Saturday, March 28, 2009

preaching a complex scent simply

The latest U2 album, No line on the horizon, has a song ( “Cedars of Lebanon”) that intrigues me. It’s one of my favourite songs on the album and it’s been making some odd echoes in my head over the last few days.

The song seems to be written from the point of view of a journalist in Lebanon. In the first verse we find him waking up after a late night, meeting a deadline.
Yesterday I spent asleep
Woke up in my clothes in a dirty heap
Spent the night trying to make a deadline
Squeezing complicated lives into a simple headline

I’ve been wondering if the last line actually captures some of the task of communication in general, including preaching.

It’s a fact that the Bible is complicated. Multiple genre’s, from poetry to story, from apocalypse to epistle, from gospel to poetry, from proverb to parable. The literature emerges from lives spread over hundreds of years, across diverse languages (Greek, Aramaic, Hebrew) and unique cultures (nomadic, Ancient near eastern, Israelite, Greco-Roman). It’s complicated.

So to are the lives of people. Every Sunday a range of lifestories eye me up. Some are high, others low. Some are forgiven, others burdened. Some are open, others closed. All are trying to make sense of a rapidly changing world and the complications of life in a credit crunch.

Into all this complication comes the cry for simplicity, to be clear and sharp, to say one thing well. Preaching becomes “Squeezing complicated lives into a simple headline”! I’m not saying this is good or bad, it simply is. Nor am I saying anything about how one goes about the preaching task – whether one exposits, or discusses, or imagines or creates. Simply that the task seems to be summarised by the juxtaposition between complicated/simple.

Come the third verse, another line jumps out at me.
This shitty world sometimes produces a rose
The scent of it lingers and then it just goes

That’s my prayer every Sunday. That in the mercy of God, my “complicated/simple headlines” might in fact be a rose, in the midst of people’s turmoil. Even better, that the rose scent would linger, beyond Sunday and into Monday and the week ahead. It might be an idea, a connection, a concept, and wouldn’t it be great if it lingered beyond the door, and wafted into the week ahead.

In writing this, I am not trying to claim anything special for my preaching, nor for the task of preaching itself. The scent might come from a pastoral prayer, or a moment of creativity, or a song well chosen, or an instrument played creatively, or a rich conversation over coffee afterward.

But the goal seems captured by that sense of “complex scent simply.” Some random connections as I’ve travelled through the week.

Posted by steve at 10:57 PM

Thursday, March 26, 2009


OK, we’re having a go at using twitter for Opawa Baptist – We’ve created a group twitter, initially with a number of pastoral team people, and will see whether it’s useful tool in terms of comings and goings and prayer updates around the church.

Posted by steve at 03:36 PM

preaching Christ in a credit crunch

Blog question: If you had the opportunity to teach a four-week sermon series to a congregation that would help them sift through some of the current economic issues, what would your topics be? (And just to be clear, I’m not talking about a giving or money management series, but something that reflects a biblical mindset towards economics in general).

My response: Hi, I’m working on this very question, down here in New Zealand, as my seminary has called a conversation (tonight) between business and community leaders and theologians (and I’ll be preaching on Christ and the credit crunch this Sunday at our Harvest Festival). Here’s my suggestion:
Week 1 – creativity – co-creators with God in 21st century – Genesis 1, Psalm 8, Parable of sower, parable of talents
Week 2 – justice – distribution of resources – Old Testament, host in Luke 14, Zaccheus, Joseph of Arimathea
Week 3 – sustainability – how to live within ourselves individually, communally, nationally
Week 4 – how then should we live – stories of how Kingdom is being earthed in local communities in response to credit crunch.

thoughts? comments?

Posted by steve at 11:29 AM

discipling: update on Lifeshapes

It was the 6th week of Lifeshapes (an 8 week discipling course we’re trying at Opawa) last night. The topic was how to pray. Which is not a new question, but asked by Jesus disciples in the Gospels. Jesus response to “How do we pray” was to offer the Lords Prayer. So that makes a great place to explore how to pray.

We started the evening sharing what makes prayer a challenge and what makes it a joy. We had some teaching about the Lords Prayer, followed by three practical suggestions of ways to use the Lords Prayer to pray. We then had 10 minutes to “try” before a final feedback – what was helpful/unhelpful. The homework was set: try praying the Lords Prayer daily. Until we gather again next week.

And after the evening ended, members of the group remained. They gathered around the Lords Prayer (projected on the screen) and just kept talking. About what it means, how it challenges us, shapes us, relates to our life. It was great to sit and watch and be part of.

This is the power of the block course teaching we’ve been slowly developing at Opawa over the last 2 years. As a church we want people to grow, yet we are a multi-congregational church, with people old in faith and new in faith. So amid that diversity, we’ve employed a number of strategies to encourage next steps in growth. One is block course Wednesday evening teaching during Term time. And last nite was fruit of that. People from different congregations, staying on, to talk about how praying the Bible can form them spiritually.

Posted by steve at 11:10 AM

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

will someone please charge the father too!

Rant begins.

So a few days ago, this really sad things happens – a newborn baby is found alive, in a rubbish bin, on an airplane. As events unfold, it is revealed that the plane has flown from Samoa to New Zealand and during the flight, a woman has given birth, and has then tried to abandon the baby. Today comes the news that she is now being charged, first with abandoning the baby girl and second, with assaulting her.

So what about the father? It takes two parties to conceive. If the mother is to be charged with abandonment, then surely the father must be as well. He has abandoned this baby just as much as the mother has. Where is he when the going gets tough? Cowardly males, taking the easy option, getting off scott-free!

Rant over.

Posted by steve at 09:23 PM

spirituality of change

I sat with my spiritual director last week. Where was God since we last met, was the question. And so I reflected on my sunflower prayer from a few weeks ago:
As the sunflower tracks the sun,
God, help me track your warmth and love this day,
And grow, unfold, bloom,
into my full splendour as your child, Amen.

So what would stop you following God’s warmth through a sun/day, Steve? my director asked. The question floored me. I searched within myself. I fumbled and fudged and we moved on.

Thirty minutes later, we returned. Somehow the conversation slipped back to that same question (sneaky spiritual director). So what would stop you following God’s warmth through a sun/day, Steve?

And I knew the answer. It was time for me to stop looking in and look out. To name what I have been afraid to name. That when external change happens, some people don’t like it. It’s not the same and it’s not the good old days. Change is hard and I don’t understand/agree.

To use the sunflower analogy, other people can stop following the sun. And when they stop following, when they fold their arms, they run the risk of acting in ways that, in fact, can stop others following the sun. This is heightened by my sensitivity and intuition. As I travel through my sun/day, I feel the resistance and as I feel it, I am tempted to stop following the sun, and start tracing the shadow.

Here’s the rub. The cold hard rub. When do I as a leader stop listening to these people? When do you say enough is enough? When do you say, if you are not following the sun, it is quite likely that your input is no longer life-giving to us in our journey of change? (more…)

Posted by steve at 10:31 AM

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

(still) needing a church manager

A few weeks ago, Opawa Baptist started looking for a Church Manager. We have had some good interest. But a number of applicants have suddenly withdrawn, so in order to strengthen our interview pool, we are continuing to advertise the position. If you know of someone who is good with people, with systems and resources and wants to help shape future mission among our present people, we’d love to hear from them ASAP.

Specifically, can
– create and implement processes and systems necessary for efficient operation of the administrative functions of the church.
– take responsiblity for the daily operation of the church office.
– ensure a “staffed” office, both during the week and on Sunday mornings
– ensure café and hospitality ministry
– deal with administration of meetings, annual reports, membership and belonging
– ensure communication, including website, newsletters, promotion and signage
– ensure buildings are cleaned, used and maintained in accordance with mission and ethos of the church.

for more

Posted by steve at 10:02 PM

pastoral care and divorce recovery

I sat with a group of 6 people today. In the course of a rolling conversation, 4 of the 6 shared how hard they are finding life because they are currently watching their children, and their friends children, face broken marriages. I hear talk of Divorce Recovery groups. But, I asked, Do we need Parents Watching Divorce Recovery Groups?

All the heads nodded.

As divorce statistics rise, it is not just those being divorced who need care. It is those who watch helplessly as the lives of their kids get torn apart. What does justice and reconciliation mean for parents, who have invested so much in the dreams of their children?

Posted by steve at 09:55 PM

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Do baptists have a communion liturgy?

“Do baptists have a way of doing communion?” I was asked in passing this morning. A few weeks ago, I spent time with the children in the church, talking with them about communion. It was part of a church wide process, in which we took time to explore communion, it’s why’s and wherefore’s. Hence the question, as to whether baptists have a way of doing communion.

My answer is yes, Baptist’s do have a communion liturgy. Each church is different, but there are some repeated patterns. Here’s my take on the “liturgy.”

explain – an explanation, often more devotional in format, in which the meaning of communion is explained.

pray – often 2 people, one for the bread, and one for the cup, pray.

invite – some indication is given of who can participate.

distribute – the elements are passed around. This tends to be individualistic and passive, with bread on trays and juice in little cups.

eat and drink – time is spent, usually individually, thinking upon the meaning of the cup.

thank – often a prayer of thanks.

A Baptist liturgy is not based on a whole lot of words. But the above is based on a clear theology. The explanation tends to focus on the events of the Last supper. This does make it “thin” (too thin in my opinion, missing Incarnation, resurrection, Spirit and eschatology), but it is a way of telling the story. The two people who pray are rarely clergy, because the priesthood of all believers is encouraged. Equally, going forward is viewed with suspicion, because of the danger of affirming a “priest” as essential in what is an equal table.

My journey has pushed me toward what I would call a bapti-can liturgy. It seeks to honour the richness of being baptist: a theology of community, a unease with ritual and words for the sake of words, an expectation of “communion” with God. But it adds in a greater theological breadth (weaving in themes of Incarnation, resurrection, Spirit and eschatology) in the explanation, ensures the prayer invokes the Spirit to make Jesus real, encourages people to come forward to receive from each other to enhance participation and community contact, distribution which includes the breaking of one loaf and the placing of pieces of that loaf on the trays alongside those small squares, visuals and creativity to provide multiple layers as people eat and drink, a final thanks which often includes the Lords Prayer as a way of expressing our unity with each other and the church world wide.

So yes, Baptists do have a communion liturgy.

Posted by steve at 05:30 PM

Friday, March 20, 2009

leadership in (external) change

God help us to change.
To change ourselves and to change our world.
To know the need of it. To deal with the pain of it. To feel the joy of it. To undertake the journey without understanding the destination.
The art of gentle revolution. Amen

Change can come from internal factors, it can also come from external factors. Opawa is in the midst of external change at the moment, enjoying new faces as local community folk find us a place to call home. It’s a great privilege, but given that our community is lower-socio economic, it also brings its challenges. It’s church, but not as some used to know it.

In the midst of this, the prayer by Michael Leunig (When I Talk to You a Cartoonist Talks to) caught by eye. It became our benediction on Sunday morning. It formed the basis of our staff prayers on Tuesday, while change in various ways occupied much of the Board meeting on Tuesday evening.

Reflecting on change, someone pointed me to Jesus. And how often in the Gospels Jesus seemed to be saying, “I’m moving on. Will you come with? It will change you. It will change your world? Will you join me in living the Kingdom?”

What is challenging is the fact that often, if people said no to change, Jesus simply moved on. Which is an important thing for us as a church to hear. In God’s grace, we are being changed. It’s not easy. It never is. It never has been. Such is the call of Jesus. “Will you join me in living the Kingdom?”

I find this hard. I like to please people and I’d love to bring everyone with me on the change journey. I am wary of a leadership style which sounds like God’s way=my way; or the highway. But at times, Jesus demanded change and kept moving, even as people struggled. How, as leader, does one know when recognise this time?

Posted by steve at 09:17 PM

Thursday, March 19, 2009

debaptism: a theological punch in the nose

A historian, an atheist, a theologian and a missiologist sat around the lunch table. Wearily they blew steam from their morning cup of tea. The atheist searched for his lighter, the theologian thanked God for her sandwich, the historian fretted over the suduko, the missiologist enjoyed the letters to the editor. All four glanced up, intrigued by the TV newsflash “Debaptise yourself!” Turn it up, the athist asked, and they listened intrigued …

The atheist punched the air in delight. At last, a chance to write a wrong. He’d always been angry at the smirk on the Anglican church’s face when it came to baptism, the way that baptismal numbers were used to swell their sense of societal importance, their colonial paternalism that assumed that somehow God owned him. (more…)

Posted by steve at 11:01 AM

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

being human being Christian in U2’s no line on the horizon

Art is not theology. And lots of theology is certainly not art. But art is an attempt to make meaning and in that attempt at meaning making, theological echoes and insights can occur. While such insights should respect the voice of the author and the sound of text, neither should they ignore the reader/listener/viewer.

The U2 album has got me doing some serious theological pondering, particularly on what it means to be human. Who are we and how then should we live? The following is a reader/listener response that seeks to honour the sound of the text and the complexity of the author … (more…)

Posted by steve at 04:43 PM

Christ and the credit crunch

Just out of a gruelling faculty meeting. We are concerned at the credit crunch. And how then we should live as Christians in times like these? So at Laidlaw College, we’re offering a seminar:

Christ and the credit crunch, Thursday 26 March, 7-9 pm, 70 Condell Ave.

We want it to be a conversation between the biblical and theological faculty of Laidlaw College and business and community leaders. What is happening with the global economic crisis at the level of our local community? Do the Bible and theology have anything to say? How then should we live in times like this?

We’re all as nervous as kittens. We do have a theoretical confidence that the Christian gospel should be able to speak to our times. We also know that very few people do seem to have answers at the moment. We all know the perception that academics and theologians know nothing about real life! We’re the hosts and we don’t want to talk to ourselves. Nor do we want to deny voice, our voice, or that of the wider community.

So how to set up a conversation? And so began the gruelling back and forth, trying to nail a process. A guiding slogan has been “Not the last word, but perhaps a start.” (A twist on Groove booklets).

Here’s the result. We’re going to try a model of reflection which starts with concrete experience, invites reflection on that experience, offers theoretical frameworks, which might start active experimentation.

So we’ve invited a business person to share their experience of the credit crunch (concrete experience). Then a panel (retail business person, public research company, grassroots community budgetry advisor) will reflect on what for them are the key questions and concerns that emerge from the concrete experience). Three of our faculty staff will then offer ‘ancient wisdom’, wondering what the stories of Jesus, the people of Israel and the economic saints of the New Testament might say if they were here today (theoretical frameworks). Back to the panel for their thoughts on “active experimentation” and how we might live, followed by time in table groups, brainstorming potential connections and ways forward. And timings to ensure equal voice between theology and business/community.

So what do you think of the process? And what would you want to say if you were me? I have 10 minutes to address the questions: Do the Bible and theology have anything to say in the credit crunch? How then should we live in times like this?

Posted by steve at 02:53 PM

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

priestly presence: faith in Gran Torino film

I enjoyed, in a disturbing sort of way, the movie Gran Torino. Clint Eastwood is superb as the racist, aging American, and the depiction of American urban ethnic life highly disturbing. This is suburban front porch theology at it’s gritty best. Into all this steps a young priest Father Janovich. It’s worth watching the movie for this character portrayal alone, for how does the media portray religious leaders?

Early on Father Janovich is dismissed, in the words of the acerbic Clint Eastwood, “an overeducated 27-year-old virgin who likes to hold the hands of superstitious old ladies and promise them everlasting life.” Ouch!

Despite the rebuff, the priest remains pastorally present. His patience ensures a gradually earned respect. His initial homily drips syrup, although it does prove strangely prophetic, for death is indeed bitter-sweet for so many in Gran Torino. His entry into the pub for a drink with Clint is a significant turning point and shows the power of being present and persistent, and of entering the turf of another. The Father’s ability to listen and in that listening issue a prophetic challenge for Clint to explore life is another important pastoral moment. His awareness of local issues, his networking with other community figures and his willingess to be a peacemaker shine through. His final homily shows the power of storytelling earthed in growing pastoral relationships.

In the end, Father Janovich attempts at at-one-ment are upstaged by two other characters (trying not to give the plot away and I have more to say on this in a later film-review). Nevertheless, for a contemporary movie, it is a surprisingly positive priestly portrayal.

Posted by steve at 06:56 PM