35). So much of Christianity seems focused on death, yet the story of Jesus brims with new life. The Spirit that hovers over Mary is the Spirit that hovers over the waters in Genesis 1:2. It is the Spirit that makes birth again possible for Nicodemus in John 3:4–6. It is the Spirit that groans with creation in the pains of childbirth in Romans 8:22–23. In 2020, this same conceiving Spirit continues to hover over our locked-down bodies. Bonhoeffer wrote that in birth, God in Jesus Christ claims space in the world as a “narrow space” in which the whole reality of the world is revealed (Ethics (Dietrich Bonhoeffer-Reader’s Edition)).

This narrow space that is the hope of a new creation is conceived in the four walls that enclose Mary. In 2020, the narrow spaces that are the four walls of our home might yet be the womb of God’s new creation. Might we emerge into a new world in which a universal basic income protects the vulnerable? Might we cultivate different habits, like sabbath and localism, which change the nature of global pollution?

Blessed is time
For in the moment is grace

Fourth, an agency is established. In Luke 1:26-38, despite being secluded, Mary is no passive passenger. She is an agent, choosing to open herself to God’s mission of favour. As she utters the words “Here I am” (verse 38), she is locating herself in the genealogy of God’s servants. She is taking her place alongside Moses in Exodus 3:4 and the prophet in Isaiah 6:8.

How might Mary’s agency be portrayed in art? What Filippo Lippi does is extraordinary. A close examination of The Annunciation shows a spray of golden particles pours from the beak of the hovering dove. An answering spray of gold golden particles issues from a tiny parting in the tunic of Mary. This is Mary “active and outgoing” according to John Drury, former Dean of Christ Church, Oxford (Painting the Word: Christian Pictures and Their Meanings, Yale University Press, 1999, 53). In enclosure, Mary is open. Secluded, she is receptive. This is the art of imagination, not the precision of science. Yet in the poetry is a theology of isolation.

Blessed are the isolated
For they participate in God’s conceiving

In time, Mary will be no stranger to sorrow. The years that lie ahead of her will be stained by tears and pain. God’s favour is no offer of a rosy garden. Yet on the Feast of Annunciation, we in 2020 find a theology of isolation. Enclosed in our homes, God’s Spirit is active. Entombed by the invisible, we have agency. In the narrow space in which we, as a global society, find ourselves, a new world might yet be conceived.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership and explores ecclesiologies of birth and conception in First Expressions: Innovation and the Mission of God. This post also appears on the SCM blog as part of their #TheologyinIsolation series.

Posted by steve at 09:15 PM

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

being church as public gatherings are shut down

In 2005, I wrote a book about a future church. In one chapter, I pointed out that the Bible shows that faith is transmitted in many ways. One way is through the Jewish synagogue pattern of meeting weekly.

However, the Old Testament provides other ways by which faith was transmitted. There were festivals, large scale community events that celebrated life over numbers of days. There were pilgrimages, with Psalms of Ascent to sing on journeys. Upon return, there were kitchen tables at which the experiences of festivals past was retold. At significant landmarks, stones were gathered in piles so that when curious children asked “What’s that,” stories of God active in the past could be shared.

In other words, there have always been other ways to transmit faith than by weekly gathered worship.

The COVID19 pandemic is an opportunity to explore these other ways. There are so many possibilities other than live streaming that weekly pattern. We are being freed to minister Word and offer sacramental leadership in other ancient ways.

Design do at home Easter services with recipes for feasts around the family table. Create prayers to turn the pilgrimage from the front door to letterbox into Psalms of Ascent and Descent. Design ways to share digital stories of God’s actions in times present and past. Offer asynchronous lectio divina using open source software.

Posted by steve at 09:38 PM

Friday, March 06, 2020

making matters grassroots impact #Kiwiangels

Kiwiangels I really enjoyed presenting at St Lukes Presbyterian yesterday. It was great to have the opportunity to offer to a local church and nearby ministers some of my study leave from last year. I took my presentation from Durham Ecclesiology and Ethnography Conference in September. I added in a 15 minute introduction to the variety of ways the church might be “making” – for good and bad – in the world today. I also generated some “free range” activities, to mess with the usual question and answer time by adding things to see, do and make. It was gratifying to overheard conversations as the evening ended plotting Christmas 2020 projects and I came away with the sense of being directly useful to the local church.

Making matters: yarn-bombing and craftivism in contemporary Christian mission

There was some very rich discussion, particularly around the materiality of knitting. The discussion was rich enough to generate 900 words as I wrote this morning, reflecting on the Incarnation in light of the useless yet playful act of yarnbombing knitted angels.

One of the unexpected blessings was becoming aware of the impact of my writing in the lives of ordinary people in the Presbyterian church. In October 2019, I wrote a column for SPANZ, the publication of the Presbyterian Church. Under the title “Making matters,” I concluded,

Are there makers in Presbyterian churches? Yvonne Wilkie, our Church’s former archivist, recalls knitted nativities in Presbyterian history. But that was the past, and we all now live in the present.

The instructions are online (https://www.christmasangel.net/). They are simple enough that, as part of my research, I learnt to make one. Is anyone interested in making and mission, with a downunder #Kiwiangels hashtag? Or are Kiwi summers now too busy and too hot for making to matter?

Last night at St Lukes, I met a person who told me she had read the article and promptly knitted 30 angels, which she gave over Christmas 2019 to her friends and neighbours. Each was thoughtfully and carefully personalised, an act of love. It was humbling to be made aware my written words and study leave research had contributed to a kinder world. Study leave research generates grassroots impact :) Yee ha.

Posted by steve at 09:58 AM