Back To Basics

As my placement in Byker finished I began to breathe a little deeper and slower and looked ahead at the wide expanse before me, otherwise known as ‘summer holiday’; two months of rest and recreation, a chance to catch up on personal fulfilments not dictated to me by college or the Church of England. What is it that a trainee vicar, who fills his work time with reading theological books, listening to different Christian leaders’ views and assessing what God is doing in the life of His church, does on holiday?

Read theological books, listens to some preaching from some Christian leader and assesses what God might be doing in the life of His church…of course!

As I have said before (see Reading and Telling Stories post) I have lots of books on the go, all of which are chosen by me with no pressure to write any essay on what I learn from them. I will, of course, be writing a personal journal and, if anything stands out, some posts here. Looking at the pile of books by my desk I can count eleven books not started and two books waiting to be finished. It’s not this that I want to talk about but rather the listening to the preaching of Rob Bell and Shane Hipps.

Rob Bell has been a very influential figure in my walk of faith. I know lots of people don’t like his style, they find him too ‘trendy’ and his style of writing and delivery can be slightly patronising at times but I find his passion contagious and his approach to his relationship with God is something that I would love to have. He is humble and honest about his ministry and I believe he has discovered a real balance between being ‘in the world’ but not ‘of the world’.

I used to listen to Mars Hill Bible Church’s weekly sermons online and found that they really spoke to me. They encouraged me to appreciate the greatness of God and the love he pours out to all people. When I started college I couldn’t find the time to dedicate to listening to them on top of all the work and time with my wife so I stopped. Now that summer is here (and I’ve just got an iPhone 4 with iTunes on it) I decided to download the last six weeks talks to enjoy.

Rob Bell and the new pastor, Shane Hipps, were preaching together for three weeks. Their aim during these talks was to share their stories and try and discover what God might be saying to the Church on the whole. What spoke to me was their description of Jesus and the Church. Their understanding of God and the Church is one that can encompass ‘all people’. It’s basic. They are becoming more and more aware, it seems, that Jesus is bigger than we could ever hope to imagine. They describe Him as a lion that cannot be tamed. He is beautiful only when He is un-caged and in the vast wild. They suggest that we as Christians want to ‘cage’ Jesus in a nice little box because we are afraid. We are afraid that something will hurt ‘the lion’, we are too focussed on ‘the lamb’ image and forget that Jesus is bigger than that, fiercer than that!

And this is disconcerting for us.

‘If you are not disconcerted by how big Jesus is, then you have shrunk him down… A lion does not make a good house cat.’ (Shane Hipps)

‘For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.’ (Ephesians 1:15-23)

It reminded me, as they spoke of the greatness and power and authority of Christ, of the people of Byker. The small, faithful congregations of St Michael’s, St Martin’s, St. Silas’ and St Anthony’s knowing deep down that Christ will always be in Byker; that there will always be a Church. It reminded me also of the latest episode of ‘Rev.’ (an astute comedy of ordained ministry!) where the main character struggles with the lack of numbers but stands in opposition of ‘selling out’ to hype and bribery (smoothies!) in favour of faithful worship and service.

The talks from Mars Hill reinvigorated my passion for God’s Church, reminded me that I worship a God who has fought the battle a lot longer than I have and that I am his servant. Rob bell reminded all of us, in his talk, that we do not need to agree on everything, we are not a cult! But we must centre ourselves on Christ, worshipping and listening to Him. He suggests we can disagree with our leaders because they are ‘interpreters’ of the Word, they are not God. He uses 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 as his basis,

‘Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly – mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere men? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe – as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.’

None of us has it totally together and none of us has the only way because if we limit God we limit his power and authority. I was challenged because I had found myself saying in Byker, “This is of God… This is not.” Who did I think I was? Yes, we have been called to claim God’s work but how do I know? I don’t have an answer. I’d like to suggest that if the action or behaviour is moving people closer to a relationship with god, if it is creating a sense of wonder and desire for God, if it is making people bring glory to God then it should be blessed and named as Christ… but am I in a position to do that?

I know I have fallen into the trap of domesticating Christ and shrinking my view of God and this time at rest is allowing me to see God as the awesome, fierce and all encompassing God that He is! We as His Church should be equally big and all encompassing. What happens, therefore, when real disagreement comes up? Take the situation in the Church of England at the moment where ‘division’ is the biggest fear, how do we remain the big Church who preaches to have a big god who can encompass ‘all people’? Unfortunately, we need to walk a careful, prayerful and steady walk together. We need to centre on Christ and re-centre on Christ again and again and again and again… We need to allow disagreements to be present as a reminder that we are not God but ‘servants’, none of us has the last word, only God. Division is not an option. To get to the stage where we, Christ’s united Church, say “I cannot be in the same room as such and such” “We cannot worship God because they are not ‘proper’”, is not unity.

Yes to have a gay bishop, is an issue for many Christians, laity and clergy. Yes to have a female, ordained leader, is also an issue for many laity and clergy, but none of us is God. None of our leaders is God. If we divide and start to say “I follow Forward in Faith.” Or “I follow Rowan” or whatever it is, then we are going against the message of the Church set out in 1 Corinthians 3.

I must remember, as I go into my placement in October, to ‘interpret’ in godly and prayerful way. I must not limit God’s all encompassing love. To allow ‘all people’, from whatever background, to encounter Christ for themselves and to be placed firmly in the position of His servant to do His will and to allow Him to be the ‘un-caged lion’ that He is.