Monday, May 30, 2011

Looking for God: a missiology of everyday life

This is a sermon preached on Acts 17, with the Gospel reading being John 14, to a combined service of 6 rural church communities.

Today’s reading from Acts 17 invites us to look for God in the everyday world around us. Because of the Gospel reading – Jesus promise of the Holy Spirit.

The reading starts with the Apostle Paul waiting for his friends. And with a few days off, he decides to wander the city. Not a bad life really when you think about, a few days off in Athens.

Athens was sort of Canberra and Melbourne mixed together. It’s a city of decision – it’s got politics and power – “a museum for the world of Greek culture.” (Witherington The Acts of the Apostles : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 513)

It’s also a city of debate. “a sophisticated … university town.” (Willimon, Acts: Interpretation 142). Filled with ideas – the reading talks about Epicurean and Stoic philosophers.

In this city, Paul wanders. He visits the Acropolis. He checks out the Parthenon.

Interactive question: Anyone here done this? Been to Greece, been a tourist like Paul and wandered Athens? What were they like?

So in this city of decision and debate, being this tourist, Paul wanders.

Often as tourists we go through culture shock. We see a new culture and we can find ourselves feeling a bit lost and confused. Become a bit homesick and lonely. Can end up comparing the worst bits of the new culture with the best bits of being Aussie.

Perhaps that’s what’s happening for Paul in verse 16 – “greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” Paul was brought up a good Jew, and in good Jewish culture here O Israel, the Lord your God is one. Not many.

So, wandering this great city, perhaps feeling a bit disconnected, he could well have experienced culture shock.
Which makes his response really interesting doesn’t. Rather than point out the worst bits, rather than condemn what he doesn’t understand, he tries to build some bridges, to make some connections. Because of the Gospel reading – Jesus promise of the Holy Spirit.

In verse 22 he starts with a compliment “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are extremely reverential.” Looking for the good, something to give thanks for.

Then in verse 23, he notes an altar to the Unknown God. Trying to build a bridge.

Then in verse 28, he quotes a poet, a man named Epimenides – “For in him we live and move and have our being.” And a 2nd poet Arastus – “We are his offspring.”

So this is Paul. Meeting a strange culture, meeting people he doesn’t understand.

Rather than rush to condemn, he takes the time to look carefully. To enter the temples and look at their idols. To read their poets, to look for connections.

A friend of mine called this God prospecting. Sort of like gold prospecting. To be like Paul, to wander our world, to look carefully at our culture – looking for God in the world. Because of the Gospel reading – Jesus promise of the Holy Spirit.
What’s interesting is that Paul has done this before – had to the eyes to find God in the world around us.

Back in Acts 14 the scene was more rural. A place called Lystra. More like Fleurieu Peninsula than North Terrace.

In Acts 14:15-18 makes another speech. Quite different from this speech in Acts. He quotes not poetry, but the goodness of creation. “He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” That’s Acts 14:17

So in the cultured city of Athens you talk about poetry, but in the country, you talk about rain. And crops. Which is interesting isn’t it.

I used to have this idea that when I shared my Christian faith, there was like this single, simple gospel message that I needed to get across. I used to get quite stressed, that I might forget it, or get the order mixed up, or say the wrong thing.

Acts is actually full of people sharing their Christian faith. Over half the book is actually speeches. 26 in total if you don’t believe me and want to go and count.

If we had time, if this was a class at Uniting College, I’d get you to put them side by side. How do the speeches start? What were the connection points? What was the conclusion?

And together we’d find that each speech is totally different. That when you talk to Jews, who know the Bible, quote the Old Testament. That when you talk to farmers, the talk about rain. When you meet philosopher townies, quote some poets.

So there’s no one simple way to share your faith. Instead we have this appreciation that God is in the world around us.

We just need to take the time to wander, to go God prospecting, to have the eyes to see.

It’s not just Paul. It’s not just the Bible book of Acts. In 1962 a young man called Don Richardson took his wife, Carol and their seven month old baby and went to live in the highlands of West Papua New Guinea. Among a people rumoured to be canibals, called the Sawi people.

In their new home, the only white fella’s, the Richardsons set about learning the local language. Which wasn’t easy. The Sawi language has 19 tenses for every verb.
As they learnt the language and lived with the people, they became more aware of this big gulf that separated their Christian worldview from the worldview of the Sawi people. The first time they shared the story of the Last Supper, the Sawi decided to follow Judas.
Because to betray people was something they valued highly in their culture. So Judas, not Jesus, was the hero.

So Don and Carol go through culture shock and find themselves lost and confused. Tempted to compare the worst bits of the Sawi culture with the best bits of their culture back home.
Thankfully Don get listening. Kept God-prospecting, kept looking carefully.

He discovered that in Sawi culture, there is a Peace Child. They had this ceremony in which in order to bring peace between warring villages, young children would be exchanged, as a Peace child. One day Don saw a man run toward his enemy’s house and literally gave his son to one of his enemies.

Don began to wonder if the peace child was their alter to the Unknown God. That to stop humans fighting with each other, God in Jesus gives us a peace child.

When they heard this, many villagers decided they wanted to follow Jesus the Peace Child. They converted to Christianity, began to live in peace with this peace child and with each other.

Simply because Don Richardson believed that God was already in the Sawi world. If he just took the time to look.
So, this week, why not try and make this Bible text practical today.

Take time to walk around your local park. Is God here? What can you see that can feed the spiritual journey?

Then, take a time to walk around a shopping centre. Is God there? What can you see that can feed the spiritual journey?

I thought I should practise what I preach …

This is a billboard hanging on the pub closest to my work.

When I looked, I was suprised to find a commercial billboard, on a main road, in which God is named. In which to understand you need to know the creation story, Genesis 1, made in 7 days. And while I’m not convinced that alcohol represents the fullness of heaven, I love the suggestion that as part of God making us, God wants us to relax and enjoy life. That billboard, almost an altar to the unknown God on a main road in Adelaide.

This is a mat on the ground floor of a central city business. It was the word “devine” that caught my attention. I checked the spelling. It was wrong.

But I love the tag line – “Welcome. Find your ideal place.” Isn’t that what Christianity is about? A faith of welcome. An invitation not to be forced into a cookie cutter, but to find our unique and special place. Reminded me of that fact that each of us have our own unique fingerprint and so the task of spiritual growth is to grow into what each of us are truely, uniquely, meant to be. Another altar to the unknown God – God’s “devine” grace as “Welcome. Find your ideal place.”
So we started with Paul in Athens. Taking the time to wander. To look. And discovering that in this highly intelligent, sophisticated, place of decision and debate, that God was already there. Because of the Gospel reading – Jesus promise of the Holy Spirit.

And I compared that to a different sermon, to a more rural place in Acts 14. Once again, God was already there, not only in poets and philosophers, but in rain and harvest. Because of the Gospel reading – Jesus promise of the Holy Spirit.

Which I linked with a missionary story. Of the Richardsons in West Papua New Guinea taking the time to look, and finding a peace child. Because of the Gospel reading – Jesus promise of the Holy Spirit.

So this week, would you look with me. Go God-prospecting in the everyday world in which you find yourself.

Posted by steve at 08:57 AM

Saturday, May 28, 2011

a magic mission morning

I was up early, leaving home at 7:20 am on a Saturday morning, to drive to Murray Bridge. I was giving the opening plenary (60 minute) address for the Lutheran District of South Australia and the Northern Territories, followed by a 60 minute elective.

The first talk sought to place fresh expressions with the frame of global mission and contemporary theology. The second talk (with over 100 folk turning up) focused on leadership in mission today, along with information about Fresh expressions and mission and ministry training being offered here in South Australia today – the mission-shaped ministry pilot being offered later this year, the new pioneer stream in the Bachelor of Ministry, the new Missional masters.

It was a simply beautiful drive. Salmonella Dub (Longtime) on the stereo.

Don’t you fall from grace
be cool with your space
check your place
in the race

Mist in the hollows of the Adelaide Hills. Sun stroking the tree tops. A chance to be with part of God’s wider church, to talk mission, to simply participate in the ongoing mission of God.

It was the second time this week that I have addressed a mainline denomination about fresh expressions, mission and leadership. It follows the spending of Thursday and Friday with 16 folk from 4 denominations and 4 states, all key folk in their denominations, all highly skilled ministry practioners, together plotting mission training. An enormous privilege to be among such insight, experience and passion.

It sort of feels like God is up to something, in Australia and across a number of denominations and church systems.

Posted by steve at 10:42 PM

Friday, May 27, 2011

landslide victory for fresh expressions in Australian churches

Recent results indicate a stunning mandate for change in the Australian church climate.

Some 66% of church attenders agreed that the traditional established models of church life must change to better connect with the wider Australian community (only 11% disagree).

For an even larger majority, this was personal. 82% claimed that they would support the development of new initiatives in ministry and mission in their church (3% disagreed).

This is a stunning mandate for change. It should encourage every church minister, and every church leader, to consider how they provide responsive leadership, seeing to establish a fresh expression or new initiative in their church in the next years.

Update: Some interesting pushback over at Hamo’s blog.

(Data from the Innovation data from the 2006 National Church Life Survey.)

Posted by steve at 10:21 PM

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

spirituality of autumn leaf fights

Over the weekend the Taylor family choose to recreate by engaging in that important autumn spiritual practise – leaf fights. Unfortunately the intensity of the spiritual experience means I am unable to provide a visual. Instead, let me summarise how to practise this important spiritual discipline.

  1. identify a place that has lots of autumn leaves (botanic gardens best)
  2. book in family and form 2 teams
  3. decide on ground rules – usually no leaves down tops or trousers
  4. go to place and let the fun commence
  5. conclude when everyone exhausted (or rain forces cessation of play, as it did on Saturday)
Posted by steve at 05:05 PM

leading and fresh expressions

I’m back from a rich and thought-provoking time with the Anglican clergy of South Australia. Throat a bit sore and grateful for all those who prayed. One of their requests – to reflect on leadership and fresh expressions – involved me reworking some previous work, plus developing some entirely new material. Time consuming, but quite rich personally. It involved reflecting on the leaders who had helped shape my understandings of leadership in fresh expression

I explored the postures toward culture and the habits at work. This included some contemporary leadership and change insights, including appreciative inquiry and Roxburgh’s three zone model. Plus some stories, via God Next door and my Opawa experiences.

We ended by praying for each other (the person next to us), aware that we are all uniquely gifted, we are all uniquely called to keep growing as disciples and thus (for this group) as leaders and ministers.

It seemed to be helpful – as someone commented “You took what was beyond us and made us feel like we could be part of it.”

Posted by steve at 11:04 AM

Monday, May 23, 2011

please say a prayer for me now

If you’re the praying kind, I have a big week, with a number of events that will generate some adrenaline and stress in me and could be quite significant for mission in South/Australia.

On Tuesday I am speaking all day to the Anglican Clergy Conference of South Australia. My three topics are

  • Defining fresh expressions
  • Leading and fresh expressions
  • Diversity and fresh expressions

On Thursday and Friday I am hosting a gathering to workshop the national missionshaped ministry course. There are folk coming from Tasmania, Sydney, Canberra.

On Saturday I speak at the Lutheran Synod of South Australia. This includes a keynote on titled Mission Shaped Ministry – Equipping for the Future and an elective, on Fresh Expressions of Church

On Sunday I preach at the combined Uniting churches of Flerieu Peninsula celebration, to preach and talk about the new directions in mission and leadership being undertaken by Uniting College.

(Then next Monday I fly to Perth for 3 days. In between I have two three hour Masters classes. It all feels exciting and daunting and I’ll certainly be glad of a break at the end.)

Posted by steve at 11:08 AM

Saturday, May 21, 2011

mat theology: a dictionary of everyday contemporary spirituality

God is everywhere. While sadly sometimes Christianity reduces God to Sunday and to buildings, God by very definition belongs in all of everyday life. In honour of this, I’m building a dictionary of everyday spirituality.

This is a mat on the ground floor of a central city business.

It was the word “devine” that caught my attention. I checked the spelling. “Devine” not “divine.” So it’s not a correctly spelt God reference. (It’s a housing company). Yet the symbol is interesting. The colours are warm and welcoming and the sign looks like a sun.

And then the tag line – “Welcome. Find your ideal place.” Which seems to me to be what Christianity is about. A faith of welcome. An invitation not to be forced into a cookie cutter or someone else’s image, but to find our unique and special place. I often talk about how each person has their own unique fingerprint and so the task of spiritual growth is simply to grow into who we are truely, uniquely, meant to be.

Churches can be very, very poor at laying out this type of mat and putting it into practise, at “Welcome. Find your ideal place,” at hospitality and uniquely personalised growth, at participation based not on one-size fits all, but accessible and intentional processes based on uniqueness.

So it was nice to be reminded that my experiences of some church are not actually the gospel. That the real message of God’s “devine” grace is in fact “Welcome. Find your ideal place.”

(This is another entry in dictionary of everyday spirituality. For the complete index of all entries, go here).

Posted by steve at 10:18 PM

Friday, May 20, 2011

being human: a poem

I am atoms
shared dirt and detritus
shaped to male, emotions

my atoms open, offered to

Jesus atoms
shared, shaped to male, emotions
orb round Orbit

Posted by steve at 10:26 AM

Thursday, May 19, 2011

being the people of God in a quakezone

Oxford Baptist Terrace is the central city Baptist church in Christchurch, built in the 1860’s. On February 22, pastoral colleagues and drinking friends were having their weekly team meeting inside the church when the Christchurch earthquake hit. They literally ran for their lives, the church falling around them.

The church will have to be demolished. Here’s some video footage of the recent memorial service, held to mark that end of so many years of ministry in that building, to allow people to grieve and to pray for the future.

I think I will show it tonight in the Reading Cultures class, as we gather around stories of spaces and places used well in mission and ministry.

Posted by steve at 09:09 AM

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

facing the dark places of ministry and leadership

On Friday, I provided the opening address at a lay training event. The topic was God at earth – what it means to follow a God who in Jesus is real, local and grounded. In preparation I began to reflect on the feelings of Jesus – Jesus who feels

  • sorrow in the Garden of Gethsemane
  • tears at the death of a friend, Lazarus
  • anger in the temple
  • compassion at the crowds harrassed and helpless
  • radical love when faced by the rich young ruler.

As I did, I began to sense some implications for mission, for our following of God at earth. In response to compassion, Jesus sends the disciples on mission. In response to anger, Jesus enacts justice. In response to radical love, Jesus challenges in radical discipleship. So often mission comes out of our heads. But what might it mean to connect our feelings with the feelings of God?

In preparing for the evening, I reflected on my feelings – the pain we feel in leaving Christchurch to move to Adelaide, the suffering watching our city experience major earthquakes in recent months.

Coincidentally (?), the last week has been really hard. I’ve been a swirl in sadness. I began to wonder if I was losing it, burning out. In hindsight I wonder if I was simply processing the talk, working through the pain of my past, the pain of my city, the pain of being the Christ, holding the cup of suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Is this ridiculous? Or is this what it means to connect our feelings with the feelings of God for a world broken and in pain?

Some talks you can give easily.

Do others demand a depth of emotional engagement, the dark side which leaves one exhausted, depleted, vulnerable and fragile? If so, how does one care for oneself, be a good father, a corteous employer, in such places?

I am not sure I have many answers. But I do sense that in these dark places, in our feelings, are some leadership lessons essential for our following of Jesus today.

Posted by steve at 09:20 PM

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

is it my eyebrows? or my ecclesiology?

Prodigal Kiwi, ever the electic, has been listening to Rowan Williams at the recent Fresh Expressions launch, while reading my The Out of Bounds Church?: Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change book alongside an essay by spiritual director, Sheila Pritchard.

He reckons there’s a link. I hope it’s not the eyebrows! As, I suspect, does Sheila Pritchard!

I suspect it’s because as Rowan Williams in 2011 peers into the future (from under those eyebrows), his vision for diverse forms of church finds concrete expression in some forms of church that I suggested back in 2005

  • house
  • labyrinth
  • collective
  • weekly participative
  • festival
  • monastic

including a table in which I outlined strengths and weaknesses of each. (Cos there’s no such thing as the perfect church!)

Posted by steve at 07:21 PM

Sunday, May 15, 2011

film review of Never let me go: atonement theology at it’s worst and best

A 500 word (monthly) film review by Steve Taylor (for Touchstone magazine). Film reviews of the most common contemporary films, each with a theological perspective, (over 60) back to 2005 can be found here.

Never let me go
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

This is a haunting movie. Directed by Mark Romanek it remains deeply disturbing long after the credits roll. The film is based on a novel by Japanese-born British author Kazuo Ishiguro. Short listed for the 2005 Booker, adapted for the big screen by Alex Garland, it provides some profound questions about being human and the person and work of Jesus.

The movie begins with Ruth (Carey Mulligan) watching her lover, Tommy (Andrew Garfield), preparing to be anesthetised on an operating table.

What follows is a cinematic triptych, elegantly woven together by the evolving love triangle between three friends, Ruth, Tommy and Kathy (Keira Knightley).

The year is 1978 and the friends are children (convincingly played by Ella Purnell, Charlie Rowe, Isobel Meikle-Small) at Hailsham School. What seems sheltered increasingly grows sinister, innocence hemmed by stories of dismembered bodies and evidence of repressed emotions.

Next, the year is 1985 and the children emerge into adolescence. The tension in the love triangle escalates and a sinister future becomes frightfully clearer. The three have been bred as organ donors, born to be broken apart in adulthood, spare lungs and limbs to ensure other humans are healthy.

Finally, the year is 1994 and in adulthood the three friends become re-entangled, each forced to confront their past and future.

Much of this makes little logical sense. Why don’t these three fight or flee? What events have breed a society in which humans exchange organs? Unnervingly, these unexplained absences, while perplexing, serve to make a plot simply more haunting.

In the final scene Ruth is alone. She contemplates her death, facing a fence on which pieces of plastic flap emptily on the wind. A chilling and senseless isolation is complete. All that remain are Ruth’s final words.

“Do we feel life so differently from the people we save?”

The word “save” jumped out, the idea that hunks of flesh ripped from one person’s body might prove essential to the salvation of another. Which brought to mind the Passion of Holy Week and the Christian gospels, which describe a body whipped and pierced. And the claim that such an act of brutality was essential to human redemption.

Are we really catching a glimpse of the Christian understanding of the person and work of Jesus?

Perhaps a difference is that of choice. Ruth, Kathy and Tommy are born to die, the days of their lives based on the whim of another. In contrast, in the Garden of Gethsemane we glimpse a Christ choosing to drink from the cup of human suffering.

While at Hailsham, Tommy gives Kathy a cassette tape of a (fictional) singer Judy Bridgewater. Kathy grows to treasure one song in particular, titled, appropriately, “Never let me go.” She grasps it not as a love song, but as a mother’s plea to her baby. The song, a recurring musical note running the length of the movie, offers another way to understand the Easter experience. That in and through acts of perverse human brutality is the reality that in Jesus, we realise that God will “never let us go.”

Posted by steve at 06:29 PM

Friday, May 13, 2011

spaces and places used well in mission

I am looking for examples of spaces and places being used well in mission. I want them by Wednesday 18th May, both a picture and a one paragraph explanation of why you think that space or place is being used well in mission and ministry.

You see my Reading cultures/Sociology for ministry class last night explored the theme of spaces and places. I began by talking about spaces and places of spiritual significance in New Zealand – Waitangi, Maori Jesus at Ohinemutu, Parihaka, Anzac War memorials.

The class then brainstormed Australia and they did some excellent work. I then wrote a statement on the board

spaces and places are not important to Christian ministry

After some work in “yes” and “no” groups, an excellent discussion resulted. Words like creation got used. The Old Testament was scanned – the setting up of altars yet the encouragement to keep on pilgrimage. The ministry and mission of Jesus, in birth, life and resurrection was trawled.

The potential of spaces and places – in time, in place, in buildings, in material elements of bread and wine – became evident. Having indigenous and non-indigenous voices in the class became a great gift as the complexity of contested spaces and places, including colonisation were explored. An excellent night of collaborative learning was had!

As we left, I suggested some practical homework. That during the week, each person take a picture of a space or a place they think is being used well in mission. Email it to me (steve at emergentkiwi dot org dot nz). And we will share them together, as practical examples, as we start our class next week.

So why not join us. Enrich our class with your voice, your location, your example of a space/place you think is being used well in mission and ministry. (And in so doing, you will help reinforce the value of social media, which the class explored 2 weeks ago with Andrew Jones).

In return, after the class, I will then put the entire resource – photos and explanation – back up online as a general mission resource, some 2011 examples of spaces and places being used well in mission and ministry!

Posted by steve at 10:07 AM

Thursday, May 12, 2011

a theology for mad b*****ds

I went to see the Australian movie, Mad Bastards, over the weekend.

Set in the Kimberley, in Western Australia, it is a window into the life of indigenous people in Australia today. I went as a film reviewer, to write a 500 word film review for a Christian newspaper. That’s in process, but it sits alongside the ongoing work of the Spirit in my life. Ultimately, this is a personal blog, that marks my journey, so it’s important to note that I’m in a bit of hard patch, with too much work on my to do list, to really enjoy the month of May. Add in a sick child and ongoing homesickness (Yep, the fiddle is playing). And the recent article by Nicholas Rothwell in The Australian, which continues to grieve and astound me.

A crisis of grief is unfolding, a spiritual collapse so deep it cannot be held back. … Those watching struggle for words and fear they may be watching as an entire culture, acting collectively, destroys itself. (for more go here)

That quote just keeps on undoing me. It just goes against every thing I know and profess about God and life and resurrection. Can I call myself Christian in this Aussie land when this sort of thing is happening?

Anyhow, one of the best parts of the movie was the soundtrack – original – by Alex Lloyd and Pigram Brothers. Fabulous folk rock. And all through the week, I’ve been enjoying one song in particular, Hearts and minds.

From within, from without,
There is fear and there is doubt

Nothing’s simple, nothing’s clear
Whats (?) the words we need to hear

If we listen to the times
We can change your hearts and minds
We can change your hearts and minds
If we listen to the times

In your soul, the fire burns
round and round it spits and curls

In the flames, the truth may lie
Fumbling with the wrong and right

If we listen to the times
We can change your hearts and minds
We can change your hearts and minds
If we listen to the times

I was asked to lead a devotional today. The lectionary text for Sunday is John 10:1-10. I think there’s a link; between my sadness, the song, the movie and the Biblical text. For example shared themes of listening to and in change. A sense of the complexity of listening. That it takes time and requires discernment. A requirement of courage, for to listen is to lay aside what we’ve heard in the past, and to listen to today.

Posted by steve at 03:14 PM