Monday, 28 March 2011


So, how do you cope when things don't go the way you'd hoped?

I've just received news today that has frustrated me and left me quite deflated. I'd applied for a job that I thought I had at least a chance of being interviewed for, and one that I felt reasonably confident I could do, but have learnt today that I have not made the short list.

Naturally throughout the process of considering the post, filling out the application, submitting the form and waiting for a response I have been praying. My prayer has never been that I might get the job, but that whatever the outcome it would be the right thing. I believe that's the right way to pray - not forcing God's hand, but working to attune my will to God's.

So if my prayers have been answered, then I know that it wasn't right for me to get this job. Surely I should be pleased? After all, "we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him" [Romans 8:28 NIV]. But that still doesn't stop me being disappointed: knowing God's will doesn't necessarily mean you're going to be comfortable with it in the short term. Yet God must have something for me, and like Abram I may only get to see the way one step at a time. Next step: my re-invitation is being considered this summer...

Saturday, 26 March 2011

In the Wilderness

The season of Lent in the Christian calendar is a time, for some, of austerity, fasting and prayerful reflection. It is a time for us to meditate on the time that Jesus spent in the desert, clarifying his calling and his identity as Son of God.

The idea of 'Wilderness' is one which is being explored in an exhibition of contemporary art at Wesley Hall, one of the churches that I minister in in Sheffield. The exhibition was launched last evening, and contains some striking pieces of work in various media, ranging from photographs and water colours, to clay models, light installations and video animations, to seedlings in forty glass jars suspended from the ceiling and a bookshelf empty but for a potted plant and an iPhone.

All of this is set up in the space that we usually use (and will continue to use during the exhibition) for worship, which is a huge space and well-suited to this kind of display. To be honest, it's probably too big for the congregation we normally get, so this gives us an opportunity to consider how we use the space we have, and how we use the time we have for worship.

As we will be worshipping amongst the art, it has been decided to use the theme of Wilderness in worship during the time of the exhibition. We will be exploring five particular themes from this Sunday until Easter:
A Place of Wandering and Wondering
A Place of Nourishment
A Place of Abandonment
A Place of Calling
A Place of Transformation
If any of you are in or around Sheffield, why not pop in. Details of the exhibition, opening times etc, can be found here

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Wonders of the Universe

Like many others, I'm captivated by Professor Brian Cox's BBC series 'The Wonders of the Universe', being broadcast on Sunday evenings. The enthusiasm that he has for his subject is infectious - he is a true evangelist for astrophysics, though I have to confess that I have always found the subject matter interesting.

As a small boy, growing up in the 1960s, I was fascinated by the Apollo space programme, and eagerly collected clippings from Radio Times outlining the flight-plans of the missions from Apollo 8 (the first lunar orbit) to Apollo 11 (the first lunar landing) and beyond. It was an exciting time to be alive as new frontiers were crossed. For Cox the turning point was Carl Sagen's TV series 'Cosmos' (he is 7 years younger than me, so the Apollo missions probably passed him by).

Cox has told the story of the origins of the universe: how every atom of every element of every living thing was 'created in the heart of a dying star', thrown together through the irresistible force of gravity, and ultimately destined for destruction as entropy takes its inexorable course.

As a Christian I have been fascinated by his ideas, and have found nothing in what Cox says that contradicts my understanding of a Creator God. Cox, as I understand it, holds no theistic beliefs, holding to the supremacy of science to explain everything. But to my mind he is only answering one set of questions in his programmes - questions of 'how' - of mechanics. There is no attempt to address questions of 'why' - of purpose. It is, I recognise, dangerous to compartmentalise the science/ faith debate by saying that one is about 'how' and the other about 'why', but I have yet to find Cox addressing these underlying issues. To my mind, he is simply showing us (without openly acknowledging it) how God created the Universe - by establishing the physical laws that underpin reality and by setting in place the processes of creation.

In college we would often ask this question: 'Did the Big Bang make God jump?', or did God 'press the button'? I think Cox is showing us what happens when 'God created...' [Gen 1:1], when 'God said...' [Gen 1:3, 6, 9, 14, 20 & 24]

Saturday, 19 March 2011

What a Relief!

I must confess that telethon's don't really grab me, and I didn't spend all of last night glued to 'Comic Relief', but I did manage to catch some of it. In the brief moments that I managed to watch I have to say that I was profoundly moved by the 'Eastenders' section about young people being groomed into prostitution, and David Tennant's piece about malaria prevention in Uganda.

A lot of people will have done some very silly things yesterday to raise money for this worthy cause, and kudos to them for doing it. One of the strengths, I think, of events like this, is the juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy - two extremes of emotion - in order to enforce a point about the inequity that still abounds in our so-called civilised world.

I woke this morning to find that a staggering (that's the usual adjective, isn't it?) £74.3 million was raised on the night, and who knows what the total will grow to in the coming weeks. And although many of those taking part would not admit it - and some would openly deny it - in this I can see the Kingdom of God breaking through, as hearts and lives are changed and the poor have good news told to them.

Thank you once again, Comic Relief, for this life-changing work!

Monday, 14 March 2011

Was it a good service?

What makes a good act of worship? I ask that partly because we had two contrasting services yesterday at Wesley Hall, and I'm sat here reflecting on them, wondering which was the 'best'.

The first was a full service: a baptism of the daughter of a couple in our church, who'd brought family and friends along to share with them, as well as Holy Communion. There must have been getting on for 100 people there, of all ages. The worship was uplifting: contemporary in the main, with traditional hymns alongside; well-lead musically by our worship band (led by the mother of the girl I baptised); the singing in turn boisterous and reflective; the sermon (I'm told) was helpful, appropriate, relevant and humorous. Many of our regulars would wish for such a worship experience every week if they could (but the vagaries of the Methodist preaching plan often militate against this). It was about 1 hour 40 minutes, but that didn't seem to bother most of those who were there, who stayed behind for drinks, christening cake and chats long after the service ended: indeed we had to hustle people out of the church to make way for the Korean Church who use the building after us.

The second service was a much smaller affair. Once a month we hold a Prayer service in the evening, and yesterday evening 6 of us gathered. We worshipped God in song and speech, accompanied by a single guitar; we listened to the words of scripture; but most of our time was spent in intercession for God's world, God's church and God's vision for us as a congregation of God's people.

Which was the better act of worship? How does one judge, and should one judge? We often fall into the trap of thinking that worship, to be 'good', has to move us, affect us, change us, or challenge us - always focusing on us as the focus of that worship, as if it was there primarily for our benefit. But it is worship of God, for God. Or should be. Whether it is 'humble prayer' or 'fervent praise'; whether it is 'a thousand tongues' singing our 'great Redeemer's praise', or humbly acknowledging that 'Lord we are few'; if it is offered purely and simply for the glory of God, and God is pleased with it, then surely, despite any aesthetic assessment of our own, it has been good to praise our God.

Friday, 11 March 2011

The groans of creation

Anyone who has seen the pictures coming from Japan today cannot, I trust, fail to be affected by them. The sheer power of nature unleashed has such a devastating outcome; I for one have been awestruck by the images I have seen, and my thoughts and prayers go out to all those who have been affected by the destruction caused by the earthquake and tsunami.

It's been interesting to read the comments of people on Facebook & Twitter too today. People that I wouldn't have thought of as people of faith have been urging their 'followers' and 'friends' to pray, but then times of disaster and hardship seem to have a tendency to bring out the latent spirituality in people. One only has to look back to the days of the Blitz, or even to the death of Diana, to see that inherent desire to commune with that which is 'beyond' surface in people's consciousness.

What I haven't seen yet are comments 'blaming' God for this disaster, though I'm sure they'll come in some quarters. Isn't it funny (in the strange sense, rather than the amusing sense) that those who seldom give thought to the Almighty do so at such times, either to seek solace or to apportion blame? We seem able to explain so many things in scientific terms these days, rather than resort to the language of faith, religion or superstition which have sufficed in the past - unless it happens to be something huge, and then God gets a look in, for good or ill.

Where is God in all this? More likely than not in the rubble of destroyed livelihoods, in the tears of the grieving, in the hopelessness of those facing the on-coming tide, rather than in the destructive waves themselves, and the shaking of foundations and buildings. Paul reminds us through his words to the church in Rome that 'the whole creation has been groaning', waiting for God's purposes to be fulfilled. As we reflect on today's events, and those of Christchurch not so long ago, as well as the political upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East, we see and hear that groaning and, perhaps, cry out for God to hear the cries of God's creation and have mercy upon us.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

A man muses on IWD

Every now and then a statistic will catch you a little unawares. Yes, I do realise that 'there are lies, damn lies and statistics', but sometimes these figures can be true - and alarming.

I was reminded by a Tweet this morning that today is International Women's Day. Why, some might think, is that an issue for me? After all, you're a bloke: what have women's problems got to do with you?

The answer is (and I'm trying desperately not to come across as cynical or sarcastic here, because I don't want to; nor do I want to appear patronising in any way) that it is my problem, it is an issue for me, because we should all be concerned that around half of the world's population are not treated the same as the other half, simply because of their gender.

The Tweet that reminded me of today's significance also stated that 'globally women do 66% work, earn 10% income & own 1% property'. Not just as a Christian, but also as a human being, that is just not right. Sadly we have created a system in the world that is heavily male-dominated, and even in the 'enlightened' West that is still often the case. We in the Methodist tradition often, perhaps rightly, criticise other Christian traditions for not allowing women to fill positions of influence, authority and power (not a word I'm 100% comfortable with in the Church, but we seem to be stuck with it at the moment), yet we still have a way to go ourselves in ensuring equality without being patronising. For some very helpful and challenging insights into this from a female standpoint take a look at Angela Shier-Jones' blog.

Leaders should be recognised and set aside on the strength of their calling, gifting, ability and suitability for the task, irrespective of gender, race or orientation. If that means that we have to change the way we have traditionally done things in order to get back in step with what God is doing in God's church and God's world, then so be it. And brothers, we need to hear the anger, the frustration and the indignation of our sisters who feel belittled and patronised by the inherent paternalism not just in the Church but in society too.

I cannot truly feel your pain, but I hope I can stand alongside you and hear your frustration.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

One little idea that's changing the world

It doesn't take much to make a difference.

A number of years ago now - I'm not sure quite how many - someone thought: "Wouldn't it be great if poor farmers were able to get a fair price for their produce, so that they could actually provide a better standard of living for their families." So they started campaigning to try and make that dream a reality, and experimented with selling 'Campaign Coffee' as a means of trying to raise awareness and encourage people to support these struggling farmers.

The initial products weren't the best, to be honest, and people tolerated the coffee for the sake of their consciences. But the fight went on, and by and by the quality, the range and the availability of Fair Trade goods increased. Soon it was not just coffee but dried fruits, bananas, chocolate and wine, as well as wood and fabrics.

Nowadays Fair Trade is big business, and many more people are aware of it and actively support it. We are currently in the middle of Fair Trade Fortnight, when public awareness is heightened. Many churches sell Fair Trade goods from their premises, but nowadays you are just as likely to find these goods in high street supermarkets - a testimony to the effectiveness of a simple idea that has changed the way we think about our shopping.

Things have come a long way, but there's still a long way to go. But thanks to the Fair Trade Foundation we can all do our bit to make that dream of a fairer world a reality.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Ministry & Management

For years now - certainly since I came into circuit ministry - the Methodist Church has had a scheme of appraisal for ministers. Until recently this was a system of 'Accompanied Self-Appraisal' (ASA) which paired the minister up with (usually) a lay person from another circuit who could help them to reflect on certain aspects of their ministry and identify possible areas for development, further training etc.

In some cases this worked well, but it was essentially self-driven, with the minister identifying the area of their ministry to examine, and therefore left itself open to lip-service or even abuse - only looking at those areas that one knew one was reasonably proficient at, therefore leaving any weak areas untested.

A few years ago a new scheme of 'Annual Development Review' (ADR) was proposed as a replacement for ASA, and a number of Districts - Sheffield being one of them - were chosen to pilot the scheme. This was a much more thorough review, with set questions for the minister and their churches to consider in looking back over and assessing the past year. Identifiable development goals were sought as a result of the review, which would themselves be reviewed the following year. The process was directed by an independent, specially trained facilitator from outside the circuit, and was conducted by reviewers acceptable to the minister concerned. This process worked well in the Sheffield District, despite being quite labour-intensive in terms of lay involvement, and most of those who took part in it found it to be hugely beneficial to their ministry.

Sadly this positive feeling about the new process was not shared across the Connexion, and in response to feedback received a revised scheme has been proposed. This, unfortunately, in its first draft, looked uncomfortably like a system of line management, with Superintendent ministers taking responsibility for assessing their circuit colleagues, Chairs assessing Supers, and the General Secretary assessing Chairs. Methodism is NOT an hierarchical church, despite appearances to the contrary: circuit superintendents and district chairs are office holders, not carriers of rank. The scheme as proposed would to my mind have seriously undermined that inherent egalitarianism. It also completely detatched the laity of the church from the process of review, other than as those giving feedback on the minister's 'performance'.

Certain changes have been made to that scheme, but not enough to my mind. A lay person has been introduced into the mix, and hopefully they will take the lead role in this new ADR process, but there is still that 'line-management' element present. Part of my concern is that, because (despite our ordination) all ministers are fallible human beings, there are occasions when relationships between Supers and their staff are far from ideal, and consequently it may not be easy (or possible in some cases) for a dispassionate review to take place. Where there is a difficult (or in some cases impossible) pastoral relationship, how can there be an impartial 'management' relationship?

My hope and prayer (despite my reservations about the process) is that this new scheme will still enable ministers in the Methodist Church to reflect meaningfully on their calling and its out-working, and to enhance that ministry through relevant further training. That way we can help to ensure that we are fit for purpose in today's world and today's church.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Luck of the Irish? No luck involved!

Sporting events have a habit of throwing up surprise results - giant-killings, as it were - and that has proved to be true of the 2011 50 over Cricket World Cup being played at the moment in India & Bangladesh. A remarkable match has just ended with Ireland defeating England by 3 wickets with 5 balls spare.

There were a number of remarkable features to this game, but I mention just two statistics that stand out for me. The winning total was the highest total ever chased to win a match in a World Cup tournament: their 329/7 easily beating the previous record of 313/7 by Sri Lanka in 1992. And the match-winning innings from Kevin O'Brien of 113 from 63 balls included reaching his century in 50 deliveries, again a World Cup record, beating the previous mark set by Matthew Hayden in 66 balls.

This result is all the more remarkable, though, in that Ireland are one of the 'Associate' nations in the ICC - as it were the second division or international cricket. For them to produce - against one of (let's be fair) the better teams in world cricket - a performance like this, and two records that may well stand for quite a time, is astounding and outstanding.

Congratulations to the Ireland Cricket team for this highly entertaining performance. It can only be good for the game of cricket in general (though, as an England supporter, I am frustrated by the result - and by the England fielding and bowling once again. Ah, well...!).