Friday, 24 August 2018

Bible study

Some people never read the Bible, some like to dip in and read as they feel led, some follow a read-the-Bible-in-a-year programme, and some like to have study notes.

It's the same with home groups. Some tie in to Sunday worship and discuss in a weeknight group the themes and materials of Sunday's ministry of the word, others just keep meeting and chatting and praying and sharing fellowship, but most follow programmes of study and are on the lookout for study materials on a regular basis.

Over the years I've sometimes been involved in leading home groups, and always hit one particular problem — the study materials have too much content. There's usually an ice-breaker activity, some informational input, several discussion questions (sometimes in multiple sections), homework, prayer points . . . a lot.

In groups I have attended, led by others, a thing happens to which I seriously object. The people are given a subject to discuss, and are just getting into it when the leader claps its hands, starts to make barking noises of warning, and tells them to stop talking. The subliminal message is that while it is important for the people to talk to one another, what they are saying is of no significance. They can shut up now because the leader says so. This reinforces one of the church's weakest characteristics — what is sometimes called "style over substance"; get the behaviour right and what's really inside you doesn't matter. This is an unfortunate effect to achieve in a fellowship group, and it stems from over-crammed study materials. The leader, conscientiously trying to do what the notes say, tries to herd the people into achieving conformity to the prescribed structure instead of letting them do what they like.

To remedy this, I wrote some study materials of my own.

They are based on the following premises.

  1. In the discipling programme of the church community, Sunday worship has space for some serious teaching input (ministry of the word) and home groups take this further by discussion and interaction (rather than more large pieces of input).
  2. Home groups are of huge importance for forming bonds of friendship which create a web, or cradle, of nurture and support for the church members. These are made by interactions, which are valuable of themselves not just a pleasing subsection of supporting a leader's study input. A home group's conversations should be fed and respected; they are building the church. These interactions foster healing, nourish the spirit, and are foundational responsible for spiritual formation.
  3. Home groups benefit from the focus and structure offered by study materials, but these should be created and administered with a light hand, to respect and give space for the interpersonal dynamics of the group.
  4. Even when a study group ties in with the Sunday worship programme, there are often gaps here and there when a leader is helped by having some stand-alone studies to hand.
With all this in mind, I wrote my studies, producing a volume of a hundred stand-alone Bible studies offering a theme, some Bible texts exploring that theme, a paragraph of commentary bringing out some of the most important aspects, three questions designed to help build the bridge between the eternal word of the Gospel and the day-to-day reality of participants' lives, and a prayer to conclude.

The idea is that these materials be a resource, not a tyranny.  So, for example, of the three questions, some offer the opportunity for group members to share aspects of their personality and personal history, while others explore matters of faith and theological exploration. The questions are specifically created to have no wrong answers. Nothing is there to catch people out or make them feel stupid or uninformed. The questions are invitations to share the truth and experience residing within each one of us, and so enrich the group.

These materials are also very handy for planning Café Worship, where timing is tight for the ministry of the word but interaction and discussion play a prominent part. The short selection of biblical texts, concise commentaries, and three open questions are perfect for formulating the ministry of the word in Café Worship.

I have been really delighted to discover, from the feedback of those who have used my study materials in their home groups, that these materials have particularly helped novice leaders gain confidence. It takes a leader of determination and experience — a real Border Collie of a leader — to herd the flock through the tightly timed sections of a regular Bible study, but the ones I've written give both the support a new leader needs and the space that makes the task easy.

Because home group leaders found these studies a valuable resource, I was asked if I'd write a second set. So I did. It publishes next month and is currently on Amazon for pre-order.  

This new one has a section on what I called "sacred moments". These are the sacraments of the church, but since the term "sacraments" is alien to some church groups I described them (accurately I hope) as sacred moments.

Then it has a section called "The Way of a Disciple", which explores the cycle of conversion, sanctification, aridity, perseverance and renewal.

The next section is on Covenant, looking at the different covenants in the Bible and what they mean for us today.

Then there's a section on Atonement — an essential but often opaque area of Jewish and Christian faith.

Next comes a section on Watchwords of the Faith — for example, grace, salvation, holiness, meekness, hope, transformation, redemption and several more.

After that is a section on St John's Signs — how the miracles of Jesus are tied in to declaring his mission, in John's gospel.

The last section, Spiritual Charisms, works through all the spiritual gifts identified in the Bible, from the different places in the Old and New Testaments where these are listed. These include the more widely recognised ones like healing, prophecy and wisdom, but also some that are less frequently cited as spiritual charisms, like reverence, celibacy and mercy.

I've linkified the image for you, to take you to Amazon where you can also read the comments of these who have tried and tested Volume 1, helpfully added to the page of this new volume.

I hope you like this new book as much as you evidently liked the first, and that it becomes a valuable resource for your home group, your Café Worship, and your personal quiet times. 

Written for you, with my love. It was quite a labour!!

Saturday, 18 August 2018

A question to other Google Blogger users

If you read here regularly, you might (not) remember that a while back Google Blogger suddenly stopped sending me email notifications of your comments, and it wasn't until it occurred to me to go into the engine section of my blog and look that I managed to find them.

So I've been doing that ever since, and now I have got in the habit and have no trouble remembering to look, so that's fine.

Then yesterday I got an email from Google Blogger inviting me to subscribe to the facility of having email notification of your comments.

Hmm. To me, the word "subscribe" is linked to the closely associated term, "money". In my experience, anyone offering you a free subscription to anything whatsoever advertises it in the most blatantly unmissable terms. In the email I got, there was no mention of money changing hands, but the magic word "free" was noticeably absent from their message. Just two buttons saying SUBSCRIBE and DECLINE. Guess which one I chose.

Is anyone else among you blogging on Google Blogger? Have you had this as well? What's happening? 

And what about those of you who follow this blog? DO you get email notifications of posts — has there been any change to what normally happens?

Checking online, I see someone has found an ingenious way round this by himself commenting on his own blog and checking "notify me of follow up comments" — so then they do. I'm going to try that.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Cognitive ablutions

In the bath is where I do my primary thinking. I don't have a bath every day — that's why I'm a bit dim. My cerebral activity is intermittent.

But I did have a bath this morning. 

As I watch the morning light from the peaceful water, I ask questions of the great I Am. Today, much to my relief, my anxious searching for something to fill the Great Blank of what is needed for this Sunday's worship found a leading from the Spirit. Ahhh . . . okay . . . yes . . . let's go with that.

But other than holy concerns, my mind also strolled through the Wilderness of Trivia. Today I washed my hair. I have a new bottle of shampoo. I'm excited about this, because my favourite shampoo maker has just brought out a new range, that includes probiotics. 

The skin, as you probably already know, has its own microbiome, balancing the internal microbiome of the gut which takes care of our wellbeing and cheerfulness. Washing as much as we do, and having as little contact with the earth and living beings as most of us do, our skin microbiome inevitably suffers. It has occurred to some manufacturers of toiletries that what we need is probiotics to keep the microbiome topped up. So I'm pleased and excited that my own shampoo will now include this health-giving extra boost. It will make me clean and dirty at the same time. That's sort of magic, isn't it?

So then I got to thinking, I wonder how they get the probiotics into the shampoo? What are probiotics anyway? Bacteria, n'est çe pas? Where are they sourcing the bacteria?

When people's gut microbiomes nosedive, the best remedy is the insertion into the lower bowel of a poo sample from a person with a healthy, thriving, robust gut microbiome. So . .  I wonder . . . maybe . . . has my shampoo morphed from mere sham poo to being actual poo? 

The world of cosmetics is jealous and competitive. I remember back in the day — as long ago as the early 1980s — when Animal Aid, of which I was our local branch's secretary (or treasurer or something active and positive), mounted a huge campaign against Revlon's animal testing. Not only did Revlon change its practice as a result, but so did many other cosmetics firms; 'cruelty-free' became a promotional advantage.

In the same way, I imagine that probiotic shampoo is on the brink of becoming a Thing. Ours — ours —could be the generation that leaves behind washing our hair in Shampoo in favour of lovingly massaging in Realpoo. Gosh. 

Time to get out of the bath, my microbiome fully revitalised. This Realpoo smells very nicely of lavender, which is sort of reassuring.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

What I wish I could say to the man re-laying our front path

"The thing is, Martin, unfortunately everyone else has gone out today and left me alone to look after you. And what you have to understand about me (but nobody will have told you, because why should they and because they are so used to me) is that I am not entirely sane. They know this, but they are busy. They hope for the best and have left the responsibility for you with me.

"It's not that I am indifferent to your well-being; far from it. Every fibre of all of me is painfully, utterly alert to the sound of you digging, whistling, hefting heavy bags, working hard. I am absolutely aware. You assume, in my consciousness, giant proportions.

"The problem is not that I don't care. It's that, as things are with me just now, I can hardly bear to leave my room. The prospect of interaction with another human being makes me feel physically sick. I can't face opening an interface between your soul and mine — your eyes, your voice, your smile. Even thinking of it makes my interior environment dissolve into running for shelter and multiple random directions, screaming. 

"I am so sorry. I have told you, not just once but repeatedly, to come in and help yourself, to make your own drink. I know this is unusual and that your expectations of yourself and the rest of the human race will make this difficult for you to do. But it would help me so much if you just did it."



It's no good, is it? 

I'd better go down and fix him a cup of tea and a cookie.

Friday, 10 August 2018

Makers making mermaids

Two of our household — Alice and Hebe — have been working for several months on developing a range of sea-themed jewellery.

The things they're making are — oh, my! — just so pretty.

I wanted to show you a necklace just completed.

Because the porcelain beads would cut through silk over time, it is threaded (very appropriately) on fishing twine (I love that) which is very strong and durable.

The beads are freshwater pearls, a few genuine shell beads, several handmade porcelain beads (both smoke-fired and pink-glazed), and sandalwood.

The mermaid is porcelain and the flower she holds is coral (vintage, so no protected species have been hurt); the clasp is gold.

The mermaid and the porcelain beads were made by Hebe.

Isn't that just such a darling creation? I'll bring you pictures as more sea-wonders emerge . . .

Wednesday, 8 August 2018


So why is it that people are commonly called Mr Black, Mr Brown, Mr Grey, Mr White and Mr Green — but nobody is ever called Mr Pink, Mr Red, Mr Blue, Mr Orange, Mr Purple, or Mr Yellow?

Monday, 6 August 2018

Keep it secret. Keep it safe.

There's this wonderful moment in The Fellowship of the Ring, when Gandalf says to Frodo, "Keep it secret. Keep it safe."

This is the most astonishingly good advice.

Jesus followed the same path. There is what's called in the gospels "the messianic secret", because time and again when he heals somebody, Jesus cautions them to tell no one; to keep it secret. Likewise, when he teaches the people he always does so in parables. Only in his close, trusted circle does he unpack the wisdom of the story, speaking plainly. That way he offers the gift of spiritual truth, but safely wrapped up in a story, so that it is only recognisable to those who can be trusted to handle it advisedly.

Lao Tzu teaches the same principle in the Tao (see Ch.15 and Ch.56), observing that those who talk do not know and those who know do not talk, and that the ancient masters went cautiously and quietly.

Father Tom Cullinan, the monk who lived in the forest and was my friend, taught the same thing. He advised me never to speak about living simply, not to discuss it or promote it; keep it hidden, keep it secret, keep it safe.

The more I see of life, the more convinced I am becoming that this is 24 carat super-wisdom. It is as though the truth arises in an individual's life like a hidden spring welling up from the earth of their soul. You can recognise it, but you cannot impart it. You cannot give your truth to someone else, you can only live it. 

Here and there, when someone has need of the truth you know, you may be able to speak to them quietly and privately; and those who journey with you, live with you, discover your truth. But broadcasting it only attracts opposition, antagonism and contention; the enemies of quietness and of peace. 

Those who know truth have to learn to become die stille im Lande. It is the only way to proceed. If you try anything else, people will block you. The more you know, the more you have to withdraw. It's the only way through. Those who belong to the same path will find you.

It can be very frustrating. The secret burns inside you as Frodo's ring burned in his pocket, as truth burned in Jeremiah's bones wanting to come out. But truth is for living; the only way it can be told safely is in stories, as Jesus did. Unless you don't mind people throwing you into a well or cutting your head off or putting you in prison or stoning you. That was the price.

To learn truth, watch people's lives. It's like seeing a pattern unfolding as cloth is woven, or observing a melody developing. Then you know what they know — or what they don't. To teach truth, let people watch your life.

In recent times, three things have happened to remind me of this — a correspondence, a conversation, and an online discussion. These served as forceful reminders that people generally prefer to deal in externals. If you allow inner reality to appear, it causes affront and argument.

Ssh. Keep it secret. Keep it safe. If you know.

See also this blog post, and this, and this, and this.