Saturday, December 31, 2005

7 marks of a healthy church... 2/7

"Energized by faith seems to be a foundation characteristic. At the heart of these churches and their members is a reality about their awareness of the presence, goodness and love of God. Faith is the fuel on which these churches run."

Warren, R (2004) The Healthy Churches' Handbook. Church House Publishing
Seems a little obvious on first read through but it got me thinking about the danger of an 'unreality of awareness' theology. It got me thinking about a theology formed out of a self comforting preoccupation with self, turning mission into something it was never intended to me, a theology that turns mission into an activity of church and away from being an attribute of a our missionary God.

I've got a feeling that keeping 'the presence, goodness and love of God' real in all that we do communicates to our "Thanks ... but no thanks" post-Christian culture.

Friday, December 30, 2005

7 marks of a healthy church... 1/7

Robert Warren's The Healthy Churches' Handbook was a good read this year. Insightful as it was resourceful. I am wanting to keep hold of some of the key points and emphasis - here seems as good a place.

He identifies 7 marks of health within church that were revealed in research to churches that were 'growing'. So here they are in no particular order.
"Outward-looking focus. These churches were typified not by concentrating on their own life and concerns but by a practical care for the local context, the whole of life and the world in which we live. They are marked by a capacity to enjoy life and feel the pain of the struggles in our world."
Warren, R (2004) The Healthy Churches' Handbook. Church House Publishing

I've got a feeling that this is more than a once a year 'mission' thing but an ongoing day by day struggle. I've got a feeling that this is more than singing some songs on Sunday but relying on the fair trade stall, and the MPH bands at the back as our social engagement. I've got a feeling that this is more than 'bob a job mission' washing cars and gardening at weekends. I've got a feeling that this is more than 'creating a cosy sub-culture of worship that is more about eye-candy and fuzzy warm feeling amoung the candles' and thinking we're engaging with our culture.

I've got a feeling that this is all about being church that in all things shares the pain and joy of community.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Books 2005

Books I've read this year...
Top reads
  • Morisy, A.(2004) Journeying Out: A New Appraoch to Christian Mission
  • Newbigin, L.(1988) Mission in Christ's Way: A Gift, a Command, an Assurance. Library of Christian Stewardship
  • Guder, D.L (ed) (1998) Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America
  • Webber, R.E. (2002) The Younger Evangelicals. Baker Book House
  • Warren, R (2004) The Healthy Churches' Handbook. Church House Publishing
Best Novel
  • Hosseini, K (2003) The Kite Runner.Bloomsbury

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Christmas Day Summed up.....!

How do you sum up a day like today?

How do you sum up a day when all the characters that shape me were together? Patrick, Judith, Victor etc... together with 80 odd people together as family as opposed being by themselves? How do you sum up some of our African congregation playing all the christmas classics with frail 80 year old Lucy jamming along on her mouth organ? How do you sum up the panic when potatoes simply refused to roast, carrots refused to boil to schedule? How do you sum up being able to drop people home and sense their heart felt gratitude? Bethan got close.

"... you know what Dad?.... you really do smell of old people...!"

I love being part of the 'visible emerged' church at Christmas even if I do smell of old people!!

I'm off for a bath and a bit of a read!!

Saturday, December 24, 2005

The indelible mark ...

Ok I close my eyes and I see turkey, I smell turkey, my family say I smell like turkey. Carving for 85 has left an indelible mark!

The church is set for the day - the tables are laid, vegetables peeled. We're ready for whatever tomorrow may hold.

I hope that the gift that our church is giving, will point beyond what we do, to the true gift that Christmas celebrates. I hope that when all is over and we have dropped everyone home, the mark of Christmas that is 'love come down' will be as indelible as my turkeys!

Friday, December 23, 2005

Delivering a food hamper...

As soon as we walked in I knew it was a mistake. Basket in one hand two fed up girls tagging along we fought through the crowds in the supermarket. All I needed was some milk, tea bags and washing powder but the aisles were loaded with mayhem, chaos, retail anarchy, people queuing, trolleys loaded high with Christmas booty. We didn't make it to the teabags. We turned and fled empty handed.

Tonight I thought of the unbridled lavishness that Christmas unleashes as people over spend to over eat for just one day, a day in which they don't even believe. I thought of the excess that Christmas has become as I stood on the doorstep of a family handing over a donated Christmas hamper. I thought of the festive overload that we buy into to have a good Christmas as I looked into the one small room where this family live. I thought of the 'merry' gluttonous overload that we condone as I looked at the three half plastic bags of shopping in the doorway. She catches me looking at the bags on the floor.

"I've just got some things together for Christmas... but this is so helpful"

I had to deal with the lump in my throat as her eyes and smile communicated everything, as I left she pushed a carrier bag into my hand with a bottle of grape juice. "It's our culture ... our way of saying thanks...!"

I get home and look at our bulging cupboards waiting for Christmas to start and to set them free. I feel painfully humbled.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Two Drunks...

Carolling with the band always gives you time to think. Largely I felt quite sad last night as the passers by hurried home. Two drunks tried to converse with me. One a Chinese guy that made very little sense to me for what seemed eternity. The comedy of the moment not lost on the city commuters as he asked me for directions to the millennium dome with a mixture of sign language and extremely loud and broken English. But it was Matty that upset me.

Matty used to come to our Youth Club - and whenever I see him now he is hammered. I tried talking to this swaying 15 year old, his drink filled eyes struggling to make the effort to focus. As he staggered his way through the crowds I couldn't help thinking about Marcus and the conversation I had with him a couple of weeks ago; about when he started to drink heavily as a 15 year old; about how his mother can't have him in the house; about how he now has a car that he bought for £10 to sleep in. I couldn't help thinking about Ralph, Tommy, Michael and a whole host of alcoholics whose livers have packed in or have died because of their lives of alcohol.

As I watched Matty I couldn't help feeling sad. I hope Matty comes back to youth club so I can tell him about the friends I once knew.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Murray on Mission's False Dichotomy...

Stuart Murray observes... if there is
"one particular dimension of the gospel distorted by Christendom: it is good news to the poor. Marginal post-Christendom churches may rediscover a radical gospel that subverts condescending 'need-oriented evangelism' (that leaves unchallenged an unjust status quo) and reconnects evangelism with social justice. If the gospel is truly good news to the poor, we have not been preaching the gospel, for the rich and powerful have not found it disturbing and the poor have not found it liberating."
Murray, S.(2004)Post-Christendom Church and Mission in a Strange New World. Pasternoster pp. 163.

Distorted gospel.... I'm not too comfortable with that?


Sunday, December 18, 2005

Carols and Chaos....

The carol service at Poplar as ever was a highlight - today was our eighth in Poplar.

As we watched the carols from Lincoln Cathedral on BBC, with trumpeted descants, Dickensian singers, orchestrated harmonies - we smiled as we thought back to the variegated chaos that was Poplar's. It is funny what feelings you have when you look out on a congregation - today I felt overwhelming love and joy of being part of the body of Christ that is Poplar Salvation Army.

It's a feeling to keep hold of especially as Turkey's, vegetables, fruit, drinks and all the bits and bobs - to make Christmas day a family treat for 80 - need to be picked up. It's a feeling to keep hold of as we start a gruelling week of carolling to raise money for both our Christmas efforts and to help with our local work in the community. It's a feeling to keep hold of in ministry because it can all too easily be eroded away reducing what we do to just a job.

I'm glad of moments that leading a carol service of chaos affords!

The Story of God...

I've enjoyed the last three weeks following the thoughts of Professor Robert Winston as he presented his BBC documentary The Story of God.

Tonight talking about the ill-perceived 'battle' between science and religion he coined the phrase the 'principle of uncertainty' that he suggests fundamentalists of whatever persuasion whether religious or scientific would do well to cultivate.

Perhaps influenced by Heisenberg ; perhaps this brilliant man's scientific mind finds comfort in the mystery that is God.

It seemed a shame that most of the Christians he spoke with and interviewed were more comfortable with squeezing God into a box than expressing the struggle that is the mystery of God. The smugness of always having the right answer, the clever rhetoric really wasn't that appealing.

A SA songwriter once wrote:-
Many are the things I cannot understand,
All above my mystery I see;
But the gift most wonderful from God's own hand
Surely is his gift of grace to me!

Higher than the stars that reach eternity,
Broader than the boundaries of endless space,
Is the boundless love of God that pardoned me;
O the wonder of his grace!
Howard Davies

Friday, December 16, 2005

I'll Remember Ralph....*

We got worried this week Ralph hasn't been in. Ralph an amiable alcoholic comes in probably once or twice a month to have a cup of tea and chortle nonsense with us but we haven't seen Ralph for a month. Some phones calls and we discover that Ralph has died. His neighbours disturbed by a smell called the police and they found Ralph. I'm going to miss Ralph and I'll remember him.

I'll remember how some weeks he would visit us in his pygamas. I'll remember his unintelligible Geordie accent. I'll remember him telling me stories and laughing, making me laugh so hard because I couldn't understand a thing he said and the more I laughed, the more he laughed thinking I understood. I'll remember his face being tattooless. I'll remember him coming into our Sunday services from time to time (once in a suit and tie). I'll remember the effects alcohol was having on his body, his pain as his body started to give up. Above all I'll remember the glint in his eye.


* Ralph's his real name - I think he deserves that dignity.

Early Christmas Presents...

Today saw the end of the children's Christmas parties that we have organised. Over 130 kids from 6 months to 17 over different nights and parties have partied together and left with a gift. The youth and family workers and volunteers have worked hard! I stole a glimpse of our special needs youth club and saw the looks of joy on their faces. Though not totally involved with that group that un-noticed stolen glimpse through the door became an early Christmas present!

Thursday, December 15, 2005

A time to moonwalk.....

Judith came in today (more on Judith here and here) with her friend Gary. More recently she has made me nervous by virtue of the drunken amorous advances she makes on me.

Today she asks for a food parcel and so I go to go, but as I turn she grabs my arm, looks longingly through drunken eyes "do you like my new glasses...?"

I try to be pleasently distant, "umm yeah they seem to suit you..."

She lets go of my arm, I head for the kitchen and get a couple of meals together. As I arrive back she proudly tells Gary "He's the one I really like, you know the one I tell you about, the one I fancy...!" Ok my discomfort is growing, I'm grateful that Roz our youth worker has heard my telepathic cries of 'stay with me, please say with me'. I turn to Judith and try to take the sting out of the situation - "Steady on Judith you know I'm happily married" I say with a nervous giggle not really befitting my newly 40-year-old status!

She jumps up and walks towards me her voice husky "yeah... but you want me...!" Ever done a moonwalk very quickly? I have!

Last Christmas day - Judith needed to see someone - a food parcel her request, her excuse - she left clasping a Christmas present from us but left us feeling shocked. Her daughter was murdered two days before Christmas day - stabbed in Hackney.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


Seems that Christmas day on a Sunday is a bit of an issue for some churches. What to do on a day when the marginalised feel that extra bit marginal? What to do on a day when the lonely feel that extra bit lonely? What to do on a day when the depressed feel that extra bit depressed? What to do on a day when the broken feel that extra bit broken? Here's an idea .... close!

Read more here and here.

If ever there is a day on which to demonstrate the fullness of Jesus through community and family it is Christmas day. I wonder if Christmas day is a missional litmus test?

Christmas day is an important day for us as church some memories here and here.

When the song of the angels is silent
When the star in the sky is gone
When the kings and princes are home
When the shepherds are again tending their sheep
When the manger is darkened and still

The work of Christmas begins --

To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To rebuild the nations
To bring peace among people
To befriend the lonely
To release the prisoner
To make music in the heart.

Howard Thurmond

Mr Marshall (pictured) I guess will be pleased again this year that we will be well and truly open!!

A journey to self respect...

When we first met Steph six years ago she was homeless. Not stereo-typically homeless, but she was someone who had nowhere when she had to move out from her friend's flat, nowhere but the streets. The best we were able to do was to get her into our women's hostel at Hope Town.

Her first own flat went a bit sour and she had to move out of that flat because of local intimidation by kids looking to fund their drug dependence on what little Steph had. Since then eighteen months ago she has been in temporary accommodation. Not anymore.

Today I helped her move to her brand new flat, just built. Today as we drove to her new flat with her belongings in the back of the mini-bus, her gold fish slopping its water with every bump and corner - I realised that she had come along way in the time we have known her. There was something else - in the first time since I have known her she was able to hold her head high, there was a new found confidence, a new found pride.

We finished carrying in the black bags that comprise her life and with a smile she grabbed my hand and said "when are you bringing the family around?"

Monday, December 12, 2005

Kraybill on Mission's false dichotomy...

"Sweet, spiritualized syrup ... denying the incarnation ... prostituting biblical truth" Donald Kraybill says it hard - 'either/or', non-holistic mission centred on a blindspot that is non-existent in Jesus' life and ministry probably isn't the way to go!
"This false split between spiritual and social leads to a warped reading of the Scripture. It tempts us to turn Jesus' hard sayings into sweet, spiritualized syrup. This dilutes his teaching, making it harmless. We marvel at the atoning death of Jesus but forget he also demonstrated a new way of living....

... Any gospel which isn't social isn't gospel. God's love for the world produced social action. God didn't just sit in a great theological rocking chair and muse about loving the world. God acted. God entered social affairs --- in human form. Through Jesus, God lived and interacted in a real social environment. Jesus, in essence, disclosed God's social habits. In the incarnation, the spiritual became social". Pp29

"The genius of the incarnation is that spiritual and social worlds intersect in Jesus Christ. To separate them is to deny the incarnation. Social and spiritual are inextricably woven together in the Gospels' account of Jesus' life". pp30

"In true biblical fashion, the Jubilee integrates spiritual and social dimensions. It weaves religion and economics into one fabric. Pulling the two apart prostitutes the biblical truth. Refusing to participate in the economic turnover constitutes flagrant disobedience". Pp99
Kraybill, D (1990) The Upside-down kingdom. Herald

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Exploding Soup....

I was surprised to see Marcus.

I thought I had got him into the system when I referred him to the 'Street Rescue' people who co-ordinate direct access into all hostels whether SA or not across London. You can't get direct access unless you have their referral - which can be frustrating, but isn't a bad system as it tends to flush out those who are genuine street homeless from those who have had an argument with their partners. The system just could do with some flexibility in emergencies.

"Marcus, mate what have you done to your face..." I have a vivid foreboding reminder of Tommy, it all seems familiar. Not boiling fat this time, but tomato soup.

Marcus explains how he cooks on an open fire in the park. He explains how he opened a tin of soup that was too hot and how it exploded like a shot gun into his face. His face is a cocktail of ill formed scabs, cuts and blisters where he has been scorched with soup.

One eye barely open he says"'s getting cold out there...."

While he waits with a cup of tea I ring 'Street Rescue' and they explain how they'd been in the area but hadn't been able to locate Marcus but they will keep trying. I explain to Marcus. He shrugs his shoulders. "Geezer, to be honest with you nobody really wants me, there is no room and nowhere to go...."

You know there was a bit of Christmas in that comment which stopped me and made me think.


PS- It seems that contact has been made, Marcus came back to say thank you - a first in 8 years!

Friday, December 09, 2005

Out with the Youth Club...

There was something almost humorously macabre about the scene.

We went to the outdoor skating rink nestled at the foot of the towers of Canary Wharf. Quite obviously intended for the suits of Canary Wharf to have a relaxing skate before heading off to their gated communities. But tonight as I watched the grace on ice of the well groomed there was an added element to the corporate night out.

It was how I imagined Francis Drake singeing the beard of Spanish King Philip II at Cadiz. Whipping in between the gentile suits in 'denimed mufty' were our guys, our senior youth club causing chaos and mayhem. I'm not entirely sure young people from the inner city estates of Poplar were the target group for the outdoor skating rink at Canary Wharf sponsored by O2. But tonight that's what they got! For an hour the mayhem, the chaos was beautiful.

The best bit? The 10 minute walk into the lights of Canary Wharf and the 10 minute walk away from the lights afterwards.

A big chunk of what we do at The Salvation Army in Poplar is youth work - and thanks to dedicated workers and volunteers we are able to invest in members of our society that are often frowned on because their choice is to wear baseball caps and hoodies.

Other Youth Club highlights here and here.


Ok my first attempt at a classy blurry type picture is not in the same league as any of Tim's and while blurry it certainly is not classy but it doesn't disclose any identities!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005


I left with Kate's words ringing in my ears - "don't be late back for your birthday surprise". I was to make the journey to Chelmsford to pick up a car load of toys to give to disadvantaged families in the run up to Christmas.

I drive listening to the radio and thanking God for the new leader of the opposition. Nothing to do with the fact that the Conservatives have gone with a Tony Blair clone just as Labour have done with that image. Nothing to do with the fact that the impending news of "which David?" which has been frankly a little tedious is now ended. No! it had everything to do with the fact that everyone interviewed made mention of the freshness of youth that he will inject into British politics; his youthful outlook; his boyish charm - David Cameron is 39! Yes I remember being 39 as if it were yesterday. Suddenly turning 40 today is less of an issue!!

Driving back to Poplar with the company of a disorientated yet chirpy Furby - I wonder about the big surprise that I am going to have to be surprised about. Half an hour later I am back in the office. "Gordon... there is someone to see you!".... "oh really" I think as I walk through to the community lounge and into a 'tuneless' rendition of 'Happy Birthday'.

You know what? There was a surprise - I am not sure I could have ever imagined the group who 'surprised' me on my 40th birthday, but I wouldn't have swapped that group for the world. There was something profoundly significant for me sharing my cake with Patrick, Victor, Marcus and others that I have journeyed with over the years while at Poplar.

The surprise was a real gift to me.

Introducing Marcus...

We were all nice and warm, armed with tea, coffee and the promise of cream cakes, enjoying each others company. Usually we meet in different peoples homes but tonight our small groups were combined in our 'community lounge' to share thoughts, ideas and enjoy being together.

Suddenly we were aware of someone outside peering in. I let in a man new to me, in his thirties, a little wobbly wearing only a T-shirt. He politely said hello to everyone as he dragged in a bulging sleeping bag looking like a snake with indigestion!

"Alright guv... I'm Marcus" he shakes my hand. He sniffs and wipes his nose on the back of his hand. "Listen I've got a bit of an issue, a bit of a problem..."

That was an hour or so ago. Several cups of tea, and most of the cream cakes later - I've heard Marcus' story and he is right he has got a bit of an issue, a bit of a problem. Sleeping on the streets carrying possessions in a sleeping bag day in day out would be an issue for anyone.

It's a cold night - the hostels are full, but I get hold of the street rescue team and they promise to get to him as soon as they can. Sitting with Marcus as he finishes the last of the cream cakes, I apologise and feel inadequate in that for tonight it looks like it is the streets for Marcus again.

He looks at me. Smiles as he licks his lips free of cream. "Geezer... I know you've done your best..." He looks at the cream on his fingers. In between slowly devouring every last drop of cream in turn from each finger he says "Listen it is just good to now there are places to come where I know I am safe and can chat..."

I look at his now 'cream free' outstretched hand, I realise he wants me to shake it! We shake. He throws the weighted sleeping bag over his shoulders, wobbles backwards and sideways and then walks off into the night.

I wonder what I was able to give him tonight?

Monday, December 05, 2005

Times on-line...

It seemed a fun idea at the time.

The Times have chosen The Salvation Army as their charity for Christmas. As part of that they have asked me to blog as we work towards what we do over the Christmas period.

So I guess I should welcome anyone who stumbles across this blog from the link that is going to be on The Times site (here) to URBANarmy.

I guess also I should do that disclaimer thing where I am supposed to apologise for my opinions not necessarily representing The Salvation Army's. The point is we are totally passionate in what we do as a church in our community. We are totally passionate about trying to live our lives in such away that our church would be missed from our community should it disappear. We are totally passionate about trying to make a difference with people who probably don't read The Times! So I'm not too sure there is any need for any kind of apology!

URBANarmy isn't just for Christmas! A quick flick through some of my key blogs on the side bar will give you an idea of the area and work we do throughout the year. I change all the characters names (apart from Patrick who deserves to be world renowned!). I hope you'll enjoy getting to know them should you take time to browse their different stories and situations. I hope you get a feel for a way of life that is so fulfilling for us. I hope you get a feel for the fact that we get so much more back - from those who wouldn't warrant a cursory glance - than we could ever give.

This all seemed a fun idea at the time - then I looked at the quality of the blogs featured on The Times site! URBANarmy I'm afraid isn't that polished, refined or cultured but then again nor is Poplar - or for that matter am I .... 'init'!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

I am a Craig Twin...

The skip had been delivered and we start a clear out.

Mostly half broken plywood chairs that needed to be laid to rest. I'm in the car park exerting myself as one by one I break the chairs into bite size pieces. I've a good technique of destruction - the pile of plywood mounts. Our community cafe is in full swing and I am drawing some attention as well as a blister or two - I wait. I know it wont be long before people come and help. I know that there are those who won't be able to resist.

First to the rescue Patrick, he joins in the carnage, then Victor - as splinters fly we talk and laugh. Patrick is keen to tell us between blows of destruction that he is one of the 'Craig twins'. Victor for once is fairly lucid. Fifteen minutes have gone and so have the chairs. Patrick almost without drawing breath is still telling me gangster stories of being a 'Craig'. Chair carnage finished I put a thankful arm around Patrick "Pat do you mean a Kray* twin...? He looks at me as if rumbled "oh yeah!"

Ann Morisy in 'Journeying Out: A New Approach to Christian Mission' makes mission connections with the concept of Social Capital – ie a level of reciprocal relationships within a locality or society. Specific reciprocal relationships which say ‘I do it for you if you do it for me’. Generalised reciprocal relationships which say ‘I’ll do it for you without expecting anything in return’.

As Victor and Patrick leave I realise that they have taught me a lesson. As church we need to put ourselves in a position to receive from people who want to give but have no-one who wants their help. We need to put ourselves in positions to allow the likes of Patrick and Victor to be able to say ‘I’ll do it for you without expecting anything in return’. So often we concentrate on what we give as church but it is also important to find ways of receiving - even from the most unlikely.


* The Kray Twins were infamous Eastend Gangsters of the 1960's - Patrick most definately was not one of them!