Pilgrim Notes

Reflections along the way.

Month: October 2010

Thoughts on My Trip to London

Some of you have asked me about the recent trip to London. Here is a rough snapshot of my response to St. Paul’s Theological Centre.

Last week I enjoyed the opportunity to observe an emerging theological training program. Several ministers from the United States visited St Paul’s Theological Centre in London, England. Our little group consisted of pastors of large and small churches, counselors, church planters, a Bible college president, a missiologist, and a chaplain.

For five days we observed and participated in the life and culture of Holy Trinity Brompton and their college, St. Paul’s Theological Centre (SPTC). Along the way, we ate our share of fish-n-chips, toured a few museums, visited Churchill’s war room, talked in pubs and enjoyed several delightful meals.

I was personally enriched by walking the streets of London, conversing with old and new friends, and worshipping at Holy Trinity Brompton. The visit was marked by blue skies and warm, windy days. It was also marked by our desire to watch and learn ways that each of us might personally and collectively work toward renewing theological training here in the United States and in our local communities.

Our main focus was to visit with the staff of SPTC and to observe the sessions. As a quick summary, SPTC is a theological training school integrated within the local church. Students attending SPTC are typically persons training for ministry, church leaders seeking further studies, and professionals seeking to learn more about Christian faith while remaining in their chosen vocations.

Several things make SPTC unique: it’s focus on training while serving local ministry; it’s connection to the larger church; it’s commitment to intellectual and theological rigor; and it’s integrated missional model.

I’ve attempted to summarize what I observed for my own processing as well as the discussions I am continuing to have with other ministers in the region. I realize my own observations are colored by my own values and longings, but I hope this will be helpful as a summary of what stirred within me:

Hospitality
I felt welcomed into this mission-centered community but even more deeply I sensed a “generosity of spirit” that infused every aspect of the faith community.

This same church developed and exports the evangelistic Alpha Course to over 169 nations. The Alpha Course introduces the gospel to those who want to learn more about Christian faith in a friendly, relaxed setting. Hospitality seems to pulse within the Alpha Course and it makes sense that the community reflects embodied service and love through their acts and attitudes of hospitality.

Integration
When I was in college and considering a seminary education, my pastor warned me, “Be careful, you may lose your faith while training for ministry.” This disintegration between academic pursuit in the university and the devotional life of the church community created deep-rooted conflicts, dis-ease and dis-integration within the community of faith.

SPTC represents a large move throughout the Body of Christ to restore training within the context of the local body. Localized training (in contrast to university or seminary training) doesn’t have to compromise intellectual rigor, but rather needs to integrate that rigor within the context of the lived faithfulness of serving within local faith communities. In fact, SPTC represents a way that local faith communities can dialogue with seminaries and university divinity programs.

I appreciate that SPTC has developed it’s training within and through the support of church leaders while also drawing upon leading thinkers like Alistair McGrath, David Ford, Jane Williams, Richard Bauckham, and others.

At the same time, SPTC is training students in context. The context of relationships with other students, the context of local church communities and the context of serving in local congregations.

So I see multiple “integrations” at work in SPTC such as local/global, intellectual/devotional, and the possibility for cross-cultural integration as other churches establish training centers and share resources across cultures.

Relationships
My observation of integration is directly connected to the high value placed on relationship. By relationship I mean person-to-person relationships, church to church relationships, and even church to culture relationships. How do we learn in a way that enfleshes Jesus command to “love one another as I have loved you?”

Conversation
I observed a model of training that values dialogue. The student training happened within the context of worship and within the context of fellowship, so I saw the dual emphasis on speaking/listening to God and one another.

While I observed a conversation with tradition, I didn’t have an opportunity to observe the conversation with living members of the older generation. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy once observed that history changes when three generations come into agreement. When the baby Jesus was presented in the Temple: three generations joined together. Mary and Joseph as parents offered their son to the aged generation of Simeon and Anna.

I’ve observed SPTC’s commitment to the youth and their commitment to ancient tradition, I hope that there is also a corresponding commitment to connect youth with the wisdom and engagement of living elders (parents/grandparents).

Translation
For students seeking ordination, SPTC seeks to place the students in church planting or ministry roles within local faith communities. As I observed the congregation associated with Holy Trinity Brompton, I saw services that offered “high church liturgical worship,” charismatic worship, youth worship and more.

The opportunity to learn and then apply that learning within distinctive settings seems to me to be the work of translation. How do we translate Gospel in differing cultures? On one level I think translating Gospel within these varied worshipping communities represents an important aspect of translation, but I also look to the commitment of SPTC to train professionals who come from business, art, healthcare and other fields. The opportunity for translating Gospel in these settings offers a great possibility for the church, and I believe there is potential within SPTC to see this work of translation enfleshed in students learning how to live/speak this proclamation in distinct settings.

Mission
This need for translation connects back to the Alpha Course. Our hosts Graham Tomlin and others helped us all to see how the vision of SPTC is directly connected to the vision of the Alpha Course. The church is on mission to proclaim Gospel. The Alpha Course provides a context for proclamation and invitation to new believers. SPTC provides the training for believers who want enter into the mission of church planting, church serving, and Gospel proclaiming throughout culture.

I appreciate the holistic vision that integrates evangelism, church community, and theology into one community.

Submission
Even as mission for the kingdom of God drives the heart of SPTC and Holy Trinity Brompton, I sensed an even great submission to the King of the kingdom.

I end with the observation that most inspired me during our stay. At one point, Nickey Gumbel told our group that the goal is not to see how big you can be but how small you can be. A moment later he said that if the ministry dies, it dies.

These two statements captured for me a “spirit of submission” to the true Authority, our Lord and King, Jesus Christ. We follow Christ into mission but there are times of danger when mission can trump personal relationship (to Christ and others). This attitude of submission toward God and one another shined in every team member we met.

This humility touched me profoundly. I have observed and known all to well the power of ambition in ministry. To see a spirit of humility pervade the work of a church that is touching millions of people around the world, stirred and continues to stir me.

As I process my time in England and with the kind people at SPTC, I am struck that what they showed us was not simply a technique or a model but a culture that has been cultivated in time and space. As we seek to learn how their work might fit into our communities, I think we can appreciate this culture of hospitality, mission and humility that seems to permeate much of their work.

It certainly stirs me to seek to learn and emulate. If there had been a model like this when I was in school, I might have stayed in the academic setting. I wanted to teach, but I wanted to teach people in a more holistic, relational setting that reflected the true content of the message.

It makes me think of story from the start of my ministry. In 1988, my new wife and I moved onto a drug and alcohol ranch. My primary function was to lead the men in a daily Bible study. At some point during the year, we began to explore the book of Romans together. I would usually introduce a passage, offers a few reflections and invite conversation. One day, a man who was deeply struggling with cocaine addiction offered a response to Paul’s message of grace. He looked up and said, “So Billy Graham needs the grace of God just as deeply as me?”

Through this broken man, I encountered a depth of God’s grace that provided redemption for us all: the righteous and the sinner. His comment changed my whole ministry. In him, I learned that ministry was about listening and speaking, about call and response between God and man as well as between man and man.

What I observed at SPTC gives me hope that churches can help people grow in faith, and ministry, becoming people who live in the rhythm of call and response, of listening and speaking.

Telling, Acting, Eating, Living the Story

Last week I enjoyed the opportunity to speak to a group in the healthcare field about navigating through crisis and change. It’s a bit ironic. I was speaking because the original speaker had a crisis and was unable to attend. In the midst of change, I spoke about change.

Some changes in life are so dramatic, so catastrophic that we never go back. Or as Bob Dylan says, “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.” We cannot return to the way things were. Life changes unalterably. A person goes blind. Another person receives the gift of sight. Both lives change in unexpected ways.

Dramatic changes can mark the beginning of grief and bitterness and despair, but they also mark the beginning of a new way of life filled with surprise and wonder. Our health may change, our job may change, our relationships may change, our world may change.

As we process change, we tell a story about that change. It might be good or bad or funny or tearful, but we begin to tell a story. As I spoke to the audience last week, I invited them to tell their story. In fact, I suggested they tell their life story in 30 seconds. The 30 second boundary forces some details to the top and others vanish. It may help us focus on what story we are hearing in our head.

They told their stories, then I told Israel’s story.

Israel’s story gave them courage, strength, identity, vision. By retelling their story, they learned how to trust God and one another. The stories we tell about our own lives can trap us into patterns of discouragement or can give us hope, energy and clarity to move forward. I showed the healthcare workers how the stories we tell about our lives, our jobs, our families, our marriages really do have power for good or ill.

After finishing my talk, I continued to ruminate about stories, about Israel’s stories, about my stories and about the power of Gospel story.

After leaving Egypt, Israel recounted how YHWH dramatically rescued them from slavery and formed them at Mt Sinai. They told the story to their children. They acted the story in worship. They ate the story in Passover. Whether rising, walking, sitting or sleeping, they rehearsed the story of God’s faithful rescue over and over. This story was and is good news, also known as Gospel.

By rehearsing the story, they fixed their heart and minds and bodies upon the action of the Lord. By rehearsing the Gospel story, they learned to trust in the God they could not see and could not shape into forms.

But there came a day when they forgot to rehearse the story. They quit acting the story. They quit eating the story. They started listening to other stories of other gods. They forgot the faithfulness of the Lord. They forgot the commands of the Lord. They forgot the goodness of the Lord.

I know what it’s like to forget the story of God’s goodness. There have been times when I thought, dreamed and told the wrong story. In my story, I questioned God’s goodness, his faithfulness and his love for me. Once we tell the wrong story, we might get stuck in it.

In 2008, our church building burned and I lost my job. These two events impacted me in a deeper, harder way than over 20 years of battling with kidney disease. A dark cloud engulfed me. I started telling myself a story of failure and forsakenness. In the first story, I began recounting the past 20 years and questioned every decision I ever made. In the second story, I questioned God’s faithfulness.

Both stories battled in my imagination. Some days I’d think every decision I ever made was a bad one. Other days, I wonder why God chose to make me fail in everything I touched. I cried out to God, “Look at all I sacrificed for you! Why won’t you help me?”

The stories stole my joy. My gifted wife saw these false stories as a deathlike grip that was consuming me. In the midst of these discouraging tales, I had to hear again the Gospel story, or the good news God’s faithfulness.

Israel had to hear the Gospel story. Her existence depended on it. After generations of forgetting the stories of YHWH’s lovingkindness, Israel had become apostate. God in his goodness preserved them and honored the obedience of a few righteous kings, but eventually He gave them over to their false stories.

Babylon led the broken people into captivity. Babylon burned down the Temple. Babylon destroyed the land.

The people wept. Their songs and their stories failed them. So they hung up the harp and quit singing altogether. Now they lived in an alien land with alien gods. Abandoned by the God of their fathers. Lost in the darkness. They needed to hear the Gospel story.

Into this dark story of exile, appears a strange man who sees a strange light. Ezekiel encounters the glory of the Lord. The glory that once resided in the Holy of Holies appears to him on the shore of the Chebar canal while he stands among the exiles. To Ezekiel’s surprise, YHWH did not abandon his people as they stood by dark waters. He came in the midst of wind and storm and fire; in the midst of the four living creatures; in the midst of the sound of many water. YHWH came in glory.

And He gave Ezekiel a new story, a Gospel story. As Ezekiel talked, ate, sang and acted out the Word of the Lord, he exposed Israel’s sickly condition. He revealed the death that infected their worship, their imagination, their stories. He began to tell a story about a valley of dry bones.

7 I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.
11 Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. 14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.” (Ez 37)

In the former story Israel had been enslaved in Egypt and YHWH rescued them from the power of Pharaoh. In this new story, Israel is dead. YHWH raises them from the dead and restores them to be His people “inspired” by His Spirit. As Ezekiel proclaimed this Gospel story, the people come back to life. There are times when a change will be so dramatic, so life changing that we must learn how to hear and tell a new story.

Like Israel, we need to hear again the Gospel that’s too good to be true: Jesus Christ living, dying, rising again and interceding for us at the right hand of the Father. In this story, we hear our story. We’re not forsaken. Death doesn’t have the final word. Our ministries may die. Our friendships may die. Our dreams may die. Our bodies may die. But death is not the final word.

We may face changes in life that feel like death in our bones. We may lose our strength. We may lose things we thought we could never lose. In these times of crisis and dramatic change, we may question the goodness of God. We may question the faithfulness of God. We may damn ourselves in a hell of failure and regret.

The good news of Gospel bursts into this darkness with the light of hope. In Jesus Christ, we encounter the goodness of God who loves us even when we are enemies. In Jesus Christ, we encounter the faithfulness of God that cannot be stopped even by death. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.

We must hear Gospel. We must sing Gospel. We must act out Gospel. We must eat Gospel. When we rise, sit, sleep or walk, we rehearse the goodness of God. By His grace, our imaginations come back to life. Even in the midst of the suffering and uncertainty, we learn to sing the new songs of Zion. We rediscover our story in the story of Jesus Christ. Our lives matter. We are created for glory. And He will complete the work He has begun in us.

I encourage you to listen to the Gospel story. Listen again to your story of death and life in Christ.

© 2017 Pilgrim Notes

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑