Thursday, November 26, 2009


I read a disgusting blog post today. It was written by a leading Christian.

This particular influential Christian works a lot with students and I've followed him off and on over the years. He has some interesting and thoughtful things to say - what's more, years back he led one of my closest friends to faith. I rate him pretty highly.

But his blog horrified me.

Here's how it started:

Christmas is more than just buying presents, filling up on Turkey and tinsel. Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus. But so that you can focus on the real meaning of Christmas...

Nothing too shocking about that, you might think, but I confess I inwardly sighed as I read even these words. I get tired of the well-meaning but futile 'back to the original meaning of Christmas' line. Why? Not least because the original meaning is in fact a pagan midwinter festival. Christians only hijacked the feast around about the time of the fourth century around the time of the highly ambiguous 'conversion' of the Emperor, Constantine. (Hey presto! A status-quo-challenging, marginal movement morphed into a mainstream imperial power-structure. Historians debate the pros and cons. I'm very inclined to see it as something like a disaster.)

And so it concerns me when I see well-meaning and otherwise serious and deep-thinking Christians swept along by the Yuletidal wave which is the modern and hugely commercialised descendant of a pagan knees-up, or at best a fatally compromised Christianity.

But I realise the pagan-Christian-historical question may seem a bit remote to many. Besides, many Christians would say, 'Face the facts: people are into Christmas, and we may as well use it as an opportunity to broadcast the Christian message of Christ's coming'.

Not so fast. It's one thing if Christmas is just neutral - like art, for instance, something that can be an influence in many directions.

But I contend that Christmas is not neutral. It is immoral. Would you use pornography to promote Christ? I suspect not. Because Christians would generally see that as immoral and wouldn't want Christ to be sullied by association.

Christmas is immoral because it is the absolute epitome of the greedy, consumerist, pleasure-loving, unjust, Western system that is driving many of the world's population deeper into poverty, and many of its own into psychosis.

To link Christ's name with the festival of all this is nothing short of blasphemy.

And this brings me onto the real beef I had with the blog post. Remember where it left off? 'But so that you can focus on the real meaning of Christmas...'? You might expect that what follows would be some creative ideas for worship on 25th December. Or maybe some Christian outreach ideas. Better still, suggestions for how you can engage with the poor or destitute, or use one of the many excellent charitable 'alternative gifts' schemes.

Sadly, no. Cue the next bit of the blog:

But so that you can focus on the real meaning of Christmas I have done some searching online to find the best ideas I can for great christmas [sic] presents that will stand the test of time and keep the kids amused until next Christmas.

What follows? 2,569 words of product advertising. Books, board games, gadgets (everything from mobile phones to Wii to camcorders).

This apparently, is 'so you can focus on the real meaning of Christmas'.

I would like to think that this was a clever and prophetic indictment of the orgy of materialism that sweeps the western world each Christmas. But it just wasn't. He simply took for granted that Christmas was a time to shower one's children with more material possessions they don't need, to force feed them the spirit of the materialistic, consumerism-maddened culture which surrounds us. So he was just doing us a favour by helping us avoid the stress of choosing precisely what unecessary rubbish we should join the queues to purchase.

What's more, two and a half thousands plus words of crazed commercialism aren't enough: the writer cheerily informs us at the end of the post that there are 'More ideas coming soon…'

No thank you. No - please - no.

Because behind the merry-go-round, the Christmas whirl is making many sick. And a highly-informed, leading-edge, blogging Christian communicator should know about it.

An online poll by the mental health charity Mind found that respondents were stressed and anxious about repaying their Christmas spending. 19 per cent felt less able to manage their mental health because of worries about paying off the cost of Christmas; 25 per cent were feeling depressed because of Christmas; Over 50 per cent admitted they had spent more than they could afford on Christmas; 39 per cent used credit cards to cover the cost of Christmas; 33 per cent estimated that it would take them more than six months to pay off their Christmas spending debt.

Debt is a huge problem in our country and Christmas doesn't help one bit. Debt aid charity, Credit Action, reports:

The ghost of Christmas past continues to knock on some doors as nearly 1 in 4 (24%) Brits are still paying off credit costs from last Christmas. Over a third of people on a lower income (34%) are still paying off their bills from last Christmas.

Cash-strapped families who turn to credit to pay for Christmas could be setting themselves up for a New Year debt disaster... [A] survey found that a quarter of people planning to borrow over the festive period will use catalogue credit, a fifth are planning to use store cards and one in seven are planning to go to doorstep lenders - three of the four most expensive sources of credit.

Christians Against Poverty (CAP) commissioned a survey of 2000 adults asking them about their plans for funding Christmas expenditure in September 2008. The results show that 76% of those questioned were worried about Christmas due to the financial cost. 30% of respondents said they did not budget at all for Christmas.

So it's not just abstruse arguments about religion and history. Consumerism is killing people - literally, in some cases - and at Christmas it kills more people then ever.

I want thoughtful, responsible, leading Christians like my blogger friend to be speaking out for simplicity and for sanity. 'You don't have to get on the merry-go-round' I want him to say. 'By all means look for opportunities to bless others and to relax with loved ones over the holiday season. But do it simply, include your poor neighbour, do it as Christ would do it.'

That's what I wished he'd said.

As for me and my house, what will we be doing over Xmas (as I much prefer to call it since it is more respectful to Jesus)? We will throw our big shared house open to our many friends, some of whom have no family (and little else besides). We'll play games with paper and pens, or with nothing, 'give-us-a-clue' style. We'll go for a walk in the country. Some of us will volunteer at our drop-in for the homeless. We'll play with our children. We'll laugh with each other. No-one will say 'bah humbug' but we won't eat turkey, pull crackers, or have a pine tree in our living room. We'll drink no alcohol and be riotously happy. We'll give no presents except for love - which I trust will be shared out generously.

My kids can't wait.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Twits for Christ

I did it. After an initial phase of something like laziness (thinly disguised as moral high ground), this summer I did it.

I became a twit. Or a twitterer or tweeter or whatever you call someone who uses Twitter to talk to the world.

It's long been a subject of debate around our church what our take on the internet ought to be. On the one hand, we want to take seriously the apostolic command 'Do not love the world or the things in the world' (1 Jn.2:15). It'd be short-sighted not to see the that 'the web' can be sticky and tangle Christians up in immorality, time-wasting or whatever. On the other, intensely conscious of the Great Commission and the desire to get across God's goodness by whatever means, we've not been shy of cyber-missioning: was one of the earliest Christian websites to get up and running.

But it's all moved on. Fast. Tech know-alls call it the move from 'web 1.0' to 'web 2.0'. Nowadays it's not just static websites with their content - it's all about interactivity, networking, instant exchange. MySpace, then Facebook, and now 'share this with everyone you know - now!', 'Twitter your "now" stuff all over the place - now!'...

Anyone who knows me will tell you I'm not a tech-guru. (My friends who are would laugh at the notion.) But I do a lot of work for our church in communications - writing and editing mainly - and that has meant I've had to get my head round this stuff. Paper is so last millennium. Even websites are so pre the bursting of the 'Dot-com bubble'.

'I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some' (1 Cor.922). That was how Paul described his voyages to the centre of the culture of his day. And now it's our turn.

So I tweet my life in a colourful Christian church into the web-stratosphere. Mainly it's still received by friends and friends-of-friends. But others have joined in. (It was an exciting moment when the Religion Correspondent of The Times started following me.) Meanwhile my mate is debating with Paul Daniels whether the resurrection is a magic trick, and another is exchanging emails with Alastair Campbell about compassion towards those who suffer from mental health issues.

Evangelising on the streets (that good, old fashioned, first century, method of mission that we still do a fair bit as a church), I often exchange Facebook details with people so that the discussion of the gospel continues online. Meetings are tweeted and Facebooked and bookmarked and left around for others to 'stumble upon'. All the articles I and others write for our website can be commented on and these comments are instantly Twittered. And on it rolls.

But even so, I often feel we're really rather behind the light-speed movement of the world at large when it comes to these things. The (Google)wave sweeps onward.

So the other day we got together a group to talk through the different cyber-channels that may be worth exploring when it comes to expressing the gospel and the life of the church online. On top of social networking and Twitter et al, we considered web forums and fringe interest sites, 'viral' publicity, video and picture sharing, iphone compatibility, blogs, vlogs, plogs (actually, there's no such thing as plogs - yet - before you look them up) - and linking them all up so that we 'scatter our seed' as far and wide as we can.

We agreed the future is in the tributaries that make up the river. Individuals and little groups sharing personal stories (with words, pictures, videos, music whatever) which capture the imagination of the iGeneration - this is where its at.

I started this blog to chronicle my experiences of leading a Christian community which I still believe to be a remarkable way of living and in the hope that it would capture the interest of seekers out there. But it's got bigger than that. Now the challenge is before us to express Christ to a world which is suddenly enabled to watch - and listen and answer back - more than ever before.

(As it happens, today the EA are running a a synchronised blogging day called 'DigiMission' today to explore 'creative ideas for how Christians can use the digital space to impact mission'. Check out the link here.)

Monday, November 09, 2009

'The white rose' - no fairy tale

A friend of mine recently wrote this account of a disturbed prisoner and a Salvation Army officer. A striking story. Thought it was worth posting here.

The woman in the prison cell was like an animal, snarling and attacking anyone who came near her. The Salvation Army officer hesitated. Had she heard God right? Should she enter the cell when everyone told her it was madness? She went in and spoke lovingly to the woman – who growled and flew at her. Shaken, the evangelist escaped, but the next day tried again, then the next day – always with the same violent response.

After much prayer, the officer went again. She said nothing but left in the cell a single white rose, then left. Before long, she was called by the prison staff: could she come and visit the woman? The officer went and found her transformed, soft and tearful. The sight of the white rose, she said, had broken her apart. It faced her up with how evil she had become. Yet with it came a longing that God’s love might be able to make her clean and white on the inside. The officer realised that God’s guidance had been right; that she could indeed believe the best for anyone, because Jesus died for all. Right there in the cell, the prisoner was born again.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Quiet night in

Last night was quiet by comparison to many of our Thursday night 'Friendship Meals' (every Thursday we have a community open night - new friends and old invited round for a meal and to share in the life of our community). I say quiet, but it was still by general standards a fair-sized dinner party - about a score of us, all told.

We gathered together in the lounge shortly after 7 o'clock. Laughter and chatter before we sang a hymn, and one of our elders shared a few thoughts and prayed. Then into the dining room (drawn by smells of roasting chicken in tomato-pepper sauce).

But one of us stayed behind. For her sake I won't mention who it was, but she hung back and I noticed her tired and drawn face. She'd been a bit ill, she felt tired and delicate - and like the lively dinner scene awaiting her in the dining room was more than she could face.

'I just don't feel like I can face going in there and trying to make conversation' she said. 'I just feel like I want to go to bed.'

Now, of course, she could have just gone to bed - it can be a sensible thing to do when you're ill, afterall. But this particular woman is a pretty central figure in our community family. She knew it was a quieter night with a few of our core community members away or not there for various reasons and she felt that sense of duty familiar to those of us who form the hub of community life, that sense of needing to 'be there'. But she'd got to that point where she felt 'peopled-out'.

It's an interesting part of the dynamic of living in Christian community. We do it because we love - and we love more than we could naturally, it's the fruit of the Holy Spirit in us. We want to be together, to share our lives, to share possessions, time - 'all things in common' as the New Testament has it. But that doesn't mean there aren't times when you run out and people - any people, even those you love and live for - are the last thing on God's green earth you want to face.

That's why it's important to work solitude and personal devotion into community life. Without solitude, no-one can live in community, or at least not healthily.

So what do you do when you've had enough of people - but it's Thursday night, you've a dining room full of people to host, and dinners on the table?

What this dear, given, loving sister did was come and eat with everyone. She was somewhat quiet and subdued and, mercifully, people seemed to pick up on this and let her eat in peace (it isn't always so! Some can be as sensitive as an unscheduled roof collapse at times...) And later on she found some solitude and space - which she used to wrap a couple of gifts for loved ones.

It can be a challenge living in community. Let no-one think it's all rosy Christian fellowship and soft-focus photography. Sometimes living in community makes you feel life you're going utterly, firework-spinningly, stars-before-the-eyes crazy. Sometimes the thought of sitting down to eat with your 'brethren whom you love and long for' is about as attractive as root canal treatment.

But in it all, in the ups and the downs - we learn love. We really do.

God, teach us silence, so that our words will not be empty, but carry power. Teach us stillness, so our activity will not be frantic, but fruitful. Teach us solitude, so that we can live in community. Amen.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

T S Eliot's words make me a little giddy

T S Eliot's poem Little Gidding, the last of his Four Quartets, makes me breathless by its beauty and the simplicity with which he writes profound things.

This little hymn to the Holy Spirit captures well the paradoxes of the coming of the Holy Spirit. Gentle (a dove) and fiery, redeeming us from hellfire only in the consuming holy fire of his own presence. Terrifying and redeeming. For Love himself has worn our hell (and still bears the scald). The way is open, and we can walk in - to a new fire.

At a time when our church is being freshly called to apostolic passion - to burn with the Spirit's fire - I find these words inspiring. T S Eliot was part of a very different church to mine, but his poetry - and prophecy - speak at the level of the shared heart of all who love our Christ and his burning Spirit.

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror

Of which the tongues declare

The one discharge from sin and error.

The only hope, or else despair

Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre -

To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.

Love is the unfamiliar Name

Behind the hands that wove

The intolerable shirt of flame

Which human power cannot remove.

We only live, only suspire

Consumed by either fire or fire.