Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On Authority…

On the NZ Methodist “Liberal Society” email net, Ken Russell says “there is a most urgent task waiting to be done for the integrity of Methodism, and it needs our best scholars to do it. It is to clearly teach the difference between biblical and gospel authority.”
Ken is right that the task needs to be done. I think, however, that it will not be done by the “best scholars” if we are thinking only in academic terms. The “scholars” who really shaped the church I grew up in were the lay leaders who grappled with the implications of biblical literalism and said No. They were the faithful who listened to their sometimes pretty boring clergy and distilled from them the essence of a faith that was complex to explain but made serious connections with real life.
They were no doubt encouraged by ministers who wrote and spoke with clarity in church magazine and pulpit from over 100 years ago. But it was largely untrained lay people hungering after truth in a challenging age who imbued mid-20th century NZ Methodism with a sense of “gospel” authority. And they understood that it did not depend on a literal interpretation of scripture.
Any renaissance of that spirit of Methodism will require a kind of revolution from those kinds of people. We need the flaxroots theologians as well as the ivory-tower variety. It’s time for ordinary church members who have been silent in the onslaught of biblical literalism to stand up and say No.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Great GW Tour Moves On

On Saturday we hoisted the big golden “50” decoration for another gathering, this time in the Auckland region.
In this group of thirty or so there were people who first met us in every place where we have lived except one. And we had Heather, the flower girl (“It was my day, really”) and Alan, the organist from the wedding day itself.
A dying laptop battery and a road accident (not any of us) held the proceedings up for a few minutes but we still took the time to flick through the 250 photos of our married life. We then shared a few laughs, more good refreshments and much, much conversation.
How rich we are to have good friendships that can be rekindled across the decades in a few words exchanged over a savoury and a cuppa. How blessed to live in an age in which, with a small amount of inconvenience and expense for travel, we can touch base with so many people over a few weeks.
But the golden balloons which I salvaged from Paihia last week all exploded one after the other as I tried to blow them up to re-use them. Perhaps there’s a moral here – maybe we can’t base today’s life just on last week’s successes.
Perhaps not even a golden wedding is a guarantee that all will be well in the future. Watch this space!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Not much wrong with the prognosis, but…

In an interesting commentary on UM PORTAL Donald Haynes of Hood Theological Seminary has highlighted the rapidly approaching crisis for the small church in USA Methodism.He speaks of the rising cost of stipends, insurance and pensions and of the dwindling number of older, serious, givers among the membership. He recirculates a series of "creative proposals" that were considered in the 1950s and pleads for "a resurgence of innovative and creative commitment to the people who brought us to the dance."' Our heritage, he says,is in the smaller-membership church.
In my view his analysis fails to identify the central issue. It's not the rising cost of clergy nor the inability or unwillingness of people to pay for them. The problem is the clergy. We pastors have conspired with our people in what I call the heretical principle that trained, ordained experts must be personally engaged in frontline ministry in every small congregation. So the answers of the 1950s, as he presents them, were all to do with spreading ordained people more thinly to "cover" every situation. No denomination can do that indefinitely.
Local Shared Ministry starts from a totally different perspective. It is “innovative and creative” and it certainly represents total commitment of the judicatory to the people of the small church. But essentially it invites commitment from the people. It declares that the ministry of the local community belongs to the whole people of God in that setting. If they don't have a fat budget and can't afford to employ a minister - or even a portion of one – the denomination must offer a strategy that enables them to get on with their mission with the resources that they have among their own membership.
LSM tells us that trained clergy can best help these congregations best by withdrawing from personal engagement in that ministry and concentrating all their skills, education and energies on enabling the local leadership to do it well themselves. It’s not a matter of walking away and leaving them to it. Last Sunday (see my previous post) Bev and I saw the results of that. But when the denomination is able to free, challenge and enable the local people, everyone’s paradigm of ministry is changed.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Sunday morning we starved

Our whimsical Theological College Principal, EW Hames, in talking about Heaven and Hell used to say, “a saint would manage to find something good about being in hell, and the devil would absolutely hate being in heaven – he wouldn’t know the tunes or how to hold his harp.”

If the leaders of the rural community church Bev and I attended yesterday knew me, they’d probably have concluded – as others have done before them – that I had horns and a tail. But in their little bit of evangelical heaven I didn’t know the tunes, I frankly disbelieved that the pus which flowed from a man’s arm was liquified cancer and I didn’t care for taking communion with no confession/absolution, no Eucharistic prayer, no words of institution but a just a couple of prayers that were "given for" the bread and the cup.

No doubt the faithful were confirmed in their faith but – again in the words of EW Hames, I think it's likely that “an unbeliever would have been confirmed in unbelief.” Well, that’s OK - worship is for the faithful. And we all have different tastes.
I think I was prepared for something that wasn’t my style. I was not surprised to encounter a very conservative theology. I didn’t count on a personal welcome from a remote church which probably never sees a visitor. But if what we experienced yesterday were the only outcome of trusting lay people to minister to the worship needs of the community the Christian cause would be at some risk in today's world.

There is a better way: Local Shared Ministry takes up the challenge, but with a structure, a strategy and support that enables faith and competence in ministry to grow together.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Sunday morning we had a feast...

Rosalie, the Methodist District Co-Superintendent presided at the commissioning of our four newly called team members on Sunday. With well-chosen words she saw to it that the Gospel for the Day stirred our consciences and prompted us to renew our commitment. The singing, even in a new and rather difficult hymn, was breathtakingly inspiring.
Hohaia Matthews, of Tai Tokerau and a Uniting Church in Australia minister, enthused us with his impassioned account of the work being done with the Aboriginal and Islander Congress in Port Augusta, SA.
We then had a cuppa and reconvened at 11am for another of our parish’s “
forty minute” Annual Meetings. Ann chaired with her usual style and good humour and we listened to crisp reports on every part of the parish’s life. Elections highlighted the willingness of two new associate members to step up as Secretary and Treasurer.
Bev and I then flicked through the slides of our fifty years together and contributed a light “celebration” lunch and cut up another section of the "incredible four-in-one travelling cake". Another couple of dozen people signed the big card.

Vanessa, our new Fellowship Coordinator on the Team, went to a lot of trouble to make this occasion very special for us and for the congregation.
As well as celebrating our Golden Wedding, the lunch was our Thank You to the congregation that has been the spiritual centre of our lives together for the last eighteen years. In blessing Bev and me with its willingess to experiment with Local Shared Ministry, this parish has blessed itself with leadership which has appeared from nowhere. It has called out gifts that - under a more traditional strategy of ministry - might never have been recognised.

Sunday morning we had a feast...

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Degrees and Debt and Burning Couches

New Zealand’s first university was established in Dunedin because the founders of the region believed in the value of education for their children and their children’s children.
Their commitment, out of sometimes meagre resources in the growing province, was for an institution that would benefit future generations. They recognised a need to put something in place for the future. Otago University stands today as a symbol of that investment in the future.
However, these days there is a different attitude in the air. Two-thirds of today’s students have to burden their personal future with debt averaging $29,000 in order to gain an education.
Ironically, we ask students to undertake this commitment when, as we now know, the prefrontal parts of their brains that deal with outcomes and consequences and the future, are not yet fully developed. Even more ironically, lack of this specific development will also make it likely that they will sometimes be socially irresponsible about drinking and a spot of disruption in the streets.
At a recent meeting of Dunedin’s University Club the speaker pointed out that our attitude to student debt needs to change. However, he said, Jesus didn’t propose to change society – he invited people to change themselves.
In this age of greed and consumerism - even in education - perhaps we need to think about that.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The flowers are fading but the memories live on!

We had a wonderful gathering at Bev’s sister Joyce’s new home the Sunday of Labour Weekend. Another section of Robyn's and Joan’s Four-in-One Cake was ceremonially cut and we shared tasty food and good conversation about our shared interests and convictions. A great time…
This group was probably the most disparate we will find on the Great Golden Wedding Tour. There were friends from Waiwhetu days of more than half a century ago and others from parishes and other appointments we held during our married life. It was fascinating to see the links that several were able to make with each other.
On the Tuesday we bought a 1998 Forester to replace the homely old Townace as our caravan-puller. It gave us a great – and economical - ride home over the next few days. Next weekend there will be another celebration with the congregation where we find ourselves so much “at home”. Then in a couple of weeks we will be having another event in Auckland and going on to Sydney and Canberra.
Along the way we have visited many individuals who, for one reason and another, were not able to come to any of our gatherings. In one place we were struck by a remark made by one of them, that we are "a minority". Well, if the rich and full life we cherish so much involves not going along with the majority in some things, that’s OK by us.