Sunday, November 21, 2010

What it takes to be disciples

It’s great to catch a glimpse of what our Open the Book team are doing as they take Bible stories into the assemblies at Oadwood School. And to think there are other such teams taking Bible Stories into many, many school assemblies throughout Gloucestershire and up and down the country.

I loved the way the story of Jesus’ Special Friends came to an end.

Jesus shook his head and smiled. “Don’t be scared,” he said. “God has given me a lot of work to do. And I need helpers Helpers like you and your friends. Once you weree fishermen. But from now on, you’ll be fishing for people. And helping me bring them to God.

Then Jesus stepped out of the boat and wawlked away, across the shore. “Come with me,” he called.

Peter and his friends watched him go. They looked at the fish. They looked at each other. Then they dropped their nets, left their boats behind, and raced off to follow Jesus.” [The Lion Storyteller Bible retold by Bob Holman (Lion, 1995)]

It’s one thing telling Bible stories for children and catching the fun and excitement as those special friends ‘raced off to follow Jesus’.

It’s worth re-visiting those stories, however, in an adult context. The stories we tell to children as children’s stories, are in fact about adults in an adult world. And the world they lived in was a world where it was not actually straightforward to ‘race off and follow Jesus’. It was in fact fraught with difficulties.

The task Jesus had come to do and the task he expected of those who would follow him is spelled out in quite some detail from chapter 9:35 through to chapter 10 in Matthew’s gospel.

As Jesus travels from village to village, from city to city he has a message to share that’s focused on the way God’s rule is all important in the home, the family and in the world at large.

On the one hand, his teaching in some strange way made sense and helped them make sense of their lives. It was always about God’s kingdom and it gave them that sense of purpose they longed for.

And on the other hand, with Jesus it wasn’t just words. What he did made a world of difference to people as he brought healing into hurting people’s lives.

Then as Matthew 10 opens, twelve of those special friends of Jesus are named and Jesus then commissions them. He passes on to them something of that sense of authority that he has.

And then he gives them two things to do. First they are to share the very same teaching – it’s the very thing that people need to make sense of their lives … and it’s something really worth passing on.

And then they too are to bring healing into hurting people’s lives and make a difference to other people.

That’s the task in a nutshell.

Stefan and Birgit were with us for three years about ten years ago as Stefan was studying for a doctorate at the University and undertaking a pastoral placement here.

We have supported them since as they have moved to Brazil to undertake Christian work. As a family they are among those we have a special partnership with in mission.

It was great to chat with Stefan and see the three children over Skype earlier this week. What they are doing over there in Londrinia in Brazil is exactly what is envisaged here in Matthew 9 and 10.

They share a teaching ministry. That’s primarily what Stefan is engaged in. He teaches in a large theological seminary which is one of the main protestant theological seminaries in Brazil. He teaches Old Testament and biblical studies. It is quite some accomplishment for a German who did his doctorate in English now to be teaching theology in Portuguese! He encapsulates that ‘teaching’ side of the work of mission. He is helping students to make sense of the Scriptures who will then go on in pastoral and teaching ministry to help people make sense of their lives through the Scriptures.

But while we were chatting Birgit was out. A physiotherapist, Birgit has become very involved in a drug rehabilitation project run in their locality. That’s the other side of that mission coin – the practical, helping service that brings healing to hurting people.

Such work has its difficulties and in our prayers and in our practical support we seek to be a support to Stefan and Birgit, and to Marit, Simeon and Jacob in their family life together.

Jesus too recognised the difficulties. A lot of what he shares with those ‘special friends’ in chapter 10 is about addressing the difficulties that are all too real. He recognises not all will be impressed. People will mock and taunt – there will be real persecution. Jesus shares words of wisdom about how to cope in that kind of situation, and emphasises the importance of actions rather than words.

Matthew 10:16-20 and 40-42

Following in the footsteps of Jesus can lead you into scary situations – be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. And even if it is just a cup of water … what a difference that can make!

It is a year since Street Pastors was launched in Cheltenham.

On Saturday night at Cambray at 7-30 that anniversary will be marked and the latest set of volunteers to join the scheme will be commissioned, bring the total number of Street Pastors in Cheltenham to 50. Though more are very much needed.

I’ve been asked to give the address on Saturday night and felt I couldn’t do that without getting a taste of the training they do and experiencing a night out on the streets.

It was an inspiration.

So it was I found myself just after 4-00 one Saturday morning walking back to the Salvation Army church which is used as a base with one of the older members of St Luke’s who I think will be in their seventies. What she had to say was an interesting.

“I think quite differently about going out into Cheltenham in the evening now! I used to be fearful of all the young people. Now I realise they are with very few exceptions lovely people who are looking out for each other. I no longer feel a fear about going into Cheltenham in the evening.”

Cheltenham at night on a Friday and a Saturday can be a scary place. In that context Jesus’ words of wisdom are to be wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove.

That sums up the approach of Street Pastors. The training is extensive. They are now an integral part of the town’s response to the Night Time economy. Dressed in a distinctive uniform they go out in pairs, always two pairs together. One person in each pair has an ear piece and microphone which links them into the Police Control room and enables them to hear conversations among all the security staff in all the clubs around the town.

In the middle part of the 6 hour shift I did that night I was back at base where we were chatting, and listening in to that radio chatter. I pricked my ears up as one of our Street Pastors radioed into the police control room to report a fight that was starting on the Strand. Within a couple of minutes a single police man arrived. Enough of a presence to calm the situation a little but not enough to stop it entirely. Within a couple of minutes the police control room were asking for some street pastors to attend a girl by Boots corner who was on her own and needing help. They moved over there where they found a police van with police officers helping that girl. They took over and the four of them were able to chat with her, share some water, some of those flip-fops which for girls with no shoes on make all the difference and walk her home. That freed up the police to join their colleague and nothing came of the fight.

The Street Pastors carry a dustpan and brush and it was surprising how much broken glass they swept up. And a dozen girls had flip flops.

A fight that didn’t happen doesn’t count on the statistics. Girls who don’t go to A and E with badly injured feet having walked over broken glass don’t count on the statistics.

Two things struck me about that night. First the whole approach takes those words of Jesus seriously. Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. There was a wisdom in the rigorous training and strict approach to patrolling they took, linked with a gentle presence that made all the difference.

And the other thing was taking seriously what Jesus said about the cup of water. What a difference that makes too.

Practical help. But absolutely clear. It is not bound up with teaching. There’s no ‘evangelising’. Each of those involved in Street Pastors will no doubt have other settings in which they can share a faith that is definitely important to them. But Street Pastors is not the setting for that.

Mind you, it was fascinating to see how many conversations there were initiated by people asking questions, sometimes very big questions, as they faced real difficulties and major problems. Who knows how many of those conversations may have been a real help too.

I for one am with those ‘special friends of Jesus’ not just in the adult world as much as in the world of children’s bible story telling. That involves something in Christ’s teaching, and in the whole of his life, death and resurrection that for me helps make sense of a sometimes very troubling world. And at the same time it also involves bringing practical help real healing to people who are hurting in that very troubling world.

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