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JULIA SAVES THE DAY … TWICE! (Resting in Ceyreste 3)

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Bruno shares some very interesting information with us. Bruno, by the way, runs the campsite shop/bar/restaurant here at Camping de Ceyreste, so we somehow manage to see quite a lot of him. Complimenting us on our French, he goes on to tell us that this is important because apparently 90% of French people do not speak English. We remember this conversation later on in the week.

A day or two later we are in nearby La Ciotat, exploring this fascinating former ship building port now transforming itself into a posh marina. Having spent an excellent morning wandering around, visiting the market, seeing all the sights, doing yet more retail therapy, we stop for lunch at a Crêperie overlooking the harbour. We enjoy an excellent meal and are just drinking our coffee when an American woman, with two young children, comes in for a late lunch. Unfortunately she doesn’t speak a word of French and the waitress’ English is limited. They are getting into a right mess trying to order something suitable for all three of them. I feel very sorry for them and am wondering if we can help when Julia jumps in and offers to translate. She goes right through the menu with the American lady and her children, they decide what they want, and then Julia orders their food for them with the waitress. When the food arrives it is just what they want and everybody is very happy. We leave a tip for our lovely waitress who promptly tells Julia that she should be tipping Julia for saving the day.

The following day we visit Cassis, a very posh seaside town just along the coast. There is yet another wonderful French market on so the place is packed. We find our way to the main car park and queue to get in. Parking spaces are in short supply and the car in front of us suddenly stops because he spots someone about to leave. He wants to reverse to allow the car whose space he wants to appropriate to get out. This means that we have to reverse as well but we have another car right behind us. The driver in the car in front leans out of his car and shouts at me to reverse. Julia is driving but he thinks I am driving because I am sitting in the left hand seat of our car. The French never seem to be able to get hold of the idea that the steering wheel on English cars is on the wrong side. I put my arm out of the window and signal that we can’t reverse because there are other cars right behind us. Eventually we manage to sort it out, the space is vacated, the driver in front reverses into the vacant space, and we continue our search for another parking space for our car. We eventually find one, pull in and park.

No sooner have we done so than there is a very angry young French man knocking on my car window, screaming at me in French. I don’t know what I have done wrong. Are we not supposed to park in this space … or what? I wind my window down to try and make sense of what this angry young man is shouting at me about but he is speaking so fast I haven’t got a clue what has upset him so. I tell him in French that I am English and that I don’t speak the French language that fluently so could he please slow down and explain what the problem is. He takes no notice. He is not listening to me. He is too intent on shouting angrily at me. I decide not to get out of the car. Forty years ago if I had got out of the car my sheer size would have stopped any possible violence … but not these days. For a start I am approaching 75 years of age and, in any case, although I am much bigger than this angry young man, I think he would still have gone for me anyway.  The angry young man’s girl friend is there as well, looking very frightened and upset – not with me, but with him. I feel very sorry for her – what must it be like living with someone with such a short fuse? 

Julia gets out of her side of the car and confronts the angry young man. I am reminded of a comment by Julia’s father in his speech at our wedding 27 years ago referring to her earlier brief career after university working for Mecca Leisure managing nightclubs that ‘Even the bouncers were scared of her!’ She may only be 5’ 4” tall but she has a certain ‘presence’ coupled with an uncanny ability to defuse situations. I recall her sorting out a drunk who came staggering down the aisle during one of our Sunday Services – bottle of whisky hidden away in brown paper bag – when we were at Kings Heath a few years ago. She manages to calm the young man down and get to the bottom of it all. Apparently he was driving the car behind us when we had to stop earlier because of the driver in front wanting to bag the parking space about to be vacated.  He thought I was driving our car and that when I put my arm out of the car window and indicted to the driver in front that we couldn’t reverse because there were cars behind us I was giving him the finger. So he had chased us all round the car park in order to confront me and whack me one. Julia explains the situation slowly and carefully and he calms down, apologises, admits that because our car has tinted windows he couldn’t actually see what was going on, shakes hands and leaves – much to the relief of his girlfriend, and me. Once again, Julia saves the day!           

Jim Binney

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CHAMPAGNE IN CHAMPAGNE (Resting in Ceyreste 2)

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Having booked our summer holiday in France, Julia could actually see no further than our first night in Reims and having a glass of champagne in Champagne. A few months ago we had seen a photo of a couple sitting at a table by the cathedral in Reims drinking champagne … and from that moment this was our aim. So, having arrived in France, driven all the way to Reims, booked into our hotel, walked into the city centre, found our way to the cathedral … we are sitting at a table in an open air restaurant, on a glorious sunny summer evening, with a wonderful view of Reims Cathedral, ready for dinner … but first a glass of champagne. ‘Do you have some champagne?’ Julia asks the waitress in her now excellent French. The waitress looks at Julia with her ‘this is the region of Champagne, what else do you think we sell’ look on her face and says, ‘Ehhh yeah!’ We sit in the sun, drink our champagne, enjoy an excellent dinner, and walk back to our hotel.

The next day, we walk around Reims, have a tour of the Cathedral with its wonderful Chagall window, take in all the sights, and then head for the champagne domaines. We are specifically looking for the Veuve Clicquot domaine – commonly known by us ‘champagne experts’ as ‘the Widow’ (after the Widow Clicquot) – because it is Julia’s favourite champagne. We are thinking of splashing out and buying a bottle or two. Courtesy of our SatNav Kate (named after the Duchess of Cambridge) we easily find our way there. We park in the domaine car park and find our way in to the impressive Veuve Clicquot centre. There is a tour of the cellar available but it only last an hour or so and costs 30€, although you do get a free glass of champagne at the end. We graciously decline and just visit the shop instead.

We pass lots of Ferraris parked outside – some kind of promotion going on rather than customers we think – and Julia immediately spots the Ferrari she wants!? Fat chance! We look the part – elegantly dressed Brits, obviously very wealthy, just the kind of customers the shop staff is interested in. Julia enquires after a certain type of champagne (she knows about this kind of thing) and, looking at all the other people around us sipping glasses of champagne whilst awaiting their purchases to be packed for them, enquires if it is possible for us to have a tasting of said champagne. ‘How much are you looking to buy’ asks the highly efficient posh bloke who has latched on to us? ‘Half a bottle?’ says Juila, (at 60€ a bottle we think this is acceptable). Monsieur raises his head, lifts his nose, looks down upon us (or, unfortunately for him, upwards towards me because I tower above him), and says, ‘I am sorry Madam but we only offer tasters for those buying  at least a box or more!’ Stuff that we think … and buy two plastic yellow Veuve Clicquot goblets and a Veuve Clicquot non-slip tray for considerably less than 60€. Nobody will notice when we walk out of the shop, past the Ferraris, past all the posh models lolling over the cars for the photo shoot, carrying our purchases in our unique posh yellow Veuve Clicquot bag. On the way out of this very impressive set up a very posh couple ask us top take a photograph of them on their iPhone. We are happy to oblige … and they then reciprocate by taking a photo of us on my far posher looking camera!

A week later we buy a really cheap bottle of champagne in the local supermarket for 12€ … and sit drinking it on our chalet veranda in our new yellow plastic Veuve Clicquot goblets for all to see. Well, no one can possible tell from a distance that they are not genuine glass and that we are not drinking expensive real Veuve Clicquot champagne … can they?

Jim Binney

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THE WINDMILLS OF YOUR MIND (Resting in Ceyreste 1)

You know that you have arrived in France when the windmills start appearing, fields of them running along the motorways leading away from Calais. By windmills I mean wind turbines of course, those huge yet strangely graceful structures that look like the Martian spacecraft in H G Wells, War of the Worlds – not proper windmills (after all we are in France not Holland). I find myself thinking about the song, The Windmills of Your Mind (from the film The Thomas Crown Affair that won an Oscar for Original Song  in 1969). Not only is the tune by French composer Michael Legrand haunting, but the lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman seem very pertinent for Julia and myself at this time, particularly the way in which they describe how the business of everyday life – ‘the worries and cares of the world’ Jesus called them (Mark 4:19) – has the ability to get our heads spinning.

Like a circle in a spiral
Like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning
On an ever-spinning reel
Like a snowball down a mountain
Or a carnival balloon
Like a carousel that’s turning
Running rings around the moon
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping
Past the minutes of its face
And the world is like an apple
Whirling silently in space
Like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind

Like a tunnel that you follow
To a tunnel of its own
Down a hollow to a cavern
Where the sun has never shone
Like a door that keeps revolving
In a half-forgotten dream
Or the ripples from a pebble
Someone tosses in a stream
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping
Past the minutes of its face
And the world is like an apple
Whirling silently in space
Like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind

We are off on holiday for a whole three weeks. We are driving down to a campsite near Cassis on the Mediterranean. We are not rushing down but taking our time stopping off en route to visit Reims Cathedral, Chalon-sur-Sâone, and Salon-de-Provence. Once we have arrived at Camping de Ceyreste, however, we plan to do absolutely nothing – for the first few days at least, and nothing strenuous for the remaining two weeks. We have rented a chalet with all mod cons so no putting up tents for us. Just plenty of rest, reading novels, a bit of writing of our journals, a bit of watercolour painting, taking some photographs, swimming in the pool and the Mediterranean Sea, some nice walks in the surrounding countryside and along the coast, and the occasional visit to some interesting places nearby – but all at a leisurely pace. Oh, and some nice meals, either on our veranda or in one or other

of the local restaurants, washed down with a glass or two of the local wine. Time for us to allow the windmills of our minds to wind down and find that ‘place of quiet rest, near to the heart of God’.

Jim Binney

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WHAT KIND OF MISSION … AND SO WHAT? (Notes from Knaphill 13)

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One of our Regional Ministers (a kind of Baptist ‘Bishop’ if you like) was meeting with the leadership team of a reasonably large Baptist Church in his area that was in a time of ‘Pastoral Vacancy’. During the preamble to the meeting proper the casual conversation had covered some of the enquiries fielded by the church in recent days: a woman who had wanted her baby ‘done’ and who had been told bluntly that ‘Baptists don’t do babies’ and that she needed the C of E for that kind of thing’; a man whose fiancée had been divorced and who wondered if they could get married at the Baptist Church, and who was told in no uncertain terms that this particular church ‘didn’t marry divorced people’ and that he should either try the ‘liberal’ Methodist Church down the road or, even better, just go to the Registry Office; the rather tearful elderly lady, who lived down the road from the church and whose husband had died that week, wondering if it would be possible to hold the funeral service at the church, who was told that since neither of them had attended the church she should look elsewhere. The Regional Minister made no response to this sad sequence of events until later in the proper meeting when he was told that one of the difficulties facing this church (and any prospective Minister going there) was a ‘lack of opportunities to reach out missionally to the local community’? At this point the Regional Minister ‘exploded’. ‘Lack of missional opportunity!’ he queried. ‘A young mother wanting to give thanks to God for the birth of her child, and asking for a ‘blessing’? A man wanting to get married in church, albeit to someone who had had a previous broken marriage? An elderly lady wanting to hold her late husband’s funeral in your church even though she has never visited you before? Were these not all ‘missional opportunities’? The very least you could have done is to have met these needy people and talked with them?’

In my previous ‘blog’ (in this series) I explained that when Julia and I moved to Knaphill in 2015 our remit from the Deacons and Church Meeting was to help the church to find a new direction. They knew that they needed to change and believed that God had a new direction and purpose for them, but they were unsure as to what that direction and purpose was. We did not come with any preconceived ideas but simply with the intent to prayerfully explore the way forward together with the church leadership and congregation. We began by spending our first year in Knaphill exploring what many scholars believe to be the first, and most important, theological question: ‘What kind of God?’ and ‘So what?’ In that blog I outlined some of the conclusions we had come to as a church. In our second year in Knaphill we moved on to prayerfully consider a second important question – a natural follow-up to the first question really – ‘What kind of church?’ and ‘So what?’ In that blog I tried to unpack some of our thinking and the way in which we sough to start to ‘do church’ somewhat differently as a result. In our third year in Knaphill we took the next obvious step in this journey of discovery and considered a third important question: ‘What kind of mission?’ and ‘So what?’

For some years now, the Baptist Union of Great Britain has been rightly urging member churches to ‘move from maintenance to mission’. To some degree this was born out of a sense of desperation given the steady rate of numerical decline amongst the ‘historic’ churches in the UK (including many Baptist Churches), but hopefully there was a ‘higher’ (more Biblical and theological) reason for this. The missio dei (mission of God) is a prominent theme in Scripture – indeed some Christian scholars such as Christopher J H Wright suggest that to unlock the Bible’s grand narrative we need a ‘missional hermeneutic’ i.e. we need to read the Bible from a missional perspective rather than simply get our ideas about mission from the Bible. For Wright, the whole Bible is all about ‘the mission of God’ and how we need to see the ‘big picture’ of God’s mission and how again and again the familiar stories and teachings confirm and clarify that the missio dei is the major theme of the Bible.

Quite rightly the mission of God has, for a good number of years now, been understood in broad terms as being holistic in nature covering our physical, mental, social, emotional and environmental needs as well as our spiritual needs. In recent years years, however, their has been a renewed emphasis on the spiritual needs in recognition that the bottom line is that we are all sinners (Romans 3:23) – sinners by nature as well as action – who need saving, and that the only way to change society is to change the hearts of individual men and women. Thus, we tend to speak of integral mission these days rather than holistic mission – a term coined in Spanish as misión integral in the 1970s by members of the evangelical group Latin American Theological Fellowship to describe an understanding of Christian mission which embraces both social responsibility and evangelism. The word ‘integral’ is used in Spanish to describe wholeness (as in wholemeal bread or whole wheat). The concept of integral mission is nothing new – rather, it is rooted in Scripture and wonderfully exemplified in Jesus’ own ministry.

Right from the very beginning – God searching for Adam and Eve when they were hiding from God among the trees in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:8,9) – God has been seeking to draw sinful men and women back to himself and to a way of living that glorifies God and makes us a blessing to others around us. It is important for us to understand that the missio dei is God’s mission – not something that we ‘do’ for God – and that God graciously invites us to share in his mission with him! Because this mission to reconcile men and women to God, and in turn for them to be used by God to fulfil his plans and purposes, is fundamentally God’s mission it cannot fail. Our involvement in the missio dei is a privilege not a chore. ‘Mission’ only becomes a chore when we wrongly see it as ‘something we are obliged to do for God’ rather than ‘something God is already doing’ and in which we are invited to share.

At the heart of the mission of God is the centrality of the Cross. As the Apostle John tells us in the Fourth Gospel: ‘God loved the world so much that he gave us his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him’ (John 3:16,17). Biblically, ‘salvation’ is rather a broad term covering material as well as spiritual needs, and is applied corporately as well as personally at times. Hence, the emphasis on the different facets of holistic or integral mission: physical, mental, social, emotional, environmental and spiritual. For me, Mary Bowler Peters (1813-56) sums it up poignantly in a line from one of her hymns: ‘Ours is such a full salvation’!

My conviction, therefore, is that we need to deliberately change our priorities both as individual Christians and as local churches. We need to move from maintenance to mission, from being self-preservation societies to missional communities, from seeing mission simply in terms of leaving the church doors open during Sunday Worship hoping outsiders will somehow wander in to being community hub churches ministering to the holistic needs of our community 24/7.

18839342_1332385003464947_582152239824022555_nIn recent years Julia and I have investigated various examples of community hub church but the model that impressed us most, and the one that became our pattern, was quite local.   The Lighthouse Project (http://www.lighthousewoking.org) is a vibrant community hub church serving the community of Woking incorporating a food-bank, a social enterprise cafe, a job club, addiction recovery support, children’s clothing and equipment, debt advice, cooking training, creative workshops, clothing and confidence for women, youth work, live music, bread making, spiritual support, community meals, and much more. Most importantly, it provides a place of authentic welcome where people experience dignity, acceptance, restoration, and hope. The Lighthouse is all about community: local people responding to local need. It continues to operate on the generosity and engagement of local individuals, groups, and businesses. Most projects are run by volunteers, and it’s all resourced by donations. At the heart of it all is a lively, committed, Christian church – a church which is growing both numerically and spiritually as a result of a church engaging authentically with the missio dei.

 Jim Binney

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WHAT KIND OF CHURCH … AND SO WHAT? (Notes from Knaphill 12)

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Philip Yancy tells of a Christian man, who worked with street people in Chicago, who was approached by a prostitute in a desperate situation. She didn’t know he was a Christian … just that he was someone who might be able to help. She was sick, she was a drug addict, she was homeless, she had a two-year-old daughter she couldn’t even afford to buy food for. With tears running down her face she confessed that in her desperation she had even gone so far as to sell her little girl for sex to pay for drugs. The man was horrified but tried not to let it show. He asked if she had ever thought of going to church for help? The woman looked at him in sheer amazement: ‘Church!’ she said, ‘Why would I ever go there? They would just make me feel even worse than I already do!’

In my previous ‘blog’ (in this series) I explained that when Julia and I moved to Knaphill in 2015 our remit from the Deacons and Church Meeting was to help the church to find a new direction. They knew that they needed to change and believed that God had a new direction and purpose for them, but they were unsure as to what that direction and purpose was. We did not come with any pre-conceived ideas but simply with the intent to prayerfully explore the way forward together with the church leadership and congregation. We began by spending our first year in Knaphill exploring what many scholars believe to be the first, and most important, theological question: ‘What kind of God?’ and ‘So what?’ In that blog I outlined some of the conclusions we had come to as a church.

In our second year in Knaphill we moved on to prayerfully consider a second important question – a natural follow-up to the first question really – ‘What kind of church?’ and ‘So what?’ For me this is a key question, not least because there is so much confusion about exactly what the word ‘church’ means. Many today understand ‘church’ as a building but this is not the biblical understanding of the word. The word ‘church’ comes from the Greek word ekklesia which literally means ‘called-out ones’. The root meaning of ‘church’ is not a building, but a people. It is ironic that when you ask people (even some professing  Christians) where the local church is they usually point, or direct you, to a building, but when the Apostle Paul, for example, speaks of the ‘church’ he means ‘people’ not a building. Thus, in his Letter to the Romans, he refers to ‘the church that meets in [Priscilla and Aquila’s] house’ (Romans 16:5) – a clear reference to a group of people that may meet in a building but are clearly not the building itself.

Now the primary purpose of this blog is not to provide an ‘in depth’ biblical or theological study about the ‘Church’. Theologians helpfully wax eloquent about the ‘universal church’ and the ‘local church’, the ‘church triumphant’ and the ‘church militant’, and so on. If you are interested in following up on the various definitions of the ‘church’ you can find plenty of information on the internet. My purpose in this blog is to concentrate on the local church and share some ad hoc reflections on what kind of local church we need to be to both fulfil the purpose and plan God has for his church, and ‘scratch where people itch’ today.

Perhaps the first thing to say is to acknowledge that, like it or not, we are ‘stuck’ with the church!   An academic friend told me recently that he had read a very interesting (and some would say ‘controversial’) PhD dissertation, the thesis of which was along the lines that ‘in order to fulfil the missio dei we have to leave the church’. In essence, the writer was suggesting that ‘the church’ (as it is perceived, understood, and functions today) actually gets in the way of mission, evangelism, outreach, etc. rather than enhancing and enabling it. I am sure that such a view would elicit a great deal of sympathy from many church members, especially those of us in pastoral charge of a local church who have consistently struggled with the inability of churches to change and adapt. However, we cannot ‘junk’ the church because it is intrinsically attached to Jesus Christ himself.   We are told in various places in the New Testament that ‘Christ is … the head of the church, which is his body’ (Colossians 1:18) and we cannot separate the head from the body. Moreover Paul also tells us that ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’ (Ephesians 5:25). The solution to the problem of the ineptitude of the church therefore, is not to desert the church (like rats on a sinking ship) but to continue to prayerfully and wholeheartedly work for the renewal of the church.

I would suggest also that we need to recognise that some of our ‘well-worn’ traditional convictions about the church actually ‘don’t hold water’.  I recall somebody once saying to me (some years ago now): ‘If you discover your theology doesn’t work … change your theology!’ I have found that very helpful down through the years. One aspect of our inherent sinful nature (which, by the way, is not eradicated when we become Christians) is our tendency to pride and stubbornness. This particularly reveals itself in an unwillingness to accept change, especially the older, and more set in our ways, we get. As a theological student back in the 1960s I was invited to preach in a country chapel out ‘in the sticks’ somewhere or other (I cannot recall exactly where now). Before the Service I found myself left in the vestry with an older man (somewhere in his 80s) who proudly told me that he was a ‘Life Deacon’ and had been a Deacon in the same church for over 50 years. Seeking to make conversation I congratulated him on his length of service and commented that he ‘must have seen a lot of changes in the church during that length of time’. ‘Indeed I have,’ he replied, ‘and I opposed every single one of them!’  No doubt that particular Life Deacon has been ‘promoted to glory’ by now (I hope he likes it) but I suspect the attitude still prevails in many churches? As the Baptist ‘light bulb joke’ goes: ‘How many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb? Change! Change! Who said anything about change?’ The simple fact of the matter is that ‘constant change is here to stay’!

One major change that we need to implement immediately, I would suggest, is a conscious decision to move away from seeing the local church as some kind of ‘self-preservation society’ to seeing the local church as a ‘missional community’. As the late Archbishop William Temple once famously said: ‘The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.’ I want to say more about this in the next blog in this series – ‘What kind of mission? And ‘So What?’ – but for now I simply want to ‘flag up’ the vital need for us to change the way we ‘do church’.  Essentially this means that we need to look up and out rather than in and down. For this to happen there needs to be a sea-change in our corporate (as well as individual) thinking. I was recently in conversation with a church who run a successful Messy Church programme on a Saturday afternoon once a month. They regularly get around 30-40 non-church parents and children to this event. Instead of rejoicing and being encouraged by this, however, they were full of moans because none of these non-church families came to church on a Sunday morning. The church people could not get their heads round the fact that for these families Messy Church was their church. Instead of seeing the potential of ‘doing church’ differently, and trying other alternative ways to engage meaningfully with non-church people, they were still stuck in the mindset that to be a ‘proper Christian’ you must go to church on a Sunday morning at 10.30 a.m.

A natural corollary to this is that we need to recognise the existence of the phenomena of what some are calling ‘the gathering church’.  The twin concepts of ‘the gathered church’ and ‘the scattered church’ is not a new one to Baptist-Christians. The idea of the local church ‘gathering’ together for worship, teaching, prayer, and mutual encouragement and envisioning (my understanding of the primary purpose of the regular Baptist church ‘business’ meetings), in order to then fulfil the missio dei by being ‘scattered’ throughout the world to infiltrate and engage it with the gospel is not a new idea and remains a treasured one to Baptist-Christians in particular (especially given our commitment to ‘congregational government’ within the local church. Back in my youth (c.1960s) the concept of ‘the gathered church’ was very clear cut. ‘Belonging’ followed on from ‘believing’ and therefore an individual confessed Christ as Saviour and Lord, usually through ‘Believer’s Baptism’, and was then admitted to membership of the local church. We therefore knew (or thought we did) who was ‘in’ and we knew who was ‘out’?!   

In recent years, however, we have seen an interesting sea-change taking place in a number of churches (probably reflecting a growing recognition that we all have a ‘spiritual’ side to our nature, and that we are not just physical, mental, social and emotional creatures), where people are ‘joining’ churches in the hope of finding ‘something’ in the company of others who are on the same journey. Many times, new members of the congregation have said to me something like: ‘I am not sure about everything you people believe, and I don’t know what you are on about a lot of the time, but I like it here – there is something going on here I feel drawn to, and I need to know what it is?’  It is suggested that this is a major reason behind the success of such things as the Alpha Course, Messy Church, and so on – people wanting to explore the Christian Faith in the company of other ‘seekers’ like themselves in the hope of finding that ‘something’ they are looking for together? Instead of ‘belonging’ following on from ‘believing’ (as with ‘the gathered church’ model), ‘believing’ stems from first ‘belonging’ (hence, ‘the gathering church’ model). Perhaps this phenomenon offers another way of interpreting Karl Rahner’s (1904-84) ‘anonymous Christians’ view, i.e. that there are those ‘out there’ who, at this moment in time, are not yet Christians but who will in the future become Christians … they just don’t know it yet!?   The existence of the ‘gathering church’ means that, local churches, need to ‘buy into’ this phenomenon and create opportunities – such as running Alpha Courses, Messy Church, etc., etc. –  for these friends to make use of in their search, rather than try and ‘squeeze them into our traditional mould’.

This brings me to a final suggestion about changing the way we ‘do church’ which is that every local church needs to be an ‘inclusive church’ not an ‘exclusive church’.  This, I would suggest, is the problem with the way we have often interpreted or understood ‘the gathered church’ model in that it has tended to make us ‘exclusive’ rather than ‘inclusive’. We have made it difficult for people to join rather than easier, and often we have done so in a hard, harsh, legalistic, judgmental way?! Hopefully things are changing. Julia and I have made a concerted effort in recent years to get the various churches we have pastored to move away from the formal interview/report to the church meeting approach to a more ‘user-friendly’ approach which is deliberately more ‘relational’ than ‘institutional’, but we have often still suffered from the intervention of ‘barrack room’ lawyers who see the church constitution as more important than the Bible?! Don’t get me wrong, church constitutions are important because we do need ‘rails to run on’, but we need see the church constitution as ‘the servant of the church and not its master’! We do need to be discerning as to whom we allow into church membership, but our emphasis must be on seeking to be as inclusive as possible – welcoming, encouraging, enabling new converts to enter in to the fellowship of the church and grow in their discipleship in relationship with the rest of us.

Now, of course, from God’s viewpoint, the concept of ‘the gathered church’ – a ‘called out’ body of people – is absolutely valid. After all ‘the Lord knows those who are his’ (2 Timothy 2:15). From our point of view, however, it is a completely different matter. At best, we can only make an educated guess as to whether someone who professes to be a Christian is genuine. The truth of the matter was then (back in the 1960s), and is now most probably, that some who we think are ‘in’ are actually ‘out’, and some that we think are ‘out’ are actually ‘in’. I have known professing Christians, who have fulfilled all the outward requirements required for ‘church membership’ – profession of faith, baptism, regular attendance at worship, involvement in church activities etc. – but who had very little of the ‘Spirit of Christ’ about them, if truth be told. Conversely, I have known others who outwardly had fulfilled little of the requirements for ‘church membership’ but who were very ‘Christlike’ in their talk and behaviour. No wonder Abraham declined to pass judgment on the people of Sodom and Gomorrah recognising that only God, and God alone, had the ability to make such judgment calls – ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ (Genesis 18:25).

With God there is always a way out, a way back, a way up, a way forward, and for several years now we have tried to instil into our various churches an understanding that it doesn’t matter too much what someone has done in the past (or even what they are doing in the present). It is not our business to change people – only God can do that – and that is more likely to happen when those people are in fellowship with a loving church, where the Word of God is faithfully taught, and where the Spirit of God is moving, than by us trying to put them right in a moralising, legalistic way! I think of one young couple who were ‘living together’ and who started attending church. No one tried to ‘put them right’ but simply made them welcome. They were trying to find their way to God and over the next few weeks and months we saw them slowly start to change – commitment to Jesus Christ, followed by conviction of sin, a determination to put their lives in order, marriage, baptism, church membership, and finally service overseas. This is just one story of many I could share to illustrate the principle I have just outlined.

I began this blog, sadly with a rather negative story about the local church, so let me end with a more positive one to show how a ‘good church’ can make a difference, sometimes immediately! Dorothy was a High School whom I met whilst speaking at an Assembly at a local school a few years ago. In the Staff Room afterwards she was very sceptical about what I had had to say about ‘knowing God’, and particularly about the Church. She told me bluntly that all churches were out of date, boring, and ‘rubbish’. ‘Well … you have obviously never been to my church’ I replied. She looked quizzical, so I told her bluntly that she couldn’t condemn ‘all churches’ in the way she had without visiting them. Feeling ‘in the flow’ I challenged her to come to my church (by which I mean the church where I was the Pastor, not that the church belonged to me) for three Sundays running and, if she hadn’t been converted in that time, then she could justly criticise my church. I didn’t really expect her to come to church, if I am honest, but the following Sunday there she was sitting in the pews at the morning service. After the service she asked to see me and told me that I had got it completely wrong. Now it was my turn to look quizzical? ‘You said that it would take three Sundays for me to become a Christian but actually it has only taken one … will you please pray with me because I want to commit my life to Jesus Christ!’

Jim Binney

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WHAT KIND OF GOD … AND SO WHAT? (Notes from Knaphill 11)

Finger of God

Julia and I recently went for a lovely walk over Horsell Common, a site of ‘special scientific interest’ near the ancient village of Horsell, on the edge of Woking. It includes a number of Bronze Age barrows and protected heath-land. The common has thousands of trees and a large amount of wildlife. In the south-east corner of the common is a former Muslim Burial Ground, now reinstated as a Peace Garden. One of the most recognisable features of the common is the sand pits, roughly in the centre of the common. The sand there has been used for houses in the nearby area. The pits were used by H.G. Wells (1866-1946), the English writer, as the site of the first Martian landing in his novel The War of the Worlds. The Martians emerge from their craft and fire their Heat-Ray at the bystanders. The sand pits have since become a site of pilgrimage for many science fiction fans. Fortunately for Julia and myself there was not a Martian in sight when we went for our walk!

H.G. Wells was never particularly religious, but after he had studied the history of the human race and had observed human life, he came to an interesting conclusion: ‘Religion is the first thing and the last thing, and until a man has found God and been found by God, he begins at no beginning, he works to no end. He may have his friendships, his partial loyalties, his scraps of honour. But all these things fall into place and life falls into place only with God.’

When Julia and I moved to Knaphill (another ‘urban village’ on the edge of Woking and near to Horsell) in 2015, our remit from the Deacons and Church Meeting was to help the church to find a new direction. They knew that they needed to change and believed that God had a new direction and purpose for them, but they were unsure as to what that direction and purpose was. We did not come with any preconceived ideas but simply with the intent to prayerfully explore the way forward together with the church leadership and congregation. We began by spending our first year in Knaphill exploring what many scholars believe to be the first, and most important, theological question: ‘What kind of God?’ and ‘So what?’

This is the first, and most important, theological question that we need to consider because – both as individuals and as local churches – our perception, our understanding, of God will dictate both our belief system and our consequential behaviour, life-style, ministry, mission, etc. Thus, if we see God as just ‘other’ to ourselves – up there, out there, distant from us – then the likelihood is that we ourselves will be exclusive, separate, distant from others (and even reality). If we see God as somewhat hard, harsh, judgemental – a God whose primary purpose is to punish us for our sins and short-comings – then the likelihood is that we too will be like that as well. Our ‘gospel’ will be a ‘message of condemnation’ (as one preacher once proudly described his own ministry to me), and we will come across as hard and harsh and judgemental in our dealings with others. If, however, we see God as gracious and loving, kind, merciful and forgiving – a God who has already made a way for us to both find him and our God-given purpose in life through Jesus Christ (John 3:16,17) – then we too will have a Gospel that truly is ‘good news’ to share and a loving, gracious kindly way of living to back that up!

It is interesting that the Bible never argues ‘the case for God’ but simply states the existence of God as a ‘fact’. The opening verse of the Bible simply tells us ‘In the beginning God …’ (Genesis 1:1). What follows (Genesis 1:1-2:4) is a poetic narrative (most probably designed for liturgical use in the worship services of God’s Old Testament people), the main theme of which is the wonderful truth that God and God’s creation are eternally bound together in a distinctive and delicate way. This is the presupposition for everything else that follows in the Bible. It is the deepest premise from which the good news of the Gospel is made possible. As Walter Brueggemann suggests: ‘God and his creation are bound together by the powerful, gracious movement of God towards that creation. The binding which is established by God is inscrutable. It will not be explained or analysed. It can only be affirmed and confessed. This text announces the deepest mystery: God wills and will have a faithful relation with earth. The text invites the listening community to celebrate the reality. The binding is irreversible. God has decided it. The connection cannot be nullified.’ [Genesis, Interpretation Series, John Knox Press (Atlanta) 1982, pp.22-24].  

Only a foolish person leaves God out of the equation of life! When I was a very new Christian (around 17 years of age) a chap in the office where I worked at that time (knowing that I had recently become a Christian and wanting to have a bit of ‘fun’ with me at my expense) told me that the Bible says, ‘There is no God!’ I went home and searched my Bible and discovered that he was correct … the Bible does indeed say (on two occasions) that ‘There is no God!’ Both statements are in the Book of Psalms, but what the Psalmist actually says (a fact that my work colleague conveniently left out) is: ‘The fool says in his heart, “There is no God!”’ (Psalm 14:1; 53:1). So … I went back to him the next day and told him he was a fool?!

Recognition of the reality of God is not just a matter of faith, however. Faith and conduct, belief and behaviour, are inextricably linked. We cannot divorce the two sides of the question we began with: ‘What kind of God?’ and ‘So what?’ Vaclav Havel (1936-2011), the former President of the Czech Republic and considered by many to have been one of the most important intellectuals of the 20th century, commenting on the chaos and confusion resulting from our ‘loss of God’ today says: ‘I believe that with the loss of God, man lost an absolute and universal system of co-ordinates, to which he could always relate anything, chiefly himself. If God is not there, then we can no longer speak of meaning, of purpose, of accountability, or responsibility.’ [Open Letters, Vintage Books, 1992, pp.94,95].  

My late father died a number of years ago when I was around 23 years of age, and a ministerial student at Spurgeon’s College, London. He was not a professing Christian by any means (although in one of those strange twists in life, he was partly responsible for me starting to attend church when I was in my mid-teens – but that is another story for another time) and struggled not only with the fact that I had become a committed Christian but also eventually gave up a good job ‘with prospects’ in order to train to become a Baptist Minister. I vividly recall my last serious conversation with him (although, in fact, he did most of the talking) shortly before he died. It was quite late one night and he brought up the subject of me being a Christian. ‘If you are wrong about all this ‘God stuff’’ he said, ‘then it doesn’t really matter. I can’t imagine you living a better, more rewarding, more purposeful life than you are!’ There was a long pause, and then he continued, ‘But on the other hand, if I am wrong about there not being a God ….’

Jim Binney  

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YOGA AND BINGO TO THE LEFT … GOD TO THE RIGHT (Lent 2, 2018)

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It was the first of our ecumenical Lent Group meetings last week. We held it on neutral territory in the Vyne Community Centre in Knaphill in the largest of their meeting rooms. There were 23 of us there: 10 Roman Catholics, eight Baptists, two Methodists, two Anglicans, and one chap from the community with no church affiliation. I was on the door welcoming people. I like being on the door on a Sunday at church. I consider this to be the most important job in church life – new people form an instant opinion of what a church is like from their initial greeting at the door when they arrive. 

As well as the Church for Knaphill Lent Group meeting in the Vyne that night there were two other groups meeting: Bingo in one room, and Yoga in another room. I just welcomed everybody who came into the building. I am reasonably well-known in Knaphill these days – primarily because of my stint as Editor of the quarterly Knaphill News (a glossy publication that is distributed free to 5,000 homes in the area and is read by 15,000 people) which carries my photo in the Editor column. I welcomed several people who had come for the Lent Group, and then a lady who had come for the Bingo. She wanted to know why I was there and I tried to explain (as simply as I could) about the Lent Group. Although she was an older lady she didn’t have a clue about ‘Lent’ until I got on to the subject of ‘God’. From that point on I simply asked everybody who came into the Vyne what they were there for, and then explained that it was ‘Yoga and Bingo to the left … God to the right!’ Everybody thought this was very funny … especially when Julia came along and suggested that we combined all three groups and did a combination of Yoga, Bingo and God … all in the same room!

For our ecumenical Lent Group, we are using ‘On the Third Day’ – an ecumenical course in five sessions written by Bishop John Pritchard with an accompanying audio – produced by the York Courses. The first session was entitled ‘Have I Got News for You’ and centred on the various evidences for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. We listened to the audio and then split up into five groups with four or five people in each making sure that each group had a good mix of people from the various churches. We were given a dozen or so questions for discussion to choose one or two from, and the group I was in spent most of its time sharing which of the various well-loved Bible passages read at Easter was our favourite Easter reading. Everybody shared something, and the various stories/testimonies were really inspiring and often very moving. The stories of ‘Doubting’ Thomas (John 20:24-28) and the Two on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:28-35) came out top of the pile, but this led us into another question re. places where we had ‘bumped into the risen Christ’ along life’s road. Although we all came from different Christian traditions it was wonderful to realise that so many of our experiences were very similar … especially the way in which each of us had found (or been found by) the risen Christ somewhere along the road.

Comments afterwards (together with emails during the week) suggest that everybody without exception found the ecumenical Lent Group a very positive, enlightening and encouraging experience, and we are all looking forward to this week’s session. Snow fall permitting we will be meeting once again in the Vyne (along with the Yoga and Bingo people) and perhaps we might even have more than 23 of us this time?  The subject this week is ‘So What? The Implications of the Resurrection’ and we begin with a great story: In the 1960s the Anglican Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, was in Moscow over Easter. He went to the Barber Shop in his hotel for a shave (his electric razor had broken). When his barber saw Stockwood’s episcopal cross and ring he asked if he was indeed a Bishop, and when Stockwood answered in the affirmative the barber kissed the bishop’s cross, and then his ring, and finally (with cut-throat razor held aloft with the Bishop’s beard still attached) called out, ‘Christ is risen!’ to which all the other customers in the shop responded, ‘He is risen indeed! Alleluia!’ Mervyn Stockwood thought to himself, ‘Poor old Brezhnev (the then Soviet President): 60 years of atheism and still the Galilean conquers!’

Jim Binney

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