Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Being a Minister and 'Doing Stuff'

There is a lot of discussion around at the moment, especially within my own Baptist denomination, about the role of a church minister.

Some people are saying that the future of ministry is bi-vocational.  In other words ministers now should either be paid part-time by the church and work part-time in a secular job or work full time in a secular job and in their spare time lead a church.

I did three years of bi-vocational ministry.  I worked part time for my dad oyster fishing and part time for the church.

There are a number of reasons people are arguing for this;

1. Money - Churches are struggling to pay their ministers full time stipends, so it makes sense for ministers to look for other ways to pay themselves.

2. Community Involvement - Ministers need to be in their community, so working in the community in a 'normal' job helps this to happen.

3. Working Hard - The people in our churches do full time jobs and help in church.  Why should the minister be paid for doing what our members do for free?

4. Leadership - Why should someone be a church leader?  Everyone is an equal so there shouldn't be one person who decides what happens.

5. Leadership 2 - We need a leader to lead us, so they need to be in the real world in a normal job doing what the rest of the church does.

I have summarised greatly and probably missed out other reasons, but I think these are the main thrust of the argument.

And we have a problem.

'Doing stuff' is the problem.

People are wrongly assuming the being a Minister/Pastor/Reverend is about 'doing stuff'.  Once again we are allowing the world to tell us what is primarily a theological and therefore church defining topic.  Being a minister is not about 'doing stuff'.  We live in a world where we do stuff all the time.  Our jobs in all their variety call us to do lots of different things, and quite rightly, in the doing of those things we are displaying skills, craft and working to make a living.  Some jobs are more rewarding than others.  Some love and some hate their jobs.  Some find it easy to see God at work in their job and some find it extremely hard to see how God is at work in their job.

And then there is church.  We do lots of things in church.  Lots of activities, clubs and groups.  And these are run by the people who are also doing a job.  So they give a lot of time working and then helping at church.

People are doing a lot of stuff.

So what does the minister do then?  Well many think that the minister is also doing stuff, yet all his/her stuff is to do with church.  So why are we paying a minister to do the stuff we do for free?

Being a minister is not about doing stuff.  Being a minister is something different.

God has called some woman and men to serve Him within the life of the local church in a way that is distinct and different.  Some have been called by God to primarily be a person of prayer.

A ministers first calling is to be a person of prayer.

So the minister is set apart and called by God to pray.  To pray for her community, to pray for her church, to pray for those that cannot or do not want to pray.  It is a calling to be a living sacrament, a means of grace within the community, revealing the Risen Christ to those whom she meets.  She is set apart to pray and devote to prayer.  Out of such prayer the church will see lives transformed and communities changed.

It is out of this place of prayer that God's people, the Church, can flourish and grow in their relationship with God.  The minister helps people, by the power of the Spirit, to know God.  It is out of this place of prayer that the church grows.  It is out of this place of prayer that communities are changed.

Just doing stuff won't.

People have neglected, rejected and forgotten this though because we have become obsessed with doing stuff.  We think if we work harder God will reward us more.  We think if we do more God will do more. And yet God calls his people to pray first.  And there are some who are set apart to do this on behalf of the people.

This is an honour, privilege and extremely high calling.  It is not something to entered into lightly or carelessly.

It is out of this place of prayer where real worship takes place.  Worship expressed in mission as the minister spends time in the heart of the community, sharing lives with others and leading people to Christ.  Worship expressed in servant-hood as the minister prays for others, serves others, listens, loves and gives up their lives for others.  Worship expressed in devotion to God by reading and responding to Scripture, observing the Sacraments and spending time in contemplation.  Worship expressed in finding the heartbeat of a community, where the Spirit of God is already at work and joining with Him in what He is doing.

A minister is not a leader in the worldly sense.  They do not manipulate, dictate, lord over or control others.  They are to follow Jesus, the Crucified God.  We are servants who wash the feet of others and are willing to die for God.

Ministry is not about doing stuff.  'Doing stuff' does not require us to follow God.  If a ministers role is about doing stuff then they can go through the week without even needing to pray.  The stuff we do can be dressed up in religious language, but it does not require the existence of God.  Ministry is a call to pray.

Don't hear me wrong, I believe God is at work in the nitty gritty everyday reality of our lives, whether that is oyster fishing, working in Sainsbury's or whatever.  I believe we all have a ministry in our workplaces, revealing the love of God to the people we come into contact with. Our lives are all called to be lives of prayer and worship, wherever that might be.  As an oyster fisherman I was called to serve God and honour Him in that.  And whatever we do God calls us to love and serve Him in and through that.

And there are some who are called by God to serve Him by serving God's people, the Church.

This is a distinct calling that some are called to do.  It is not a matter of authority, power or rank, quite the opposite.  And this requires those called to gives their lives over and commit in prayer and worship on behalf of those they serve so that those they serve will grow and flourish in their relationship with God.

This is something of what a minister is called into...

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Passion Week - Wednesday

'Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him.  “But not during the festival,” they said, “or the people may riot.”

While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume?  It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.

“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.  The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.  She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.  Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them.  They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over.'  Mark 14:1-11

Faith is not simply what we think, a set of beliefs or signing up to a certain doctrine, no, faith is about how our lives are orientated.  Christian faith is about a personal commitment to Jesus, the one who has come to rescue us, that then leads us to a whole new way of life.  To have faith in Jesus is something that cannot go unnoticed and radically transforms who we are.  The evidence of our faith is seen through how we live.  If what we say we believe is a contradiction to how we live, then we must be rightly challenged to question what we really believe.

Now many of us would hold our hands up right away and confess that we know how our lives do not always reflect our love for God.  This is where integrity plays its part.  Integrity is about what we believe and who we are becoming.  In Jesus we are not who we were, but we are not yet who we will be.  We are on a journey of becoming. God is calling for our lives to be orientated towards him and to be absorbed and concerned about his goodness.  In this way we will rightly be utterly concerned for those who are treated in evil ways.

Judas and the woman who anoints Jesus help us consider which way our lives are heading and who we are most concerned about.

The woman, we are told in the other gospels, has lived a 'sinful' life, or, in other words, she was probably a prostitute.  Her life had been filled with rejection and abuse, and now she lived a life that excluded her from society, and where the religious said she was denied access to God.  Yet she encounters Jesus and sees in him something remarkable.  She recognises in Jesus the compassion, forgiveness and love of God.  And so she reorientates her life to God and responds in a way that she sees fit - the pouring of expensive perfume on his head.  This was an act of love, an act desiring the mercy and grace of God.

People rebuked her though, calling at a waste of money and a stupid thing to do.

But Jesus rebukes them and sees where the heart of this woman is.  He knows that she has responded to him in love, and that is quite simply all that he asks of us all.

We need to be careful to not dismiss someone's actions just because it does not fit with what we think is right and proper worship to God.  We need to be careful not to make faith all about signing up to a set of beliefs, because when we do we leave no room for spontaneity, expressiveness and creativity.  We need to keep our eyes open to how God is moving and acting in people's lives and the surprising ways he is revealing himself.

The Spirit of God is wild and un-tameable, and we need to be prepared to be led by Him in the most challenging and surprising ways.

The actions of Judas reveal another story.  It is a desire for self, a 'me first' mentality.  His love for money deceived him. We are not told the full extent of Judas' thinking behind his betrayal of Jesus, but once again we see an orientation of life, yet this time it is away from God.  Judas was one of Jesus' closest friends.  He was one of the twelve disciples, someone who had been with Jesus from the beginning, who had seen the miracles and witnessed God's amazing ways, who had heard Jesus teach and preach and been with him in the deep conversations, sharing his life with him.  Yet despite all of this something got hold of Judas that denied all of this and sought another way.
And so we need to be careful that we don't allow ourselves to walk the same path as Judas.  Love for money, power, sex and fame can all easily replace a love for God and our lives can all too easily orientate themselves away from God.

When we see the widows, orphans, abused and oppressed yet do nothing about it because of our 'me first' menatality, then Jesus will challenge us.

When we believe that faith is all about what we believe and nothing about what we do, then Jesus will challenge us.
When we dismiss people because their actions don't fit with 'our way', then this story reminds us how Jesus sees things very differently.  For the one who looks the most religious can indeed be the one who cares least for Jesus, and the one who appears to be the biggest 'sinner' can indeed be the one most devoted to God.

Let us ask God to challenge us this Easter and to allow him to re-orientate our lives towards him and his ways.

Passion Week - Tuesday

'One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him.  To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.'
Mark 12:28-34

The Shema is a daily Jewish prayer which recites Deuteronomy 6 saying, 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'  By the time of Jesus it was a prayer spoken three times a day that had gone deep into the hearts and minds of those who said it.  At first glance it might seem to be more like a statement of faith, like a kind of checklist telling people what you believe.  But to the Jewish people it was a way of reorienting their lives once again to God, a prayer of faith and hope, a way of remembering who it is they worship and who it is they are called to follow.  This prayer ingrained itself deep into the lives of those who declared it as a way of helping them to live each moment within the will and heart of God.

This prayer begins with 'Hear', and reminds us that our first calling as God's people is to listen.  We are to listen to God.  'The Lord is one.'  God is not a contradiction with multiple personalities, changing his mind all the time.  God has told us to listen to him and the most important command that his gives us; love him.  This never changes.
To love is not something that can be forged or faked, earned or brought, forced or manipulated.  Love is to desire and crave and freely give of yourself to another.  God's desire for us to love him is a desire for us to freely give of ourselves to him as he freely gives himself to us.

Listen to him and he will show you the most excellent way of love.

In answering the question in this way, Jesus once again challenges us about who God is what it most important in life.  The Pharisees wanted everyone to say and do all the 'right' things according to the way they saw fit.  It enabled them to have power and helped keep the people under control.  Yet they had distorted who God was and who God was calling people to become.

The history of Israel needed to remember that God was compassionate, slow to anger nad abounding in love.
God was a rescuer and redeemer, the One who had delievered Israel out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land.

God was concerned and passionate about the outsider, poor and oppressed.

God wanted people to know Him and love Him in faithful lives of worship.

Jesus called people to listen and watch as to who God really was and who they were being called to become.  It is a calling to become like Jesus and to love God in way that puts him first and a desire to know him intimately.  It is a calling to love others sacrificially, putting their needs ahead of our own and to lay down our lives for them.
'Hear' and then 'Do'.  Listen to God and then love him with your whole life, not simply with what you say, but how you live.  Love others as a sign of your love for him.  Love others like you would love yourself.  Love others in a way that puts them first, listens to their needs and sees their pain.  When you listen to God you realise that He is sending you into the world that was made through Jesus to go and do his will of love and justice.  When you listen to God you realise he is sending you to share His Gospel with your community.  When you listen to God you are changed in what you think is most important and are challenged by your own prejudices.  Listening to God challenges us to see that abundant living is about serving and giving your life to others.

Love God with all your mind and let your thinking and understanding be shaped by this journey with Jesus.

Love God with all heart and allow God to open your heart to his heart and desires.

Love God will all your soul and seek Him in the depths of your being.

Love God with all your strength and use it to see the peace of God in your community and families.

Love your neighbour as yourself, desiring that they might know God and join in the journey of relationship with him.

As we continue on this journey to the Cross with Jesus we are once again challenged as to what it means to love God and what it means to love one another.  I wonder how that might look for each one of us as we continue in this journey?

Monday, 2 April 2012

Passion Week - Monday

'The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.

On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”

The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.'  
Mark 11:12-18

Jesus has begun his journey to the Cross.  Throughout this week, leading to his death, the pace and drama grows, with Jesus powerfully unsettling and challenging the people he encounters.  As we journey with Jesus we may well find that we too are challenged and unsettled by what he reveals to us.
Throughout the Old Testament God is concerned with the poor, oppressed and abused.  His desire is for justice; justice is the re-balance of power, of all people being treated with respect and dignity because they are created in the image of God.  Justice is about those who have been treated with injustice being treated fairly, being cared for and loved.  Jesus approaches the Temple and sees the injustice and oppression that the powerful are inflicting upon the powerless.

The Temple was the place where people could go to worship God.  It was seen as the place where heaven and earth met, the place where God had promised to dwell and be present.  Yet the temple was being corrupted.  The temple authorities decreed that no Roman coins could be used for to pay for sacrifices because they bore the image of Caesar, so they had to be exchanged for currency that could be used.  However, in the process of exchange the ordinary people were being scammed, losing money that went to the priests in power.  It was a religious scam, one of many that happened in the temple grounds, and it angered Jesus.

On top of this was how the Gentiles (non-Jews) were being mistreated and denied true access into the temple to worship God.  The 'Court of the Gentiles' was the only place non-Jews could go in the temple area, and it is most likely that this was the area where all the dishonest trading was taking place.  Rather than the temple being a 'house of prayer for all nations' it had become a 'den' or safe house for robbers.  
Exploitation, injustice and corruption dressed up in religious tradition.

People being denied the presence and gift of God.

Jesus comes in righteous anger and justice to challenge and change that.

His cleansing of the temple was powerfully prophetic, revealing God's heart and the future of things to come.  For in Jesus God has come to dwell in all his fullness; 'The Word became flesh and tabernacled amongst us.'  Here, in Jesus Christ, is full access to God.  No longer are you denied the promise and presence of God by the powerful, but you can come, just as you are, meet with the person of Jesus and encounter the living God.  This was a spiritual, social and religious revolution.  Jesus was calling Israel to examine herself and to once again take up its true vocation and mission given to her by God.  Jesus' actions show that God had been repeatedly rejected by His people.  In Jesus, God has come to the temple only to be rejected.  Yet God has come to renew and restore all things and invites all people through all time to encounter Him in the person of Jesus.

Jesus challenges us to examine our lives once again and consider if we have denied ourselves and others true worship of God for the sake of power or wealth or manipulation.  Does he call us to be cleansed and renewed by His Spirit that we might refocus once again and fix our eyes on God?

The call to authentic Christian discipleship is call to challenge the corruption and injustice of our day.  To expose all abuse, exploitation, manipulation and oppression, and then challenge it and join with God's Spirit in bringing change.  It is a call to join with God in bring hope and justice to the world in which we live, seeking to be used by God in the communities where we live.

It is a call to reveal to others through our own lives that God is present in Jesus and desires all people to know Him.  It is a call to share the Gospel with all people.  It is a call to help those who believe they have been denied access to God that, in Christ, God desires to meet with them just as they are, just where they are, today.

As we begin this journey with Jesus to the Cross we are challenged yet comforted by this revolutionary and radical God.